Michael McDowell scores upset victory in Daytona 500 after fiery crash ends race under caution

Nick Bromberg
·8-min read

Michael McDowell is a Daytona 500 winner.

McDowell won the rain-delayed 2021 Daytona 500 after he bumped Brad Keselowski into Joey Logano as Keselowski went to make a potential race-winning move on his Team Penske teammate.

As Keselowski and Logano collected a bunch of cars behind them, McDowell was ahead of Chase Elliott when NASCAR called a caution for the fiery wreck. The win is his first in the Cup Series and the first Daytona 500 win for Front Row Motorsports.

“My plan was to stick to [Keselowski]," McDowell said. "I knew he would go for a race-winning move and my plan was to let him make that move and then coming off of [Turn 4] try to get to his outside or inside. I knew I didn’t want to make my move too early, so I was committed to [Keselowski's] bumper and when he made the move, the hole opened up."

It also comes after McDowell was involved in a massive 16-car crash on lap 15 ahead of a rain delay that lasted over five hours. McDowell hit the wall in that crash but his car didn't have enough damage to slow it down.

Keselowski had done a great job of getting to second with two laps to go. He laid back on the backstretch and picked off Kevin harvick to get to Logano's bumper. He tried the same move again on the final lap and got a huge run on Logano.

But Keselowski got shot into Logano's car by McDowell. You can see below that Keselowski was sideways before he made contact with Logano.

Logano also didn't have Keselowski covered when he moved to block the pass. You can see how Logano reacted slightly late to Keselowski's move.

"I had a big run down the backstretch and went to make the pass to win the Daytona 500 and it ended up really bad," Keselowski said after the race. "I don't feel like I made a mistake but I can't drive everybody else's car."

McDowell is the eighth first-time winner to win the Daytona 500 and the first driver to score his first win in the 500 since Trevor Bayne won the race in 2011. The final lap of the race was the only lap he led.

"[Keselowski] kept trying to back up to get a run and I kept trying to back up to him to keep the runs from being too big and I guess he got backed up to [McDowell] and it ended up being a really big run coming at me at me and it seemed we just all collided in one spot."

McDowell's first win in 358 starts

McDowell is now probably in the playoffs for the first time in his NASCAR career.

McDowell is in his 14th season in the Cup Series and has never driven for a top-tier team. The 36-year-old has just four top fives and 12 top 10 finishes across his entire career and has never finished in the top 20 in the points standings.

Until this year. Since McDowell’s win will (very likely) qualify him for the playoffs thanks to NASCAR's win-and-in 16-driver system, he’ll finish no lower than 16th in the standings in 2021.

He also becomes the driver with the second-most starts in Cup Series history before his first win. Only Michael Waltrip (463) had more starts in his Cup Series career before his first win. Waltrip's first victory came 20 years ago in the 2001 Daytona 500.

"It’s unbelievable and I’m so thankful, but I’m thankful to have a happy, healthy family and a beautiful wife and a great family," McDowell said. "Not everybody makes it to victory lane and for 14 years I didn’t, so just to be here now is just so amazing.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 14: Michael McDowell, driver of the #34 Love's Travel Stops Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 14: Michael McDowell, driver of the #34 Love's Travel Stops Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Denny Hamlin dominates the race, gets shuffled back late

Denny Hamlin entered Sunday's race trying to become the first driver to win three Daytona 500s in a row. And it looked like that was going to happen for a significant portion of the race.

Hamlin led 98 of the race's 200 laps. But he lost control of the race on the final round of green-flag pit stops with less than 30 laps to go.

Hamlin pitted with teammate Kyle Busch and quasi-teammate Bubba Wallace for drafting help. But the three drivers left the pits too far apart to draft with each other as they got back up to speed. With Ford and Chevrolet teams on the lead lap making their stops before the Toyotas, those cars were already up to full speed when the three Toyota drivers left the pits. Hamlin ended up exiting the pits with a huge lead. But the cars behind him were going much faster.

That speed discrepancy meant the earlier-pitting pack of cars swept by Wallace, Busch and Hamlin with ease. Hamlin fell outside the top 10 as a result and never got a chance to work his way back up to the lead before the end of the race as drivers inside the top 10 were patient until the final two laps.

He finished fifth by virtue of making it through the huge crash at the end. He said after the race that he spent the waning laps hoping that the cars ahead of him would make some moves so that he could try to work his way back to the front.

"Dominant car, dominant car," Hamlin said. "Just one of those things where you execute too good and just got freight-trained there."

Bubba Wallace finishes 17th

Bubba Wallace's chances for a win ended after that round of green-flag pit stops.

His team changed two tires on the car but one of the two wheels that they put on the car apparently didn't get tightened all the way. That resulted in a vibration that forced Wallace to come down pit road for another stop.

That second stop caused Wallace to lose a lap to the field. While he had the speed to hang with the lead pack, he never got the opportunity to get the lap back. And then he ended up a part of the last-lap crash.

Huge crashes bookend Daytona 500

The fiery wreck on the final lap came 185 laps and half a day after the 16-car pileup not long after the race began.

The lap 15 crash started much in the same way that the crash on the final lap did. Christopher Bell got a push from Kyle Busch and, in turn, bumped Aric Almirola. That bump came to the wrong spot on Almirola's bumper and sent Almirola careening into Alex Bowman to trigger the huge crash.

The crash took out numerous contenders for the win and came just five minutes before NASCAR was forced to red flag the race for thunderstorms that every team on the track knew were approaching.

The delay for the rain took five hours and 40 minutes. It was after 9 p.m. ET by the time the race resumed and early Monday morning in Daytona Beach when McDowell was celebrating in the infield.

Derrike Cope's NASCAR career ends in irony

Derrike Cope, 62, made his first Cup Series start in over two years on Sunday. And what set to be the final race of his career lasted three laps.

The 1990 Daytona 500 winner suffered a flat tire on lap 3 and hit the wall. That brought out the race's first caution of the day and Cope ultimately finished the race in last place.

His day would be a totally forgotten footnote if it wasn't for the way that Cope won that 1990 Daytona 500. Cope got the win after Dale Earnhardt suffered a flat tire while leading the race on the final lap. 

Sunday's race was 20 years after Earnhardt's death in the 2001 Daytona 500. And with Earnhardt driving the iconic No. 3 for most of his career, the third lap of the race was the designated tribute lap in honor of Earnhardt. 

Race results

1. Michael McDowell

2. Chase Elliott

3. Austin Dillon

4. Kevin Harvick

5. Denny Hamlin

6. Ryan Preece

7. Ross Chastain

8. Jamie McMurray

9. Corey LaJoie

10. Kyle Larson

11. Cole Custer

12. Joey Logano

13. Brad Keselowski

14. Kyle Busch

15. Austin Cindric

16. Christopher Bell

17. Bubba Wallace

18. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

19. Chase Briscoe

20. Joey Gase

21. Cody Ware

22. Kurt Busch

23. BJ McLeod

24. Josh Bilicki

25. Martin Truex Jr.

26. William Byron

27. Tyler Reddick

28. Kaz Grala

29. Quin Houff

30. Ryan Blaney

31. Chris Buescher

32. Anthony Alfredo

33. Matt DiBenedetto

34. Aric Almirola

35. Alex Bowman

36. Daniel Suarez

37. David Ragan

38. Ryan Newman

39. Erik Jones

40. Derrike Cope

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