McDowell upsets the competition, scores first Cup triumph in the Daytona 500

The ultimate upset was made under the lights at Daytona International Speedway after Michael McDowell avoided a multi-car pileup on the final lap to win the 63rd annual running of the Daytona 500 on Sunday, February 14, and claim his first NASCAR Cup Series triumph. McDowell’s first Cup career victory came in his 358th start in NASCAR’s premier series, which marked the second-most starts in the series prior to a first Cup win.

The front row for this year’s Daytona 500 was determined on Wednesday, February 10, following a qualifying session, with the rest of the lineup determined on Thursday, February 11, following two Bluegreen Vacations Duel events at Daytona. With that, Alex Bowman started on pole position. William Byron, the outside pole-sitter, was due to start on the front row with teammate Bowman, but he dropped to the rear of the field in a backup car. The move allowed Austin Dillon, winner of the second Daytona Duel event, to move up to the front row to start alongside Bowman.

Along with Byron, the following competitors that include Brad Keselowski, rookie Chase Briscoe, Kaz Grala, rookie Anthony Alfredo, Cole Custer and Ross Chastain also dropped to the rear of the field in backup cars. Martin Truex Jr. dropped to the rear of the field due to an oil cooler change along with Erik Jones, who did so following an engine change. Bubba Wallace also dropped to the rear of the field due to his car failing pre-race inspection twice, thus resulting with his car chief being ejected for the event. 

When the green flag waved and the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season commenced, Bowman, who started on the outside lane, crossed over the bottom lane to jump to an early lead in front of Austin Dillon. Shortly after, he moved back to the outside lane in front of Kevin Harvick, who gave him a clear bump ahead of the field through the backstretch and entering Turn 3. 

Bowman was able to lead the first lap before Harvick made a move to the bottom lane. Bowman, however, was able to retain the lead with his No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE receiving drafting help from Kyle Busch through the backstretch until Harvick made a charge on the inside lane entering the tri-oval. Harvick was able to lead the following lap by a nose over Bowman.

During the third lap, the crew members and the fans saluted the three fingers to pay tribute to Dale Earnhardt, seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, Hall of Famer and the 1998 Daytona 500 champion who died 20 years ago following an accident on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. 

Shortly after, the first caution of the race flew when Derrike Cope, the 1990 Daytona 500 champion, blew a right-front tire and made contact against the outside wall in Turn 3. By then, Harvick was the leader followed by teammate Aric Almirola, Christopher Bell, Ryan Newman and Bowman.

Under caution, names like Michael McDowell, Matt DiBenedetto, Byron, Truex, Austin Cindric, Cole Custer, Alfredo, Cody Ware, Briscoe, Grala, B.J. McLeod, Denny Hamlin, Josh Bilicki, Quin Houff and Wallace pitted while the rest led by Harvick remained on the track.

The race restarted on the seventh lap with Stewart-Haas Racing’s Harvick and Almirola at the top of the field. At the start, Harvick quickly transitioned to the bottom lane to move in front of teammate Almirola’s No. 10 Smithfield Ford Mustang. The top lane, however, prevailed through Turns 1, 2 and the backstretch as Ryan Newman rocketed to the lead followed by Joey Logano. Nonetheless, Harvick was able to retain the lead by a nose over Newman when the field returned to the start/finish line.

By Lap 10 and with the field starting to fan out from double lanes to triple lanes, Harvick was still out in front followed by teammate Almirola, Bell, Bowman and Kyle Busch. A few laps later, Bowman became the first car to lead the outside lane as he challenged for the lead followed by Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. Meanwhile, Harvick continued to lead followed by teammate Almirola.

Three laps later, trouble ensued at the front when a bump from Bell, who was being pushed by teammate Kyle Busch, got Almirola loose, where he made contact with Bowman as both wrecked against the outside wall and in the middle of the straightaway with a multitude of competitors approaching them. What then followed was a multi-car wreck that involved Newman, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, DiBenedetto, Chris Buescher, Jamie McMurray, David Ragan, Tyler Reddick, Truex and Byron, who nearly flipped on his side before spinning and coming to rest on the muddy grass in Turn 3.

In the midst of the on-track work for the safety workers to remove the wrecked cars, the race was red-flagged due to reports of lightning within eight miles of the superspeedway, which was followed by rain and on-track precipitation. At the time of the rain, Harvick was still the leader followed by Bell, Austin Dillon, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. Larson, Ryan Preece, Joey Logano, McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were in the top 10.

Five hours and 40 minutes later, the red flag was lifted and the majority of competitors returned to the track under caution, beginning on Lap 15, and under the lights as the skies darkened. By then, names like Alfredo, Almirola, Blaney, Bowman, Buescher, DiBenedetto, Jones, Newman, Ragan and Suarez were ruled out of the remainder of the race.

Under caution, everyone pitted, except for Kaz Grala and B.J. McLeod. After leading 10 laps under caution, Grala pitted along with McLeod. Bell, Kyle Busch and a few others also pitted to top off on fuel for the end of the first stage.

When the green flag waved and the race resumed on Lap 29, Elliott was the leader while Austin Dillon started along him. Through the backstretch, Dillon received a push from Ryan Preece to take the lead. The following lap, Cole Custer battled on the outside lane to lead a lap for himself. 

Shortly after, Hamlin shoved Custer out of the draft in Turn 1 and became the lead car on the outside lane. He went on to assume command of the field. 

By Lap 35, Hamlin was leading Keselowski, Wallace, Kyle Busch and Logano with the field settling in a single-file line. Meanwhile, Byron, who was three laps behind the leaders and still competing in a damaged No. 24 AXALTA Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, was black-flagged for a loose rear bumper cover.

Two laps later, the caution returned when Quin Houff cut a tire after running over the bumper cover from Byron’s car and made contact with the outside wall in the frontstretch. His incident also involved Chase Briscoe as both sustained damage and slid down to the apron near Turn 1. Briscoe continued despite the incident while Houff was knocked out of the race.

The race resumed under green on Lap 43. At the start, Hamlin received a push from teammate Kyle Busch on the outside lane while Keselowski received a push from Bubba Wallace on the inside lane. 

Through the backstretch and after briefly shoving Keselowski to the lead, Wallace made a three-wide move on Keselowski and Hamlin, which sent Keselowski back into the top 10. At the front, Hamlin retained the lead followed by Kyle Busch, Preece, Austin Cindric, Wallace, Austin Dillon and Logano. 

By Lap 50 and with the field settling in a single-file lane on the outside lane, Hamlin continued to lead followed by teammate Kyle Busch, Preece, Cindric and Austin Dillon while Larson, Wallace, Harvick, Keselowski and Bell were in the top 10. By then, Joey Logano and Chase Elliott were in 13th and 14th behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Custer. In addition, 22 of the 40-car field were competing on the lead lap, with 12 out of the race.

Ten laps later and with five laps remaining in the first stage, Hamlin was still out in front followed by teammate Kyle Busch, Preece, Cindric and Austin Dillon. Larson, Wallace, Harvick, Keselowski and Bell were in the top 10 while Custer, Logano, Stenhouse, Elliott and LaJoie were in the top 15.

At the start of the final lap of the first stage, Austin Dillon made his move to the inside lane along with Larson. In addition, Preece also moved in front of Dillon, but teammates Hamlin and Kyle Busch blocked the move on the inside lane. Through the backstretch, Kyle Busch got shuffled out of the lead draft when Preece and a multitude of cars moved to the outside lane and right behind Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota Camry.

Though Hamlin had a steaming pack of cars behind him, he was able to retain the lead and win the first stage on Lap 65. Preece settled in second place followed by Austin Dillon, Larson and Cindric. Bell, Wallace, Logano, Ross Chastain and Custer settled in the top 10, all of whom earned stage points. Kyle Busch fell back to 12th in front of Keselowski and Elliott. 

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Hamlin retained the lead. Meanwhile, Jamie McMurray received the free pass and returned to the lead lap.

The second stage commenced on Lap 71 with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Hamlin and Bell on the front row followed by Cindric, Austin Dillon, Logano and Larson. At the start, Hamlin received a push from Cindric to retain the lead. Shortly after, Hamlin moved in front of teammate Bell on the inside lane, but Cindric, winner of the Xfinity Series season-opening event at Daytona a day ago, mounted a charge on the outside lane in his No. 33 Verizon 5G Ford Mustang as he had Penske teammates Logano and Keselowski pushing him to the lead.

After leading two laps, Hamlin stormed back to the lead while Cindric fell back to seventh. A lap later, Bell made his way to the front followed by teammate Kyle Busch while Hamlin fell back to third. Austin Dillon, Cindric and Harvick moved up the leaderboard while Harvick was in seventh place and the lone car on the bottom lane.

Another two laps later, the field settled in a long single-file line as Bell was out in front followed by teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin. Austin Dillon was in fourth followed by Cindric, Logano, Larson, Elliott, Wallace and Chastain. Harvick, meanwhile, was shuffled back to 11th in front of Preece, Keselowski, Stenhouse and McMurray.

Not long after, the leader Bell reported debris on the grille of his No. 20 DeWalt Toyota Camry. Nonetheless, he continued to lead teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin while Austin Dillon, Cindric and Logano remained in pursuit.

By Lap 90, Bell continued to lead followed by teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin. Austin Dillon and Cindric continued to run in the top five followed by Logano, Larson, Elliott, Wallace and Chastain, all of whom were locked in a single-file lane. Harvick was in 11th followed by Stenhouse, teammate Preece, Keselowski and McMurray while Michael McDowell, Custer, LaJoie, Kaz Grala and Joey Gase were in the top 20.

When the field reached the halfway mark on Lap 100, three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas led by Bell and followed by Kyle Busch and Hamlin were all still at the front. Austin Dillon and Cindric remained in the top five followed by Logano, Larson, Elliott, Chastain and Preece. Behind, Wallace, who attempted to make a move to the front on the inside lane, was shuffled back to 13th in between Keselowski and Harvick.

Four laps later, pit stops under green commenced as a number of Ford drivers pitted, including Cindric, Logano, Keselowski, Harvick, Briscoe and Custer. McDowell, racing in his No. 34 Love’s Travel Stop Ford Mustang, also pitted. Another three laps later, the Toyota drivers pitted, including Bell, Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Wallace. Not long after, a bevy of Chevrolet drivers led by Austin Dillon, Larson and Elliott pitted. Prior to the Chevrolets pitting, Preece pitted alone.

When the field cycled back with 20 laps remaining in the second stage, Hamlin was back in front followed by Wallace. Shortly after, Wallace got shuffled out of the draft from Kyle Busch. Not long after, Bell got loose in Turn 1 after sustaining a left-rear tire and made contact with Stenhouse, who went on to make contact with Larson, before spinning entering the backstretch. Grala, LaJoie and McMurray, who spun, were also sustained damage while the rest of the field managed to avoid the incident and a spinning Bell. 

Under caution, a handful of competitors led by Hamlin remained on the track while the rest pitted. In addition, Grala came to his pit stall with the right rear of his No. 16 Hyperice Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE on fire. Though he tried to continue, Grala’s Daytona 500 debut came to an end as fire continued to burst out of his car.

When the race resumed under green on Lap 117, Hamlin and Harvick led the field on the front row. At the front, Hamlin retained the lead and he moved in front of Harvick on the outside lane entering the backstretch. Shortly after, Logano received a draft from Kyle Busch on the bottom lane to lead the following lap. Entering the tri-oval, Harvick and Logano pulled a three-wide move on Hamlin with Harvick returning to the lead entering the backstretch. 

The following lap, Wallace drafted his owner Hamlin to the front while Keselowski mounted a challenge beneath Hamlin. The outside lane, however, prevailed with a bevy of competitors opting to move up on the outside lane and Hamlin retaining the lead. Wallace was in second followed by Harvick, Elliott and Austin Dillon. McDowell was in sixth followed by Keselowski, Preece, Logano and Kyle Busch. By then, the field settled in a long single-file lane on the outside lane.

At the start of the final lap of the second stage, Wallace made his move beneath Hamlin to take the lead followed by a bevy of competitors, including McDowell and Keselowski. Through the backstretch, Logano, receiving drafting help from Kyle Busch, formed a third lane as the pack started to battle intently and tight against one another. 

With the field entering Turn 3 and the tri-oval, Hamlin received a push from Harvick on the outside lane to reassume the lead over Wallace’s No. 23 DoorDash Toyota Camry and claim the second stage on Lap 130. Harvick settled in second followed by Wallace, Elliott and Austin Dillon. Logano, McDowell, Larson, Kyle Busch and Keselowski were scored in the top 10.

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted and Austin Dillon exited in first place. Hamlin exited in second place followed by McDowell, Harvick, Wallace and Logano. Following the pit stops, Larson was penalized for a safety violation.

With 64 laps remaining, the final stage started. At the start, Austin Dillon moved his No. 3 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE in front of Hamlin to retain the lead. His lead, however, did not last long was Hamlin retuned to the top point with drafting help from Harvick, though he got squirrelly while being drafted by Harvick’s No. 4 Busch Light Ford Mustang. Dillon settled in third place, the first car on the bottom lane, as he battled Logano and Kyle Busch. 

With 60 laps remaining, Hamlin was leading Harvick, Logano, Kyle Busch and Cindric while Custer, Austin Dillon, Elliott, Preece and McMurray were in the top 10. Larson was in 12th while Wallace was back in 14th in front of Keselowski, McDowell and Bell. By then, 18 cars were scored on the lead lap. 

Ten laps later and with 50 laps remaining, Hamlin was still out in front followed by Harvick, Logano, Kyle Busch and Cindric. Custer, Austin Dillon, Elliott, Preece and McMurray were still in the top 10. Larson was in 12th, Keselowski was in 14th and Wallace was in 16th. By then, the field returned to a long single-file lane on the outside lane. 

Another 10 laps later and with the next round of pit stops under green lurking, the field remained in a long single-file lane on the outside lane as Hamlin was still leading Harvick, Logano, Kyle Busch and Cindric. Custer was in sixth followed by Austin Dillon, Elliott, Preece and McMurray.

Down to the final 30 laps of the race, Hamlin continued to lead followed by teammate Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Elliott and Preece. 

Shortly after, pit stops under green commenced when Ford names like Logano, Harvick, Cindric, Custer, Keselowski and McDowell pitted. Not long after, a bevy of Chevrolet competitors pitted. Shortly after, the Toyota drivers led by Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Wallace pitted.

When the field cycled back on the track, Logano was able to assume command of the race followed by Harvick as Kyle Busch and Hamlin, both of whom exited pit road ahead of the field, were unable to blend in front of the lead pack with enough speed and retain the top spots.

With 24 laps remaining, Logano, racing in his No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Ford Mustang, was leading Harvick, Custer, Keselowski and McDowell. Ross Chastain was in sixth followed by Austin Dillon, Elliott, Kyle Busch and Preece. Wallace was in 11th while Hamlin fell back to 13th behind Larson.

Four laps later and with the laps winding down, Logano was still at the top of the field followed by Harvick, Custer, Keselowski and McDowell as Fords comprised the top-five spots on the track. Chastain was the leading Chevrolet competitor in sixth while Kyle Busch was the leading Toyota competitor in ninth. By then, Wallace, who made another pit stop to address a vibration concern, was in 17th and a lap behind. In addition, the top-12 competitors, all within more than a second of one another, were locked in a single-file lane as Hamlin was back in 12th.

Down to the final 15 laps of the race and with 15 competitors on the lead lap, the field remained in a single-file lane as Logano continued to lead followed by Harvick, Custer, Keselowski and McDowell. By then, Bell was pinned a lap behind along with Wallace. In addition, Hamlin remained in 12th place, three spots behind teammate Kyle Busch. 

With 10 laps remaining, Logano remained at the front as the first of four Ford competitors leading the way followed by Harvick, Keselowski and McDowell. Behind, Austin Dillon was the leading Chevrolet competitor in fifth as he worked his way to the front followed by Elliott. Kyle Busch was in seventh followed by Larson, Hamlin and Chastain.

Down to the final five laps of the race, the field remained in a long single-file lane with Logano still leading Harvick, Keselowski, McDowell and Austin Dillon.

Logano continued to lead with three laps remaining while the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet driven by Austin Dillon, currently scored in fifth, was preparing his move as Elliott was in sixth. 

With two laps remaining, however, Keselowski, racing in his No. 2 Discount Tire Ford Mustang, gained a run and was able to move behind teammate Logano as McDowell also moved up while Harvick was shuffled out. When the final lap of the race started, Logano was still out in front followed by teammate Keselowski. 

Through the backstretch, Keselowski received a push from McDowell and closed in on Logano as he prepared to execute his move for the win. Entering Turn 3, however, the two Penske teammates made contact and a multi-car wreck ensued. In the midst of the carnage, Keselowski made head-on contact against the outside wall before being slammed hard by Kyle Busch as Keselowski’s No. 2 Discount Tire Ford Mustang went up against the outside wall and shredded against the catchfence amid a shower of flames and sparks. In addition, Logano slid up and clipped Chastain, who also made contact with Preece, before being hit by Wallace. Cindric and Custer were also involved in the midst of the fiery accident.

The wreck ended the race under caution and at the moment of caution, McDowell was ahead of the field and declared the winner as he recorded his first career victory in NASCAR’s biggest event of the season.

With his victory, McDowell became the 40th driver to win the Daytona 500, the eighth competitor to record a first Cup career victory in the 500 and the 196th competitor overall to win a NASCAR Cup Series race. The victory was the first for Front Row Motorsports since August 2016 (third overall), the second for crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and the 16th Daytona 500 victory for the Ford nameplate. In addition, McDowell became the third competitor to win the 500 after leading only the final lap.

“I just can’t believe it,” McDowell said on FOX. “So many years just grinding it out, hoping for an opportunity like this…I’m so thankful. Such a great way to get our first victory. Daytona 500, are you kidding me?! We’re the Daytona 500 champions! I cannot believe this! We had our Ford partners at the end and they all crashed and luckily, I was able to make it through. Just so thankful. God is good.”

Elliott, the reigning series champion, came home in second place as he achieved his best result in the 500 in his sixth attempt to win it.

“I felt like we had a fast car,” Elliott said. “[We] Weren’t as good as I thought we were on Thursday, so I felt like we did a really good job on executing today. Staying out of trouble, that’s not something I’ve done a very good job of here in this race, so glad we could finish this one and have something to build on for when we come back and try to do better.”

Austin Dillon, the 2018 Daytona 500 champion, finished in third place followed by Harvick and Hamlin, who came up short in his bid to win three consecutive Daytona 500 titles. Preece came home in sixth place with a wrecked car followed by Chastain and McMurray. LaJoie and Larson rounded out the top 10.

Logano, Keselowski and Kyle Busch ended their nights in 12th, 13th and 14th following their vicious wreck. The wreck evaporated Keselowski’s hopes of winning his first 500 title in his 12th attempt along with Kyle Busch, who made his 17th attempt to win it.

“[I] Had a big run down the backstretch, went to make the pass to win the Daytona 500 and it ended up really bad,” Keselowski said following his release from the infield care center. “[I] Don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everyone else’s car. Frustrating, the Discount Tire Ford was not the fastest, but [crew chief] Jeremy Bullins and the whole team did a great job of keeping us in position and right then, we were in position. That’s exactly where I want to be running second on the last lap at Daytona with this package. Had the run, made the move. Then it didn’t work out.”

“Pandemonium, I guess,” Logano said. “Chaos struck. [Keselowski] kept trying to back up, trying to get a run. I was trying to back up to him and try to keep the runs from being too big. I guess he got to the back of [McDowell] and it ended up being a really big run coming at me, and it seemed we all just collided in one spot. Real bummer. None of the Penske cars won, but at least a Ford won…I hate that we didn’t win with our Shell/Pennzoil Mustang. I feel like we had a great shot, being where we were and leading on the last lap, but if we couldn’t win, I’m really happy to see McDowell win this thing.”

“It’s to be expected,” Kyle Busch said. “Just a matter of time before it all breaks loose and whatever happens happens. I saw a window to the outside and all of a sudden, I had [Keselowski] on my hood…Got clobbered a few good times and just fortunate that I’m all good. Our M&M’s Camry, that one won’t live to see another day. Hopefully, we’ll be back here next week and have a better go around on the [Daytona] road course and get back after it.”

Cindric was scored in 15th place in his Cup debut while Briscoe was the highest-finishing Rookie-of-the-Year contender in 19th place. Wallace finished in 17th place in his first run with 23XI Racing.

There were 22 lead changes for 13 different leaders. The race featured seven cautions for 40 laps.

Following the first race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, Austin Dillon leads the regular-season standings by six points over Hamlin, eight over Harvick, 10 over Elliott and 12 over McDowell and Preece.

Results.

1. Michael McDowell, one lap led

2. Chase Elliott, three laps led

3. Austin Dillon, seven laps led

4. Kevin Harvick, 17 laps led

5. Denny Hamlin, 98 laps led, Stage 1 and 2 winner

6. Ryan Preece

7. Ross Chastain

8. Jamie McMurray

9. Corey LaJoie

10. Kyle Larson, one lap led

11. Cole Custer, one lap led

12. Joey Logano – OUT, Accident, 26 laps led

13. Brad Keselowski – OUT, Accident

14. Kyle Busch – OUT, Accident

15. Austin Cindric – OUT, Accident, two laps led

16. Christopher Bell, one lap down, 32 laps led

17. Bubba Wallace – OUT, Accident, one lap led

18. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., two laps down

19. Chase Briscoe, three laps down

20. Joey Gase, four laps down

21. Cody Ware, four laps down

22. Kurt Busch, five laps down

23. B.J. McLeod, five laps down

24. Josh Bilicki, six laps down

25. Martin Truex Jr., seven laps down

26. William Byron, nine laps down

27. Tyler Reddick, 12 laps down

28. Kaz Grala – OUT, dvp, 10 laps led

29. Quin Houff – OUT, Accident

30. Ryan Blaney – OUT, Accident

31. Chris Buescher – OUT, dvp

32. Anthony Alfredo – OUT, dvp

33. Matt DiBenedetto – OUT, dvp

34. Aric Almirola – OUT, Accident

35. Alex Bowman – OUT, Accident, one lap led

36. Daniel Suarez – OUT, Accident

37. David Ragan – OUT, Accident

38. Ryan Newman – OUT, Accident

39. Erik Jones – OUT, Accident

40. Derrike Cope – OUT, Accident

With the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season underway, the next event on the schedule is the series’ return to Daytona International Speedway for the series’ second points-paying event on the road course layout. The event will occur on Sunday, February 21, at 3 p.m. ET on FOX.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

Andrew Kim
An avid motorsports enthusiast from California with aspirations of working in any form of communications, PR or digital/social media in motorsports.

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