The Daytona 500 Champion Isn’t Surprised He Won, Even if You Are
Michael McDowell had been racing in NASCAR for 14 years, with precious little to show for it. The Daytona 500 was his 358th career debut on Sunday. In each of the previous 357s, he finished elsewhere than before.
As Sunday morning passed, unknowingly seated on the lap as early as Monday morning, however, McDowell benefited when the leaders collided, triggering a chain-reaction crash. For just a moment, he rose to the lead. But it was immediately correct: When the yellow caution flag came out, the racers’ positions were locked. In an instant, and without leading for a single lap, McDowell won the biggest race on the NASCAR calendar.
McDowell, 36, spoke with The New York Times about the race, its shocking ending and how it felt to know that he would never be a horse again.
The following interviews were condensed and edited for clarity.
This is the last lap of the Daytona 500. There are two people between you and the checkered flag, and they are crashing in front of you. What do you do?
It was Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano and I going to Checker. We had such a good run, I felt like we were in control of the race. I knew that Brad was going to move, so Brad and I got together. We had a big run coming to Joey. Brad makes his move and Joey blocks it. One went left, one went right, and I just drove right from the middle.
If there was no accident, what were your chances?
You are coming to the end of the Daytona 500. No one is going to stay in line. I knew that Brad was not content to finish second and Joey won the race. And I knew that Joey was not content to win Brad. So I felt like I was in a great place, no matter what, even if the accident did not happen. I knew that Brad was going to make a move on Joey, and I planned to get off Turn 4 when he made that move and stick to that car. When he did that trick, I was hoping that I could be my race-winning pass and snatch them both.
When people crash around you at such a critical moment, do you have to remind yourself not to return the throttle, which may be your first instinct in a dangerous situation?
Okay, you can’t pick up. Because you’re getting in line, you know that once you stop completely, you’re done. Once you make that run, you know you have to be committed to it. .
Those who may not follow NASCAR regularly may think: Wow, some dark horse just won the Daytona 500. A garish deal. Do you think it was?
You know, it’s not strange. Daytona is a place where I have had some success. Obviously I did not live. But I have a pair top five and a handful of top 10s on the track. So when I go there I feel like I have an opportunity to negotiate and potentially win the race.
But I understand, I mean for the millions of fans who can’t watch NASCAR on a regular basis, this is my first win and we’re generally not the favorite to win that race, obviously. This is not insulting to me. When I return here next year, I will no longer be seen as a black horse. I would like it.
Who do you think was the strongest car? Denny Hamlin, who led 98 laps and finished fifth?
What he is able to do with a handful of peers is very impressive. He is very strong, and the other Tytota were working together and they were making big moves in the end. But in the end he was running there 12th or something and there is a chance now.
You actually went through a big crash at the beginning of the race, not just in big furious ridicule at the end. Your car suffered some damage in that one, right? How did it go after that?
We had some light contact. I just brushed on the wall. I hit it very square. It was not something that hurt our performance. But we definitely had to carry out the repair well. My team did an excellent job. We are on the clock, so to speak, when you are involved in an accident. You have only six minutes to make repairs on the pit road before being disqualified from the race. But we got it repaired. We did not lose a lap.
I think, before this race, if someone asked what Michael McDowell is most famous for, it would be a walk away from one of your millions of YouTube views. Great crash In 2008 at Texas Motor Speedway. Have you given people something new to remember from you?
I hope so, but we all know that crash footage is going to last forever.
Whether I win the Daytona 500 or the crash, it is just part of history in the game. The accident was obviously very important and unfortunately it is part of my history. But I have been in this world for a long time and I had to celebrate and grind it. I had no doubt about my ability to work before this week, and I mean that victory just reinforces my belief that we are heading in a good direction.
Unlike some drivers, you have no real enemy in that garage area. Even Logano said, “If I can’t win, I’ll like Michael.” Doesn’t it help out enemies on the last lap?
You always want to have friends. But being realistic here, you know that you are running with people who must have done whatever they had to do to win the race. I would not expect anything different.
History books will show that you led the final lap in this Daytona 500. But, in fact, you never led a full lap. Does that bother you?
We were only in the lead for three or four seconds, and then the race was over. It’s amazing to me.