Michael McDowell had been in NASCAR for 14 years and had little to show. The Daytona 500 on Sunday marked his 358th career start. In each of the previous 357s, it had finished in a different location than the first.
McDowell was unusually close to the lead on the final lap as Sunday night turned into early Monday morning. However, he benefited from that when the leaders collided and triggered a chain reaction accident. For a moment he took the lead. But it was the right moment: when the yellow warning flag came out, the drivers’ positions were locked. In an instant, and without taking a single lead, McDowell won the biggest race on the NASCAR calendar.
McDowell, 36, spoke to the New York Times about the race, its shocking ending, and what it feels like to know he’ll never be a Dark Horse again.
The following interview has been compressed and edited for reasons of clarity.
It’s the final lap of the Daytona 500. You have two guys between you and the checkered flag who crash in front of you. How are you?
It was Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano and I who went to the inspector. We had such a good run that I felt like I was in control of the race. I knew Brad was going to take a step, so Brad and I got together. We had a great run with Joey. Brad took his step and Joey blocked him. One went to the left, one went to the right and I just drove through the middle.
What were your chances if there hadn’t been a crash?
You’re coming to the end of the Daytona 500. Nobody is going to stand in line. I knew Brad wasn’t happy to finish second and let Joey win the race. And I knew Joey wasn’t happy to let Brad win. I felt like I was in a great place no matter what, even if there wasn’t a crash. I knew Brad was going to make a move on Joey, and my plan was to get out of Turn 4 when he made that move and hang on to that car. Hopefully when he took this step I wanted to win my own pass and both snooker.
With people crashing around you at such an important moment, do you need to remember not to take off the gas, which could be your first instinct in a dangerous situation?
Right, you can’t lift. Because it’s your turn, you know if you even let go, you’re done. Once you’ve done this run, you know you need to keep pushing for it.
People who may not follow NASCAR regularly might think, wow, a dark horse just won the Daytona 500. What a shabby deal. Do you feel it was
You know it’s not a strange thing. Daytona is a place where I’ve had some success. Obviously I didn’t win. But I have a couple of top fives and a handful of top 10s on the line. When I go there I feel like I have the opportunity to have a conversation and possibly win the race.
But I get it, I mean, for the millions of fans who may not see NASCAR regularly, this is my first win and we are obviously not the favorites to win this race. It’s not offensive to me. When I come back here next year, I will no longer be considered the dark horse. I will like that.
Who do you think had the most powerful car? Denny Hamlin, who led 98 laps and finished fifth?
What he was able to do with just a handful of teammates is very impressive. He’s very strong and the other Toyotas worked together and took great strides in the end. But he ended up twelfth or so and that’s just too far back to stand a chance.
You actually experienced a big fall at the start of the race, not just the big fiery bunch at the end. Your car took damage in that one, didn’t it? How did it go after that?
We had easy contact. I just brushed the wall. I hit it very square. It wasn’t something that was affecting our performance. But we definitely had to do the repairs well. My team did an excellent job. We are, so to speak, up to date if you are involved in an accident. You only have six minutes to complete the repairs in the pit lane before you are excluded from the race. But we did the repairs. We haven’t lost a lap.
Before this race, I suppose someone who asked what Michael McDowell is most famous for would have come from the millions of YouTube views where you walk away from one spectacular crash at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008. Did you give people something new to remember?
I hope so, but we all know that crash material will live on forever.
Whether I win or crash the Daytona 500, it’s only part of the history of the sport. The crash was obviously very significant and, unfortunately, part of my story. But I’ve been in this world long enough and had to persevere and grind. I had no doubts about my ability to do the job prior to this week and I mean the win only confirms my belief that we are going in a good direction.
Unlike some drivers, you don’t have a real enemy in this garage area. Even Logano said afterwards: “If I couldn’t win, I would prefer Michael.” Does it help not to have any enemies out there on the final lap?
You always want to have friends. But if you’re realistic here, you know the guys you race with went out of their way to win the race. I wouldn’t expect anything else.
The history books will show you made the final lap on this Daytona 500. Really, you never did a full lap. Does it disturb you?
We were only three or four seconds in front and then the race was over. That’s amazing to me.