Why do drivers race when the odds are so often against them?
For nights like Michael McDowell experienced.
Winless in 357 career Cup starts, McDowell led only the last part of the last lap to win the Daytona 500 early Monday morning. He puts himself in an exclusive list of Daytona 500 winners that includes Petty, Pearson and Earnhardt, among other famous NASCAR surnames.
Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin said McDowell belongs in that list of winners.
“This is definitely no fluke,” Hamlin said. “I’ve said many times this is a skill game. He’s got the skill set to win these, and he finally got it done.”
But this wasn’t just a 500-mile race for the 36-year-old McDowell. It was a 13-year NASCAR journey through financial hardships, low-budget rides and weekly challenges to have this opportunity. McDowell becomes the latest to overcome those obstacles and reach Victory Lane, giving other drivers hope.
“Even when I was start-and-parking,” McDowell said, “I was like, ‘Man, one day I’m going to get a shot at it, and I’ll be able to do it because of all this that I’ve put into it.’ I never lost hope of that.”
Hope drives racing more than fuel. Every competitor imagines that with more financing, better equipment or good fortune they’ll grasp the checkered flag and celebrate after a race. But this sport is cruel. The reality is that there’s only one winner per event and it often is a driver with a blue-blood operation backed by a Fortune 500 company.
Still, drivers take start-and-park rides because not having a ride hurts worse than knowing they must pull into the garage early in a race because there’s no money to run the full event. They seek to climb from those runs into full-time rides, even if it is with low-budget teams with little hope of winning. But they view that as just a step to the next opportunity.
“When you show up to the racetrack and you know that you’re — I don’t even know how to say it — you’re just in the way, taking up space, it’s hard to do that year after year and week after week,” McDowell said. “So you’ve got to have a bigger purpose than that. For me, it was knowing that I would get an opportunity eventually.”
It’s a path Matt DiBenedetto has taken from start-and-park rides to low-budget teams to Wood Brothers Racing, which is aligned with Team Penske. DiBenedetto’s search for his first career Cup win will have to go another week after he was collected in a crash on the 15th lap.
DiBenedetto said earlier this month about his journey: “It’s humbled me to an extreme that I couldn’t possibly explain, but it’s also made me so mentally tough. I’m thankful for that because it’s made me who I am today. … I more look at it as a great opportunity, and I would have done anything my whole career to be sitting in this position where I’m really establishing myself in the Cup Series driving (for the Wood Brothers).”
DiBenedetto and others can look to Alex Bowman for inspiration. Bowman’s first 71 Cup starts came with two organizations that later both folded. He found out he was losing his ride via social media. In 2016 and ’17, he ran a combined 22 races in Cup, Xfinity and Truck, spending most of his time racing on a simulator for Hendrick Motorsports. He eventually got his chance at a full-time ride, taking over the No. 88 from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2018 and moving into the No. 48 this season after Jimmie Johnson left to race in the NTT IndyCar Series.
When Bowman won his first Cup race in 2019 at Chicagoland Speedway, he celebrated his win by saying: “It’s all I’ve wanted my whole life.”
Those words struck Landon Cassill, who has made 469 career starts in Cup and Xfinity and seeks his first victory.
“I think that hit me because I saw myself as (Bowman) winning that race,” Cassill told NBC Sports at the time. “Then it kind of made me think about everything it takes from the time you are a little kid and everything that somebody like Alex Bowman or myself has had to do in his career.”
Such was the journey McDowell recalled shortly after raising the Harley J. Earl Trophy.
He went straight from ARCA to Cup, joining Michael Waltrip Racing in 2008 in a season memorable only for his spectacular crash in qualifying at Texas. He was out of a ride after that season.
“It’s hard to rebound from something like that, and I just was able to work with Tad Geschickter and JTG and kind of take a step back and run Xfinity, and that went pretty well,” McDowell said. “We were running well, and we got about halfway through the season and there was no more funding. So that went away.
“So then I started driving Brian Keselowski, Brad’s brother’s start-and-park cars, him and his dad and Kay, they gave me a shot to go run, and they missed some races.”
Then he had a couple of top-10 finishes and 11th in another race in the Xfinity Series in 2009.
“Just those moments … it gives you life,” he said. “You feel like you’re at the bottom and then you have a good run.”
The moment fades and reality returns. The following season showed little in results. Then in 2011, he moved to a Cup team that often parked early in races because of lack of funding.
He also began running a few Xfinity races for Joe Gibbs Racing from 2011-14.
“I was able to keep things going by doing a lot of driver coaching and doing whatever I could to keep my name in the hat, and that really helped me get those opportunities with Joe Gibbs Racing, which was another huge part of me still being here,” McDowell said. “Even though I didn’t win, I had some great runs in there and sort of I felt like at that time I needed something that helped me just legitimize being here.”
After he lost his ride with Leavine Family Racing in 2017, he moved to Front Row Motorsports in 2018 and has been there since.
While the team knows top 20s are good days at many tracks, there is hope around the superspeedways. The team’s first win came in 2013 with David Ragan at Talladega. It had not won since 2016. McDowell’s victory is the team’s third.
McDowell has shown his ability at Daytona. His win marked his third top-10 in the season-opening race in the past four years.
“My plan was to push (Keselowski) the entire lap until coming off of (Turn) 4,” he said. “When I came off of (Turn) 4, I was going to try to get to his outside or inside, but my plan was to stick with (Keselowski) because I knew he was going to go for it. I knew he wasn’t going to ride there.”
Keselowski got such a push from McDowell that he closed the gap on Logano, but they made contact. Keselowski hit the outside wall and was stuck by Kyle Busch. Logano also crashed.
“Brad was turning right, Joey was turning left, and I went right through the middle of it,” McDowell said. “I looked in my mirror and I saw Chase Elliott with a run and I went up there and blocked him as fast as I could. We made a little bit of contact, and I didn’t see anything else from that point. It’s just kind of a blur from there.”
But those moments to get to this point remain vivid with McDowell. Those trying days helped put him in position to score his first Cup win.
“Don’t give up,” he said. “I think that’s what it’s all about is just not giving up and just keep fighting hard. I think that that’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, but that’s the moral of everyday life.”