Long: Daytona 500 win rewards resiliency of Michael McDowell

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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.”

MORE: What drivers said after the Daytona 500

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.”

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
Matt DiBenedetto was eliminated in a Lap 15 crash. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

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.”

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
Michael McDowell’s journey was rewarded with a Daytona 500 win. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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.

As he ran third on the last lap, pushing Brad Keselowski toward leader Joey Logano, McDowell was ready to pounce.

“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.”

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

 

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.