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.”

NASCAR Cup playoff standings after Coca-Cola 600


The severe penalty to Chase Briscoe and his Stewart-Haas Racing team Wednesday for a counterfeit part dropped Briscoe from 17th to 31st in the season standings. Briscoe now must win a race to have a chance at the playoffs.

The penalty came a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for his retaliation in wrecking Denny Hamlin in Monday’s Coca-Cola 600. Elliott is 28th in the points. The 2020 Cup champion also needs to win to have a chance to make the playoffs.

Ten drivers have won races, including Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney. That leaves six playoff spots to be determined by points at this time. With 12 races left in the regular season, including unpredictable superspeedway races at Atlanta (July 9) and Daytona (Aug. 26), the playoff standings will change during the summer.

Among those without a win this season are points leader Ross Chastain and former champions Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Elliott.

Here’s a look at the Cup playoff standings heading into Sunday’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Illinois. Drivers in yellow have won a race and are in a playoff position. Those below the red line after 16th place are outside a playoff spot in the graphic below.

NASCAR issues major penalties to Chase Briscoe team for Charlotte infraction


NASCAR fined crew chief John Klausmeier $250,000 and suspended him six races, along with penalizing Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing team 120 points and 25 playoff points each for a counterfeit part on the car.

The issue was a counterfeit engine NACA duct, said Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, on Wednesday. That is a single-source part.

MORE: Updated Cup playoff standings

The team stated that it accepts the L3 penalty.

“We had a quality control lapse and a part that never should’ve been on a car going to the racetrack ended up on the No. 14 car at Charlotte,” said Greg Zipadelli in a statement from the team. “We accept NASCAR’s decision and will not appeal.”

Asked how then piece could have aided performance, Sawyer said Wednesday: “Knowing the race team mentality, they don’t do things that would not be a benefit to them in some way, shape or form from a performance advantage.”

The penalty drops Briscoe from 17th in the season standings to 31st in the standings. Briscoe goes from having 292 points to having 172 points. He’ll have to win to make the playoffs. Briscoe has no playoff points at this time, so the penalty puts him at -25 playoff points should he make it.

Briscoe’s car was one of two taken to the R&D Center after Monday’s Coca-Cola 600 for additional tear down by series officials.

The penalty comes a day after NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for wrecking Denny Hamlin in last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NASCAR Championship Weekend returns to Phoenix in 2024


Phoenix Raceway will host the championship races for the Cup, Xfinity, Craftsman Truck and ARCA Menards Series in 2024, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

The races will be held Nov. 1-3, 2024. The Cup season finale will be Nov. 3, 2024. The only other Cup race for 2024 that has been announced is the Daytona 500. It will be held Feb. 18, 2024.

Phoenix Raceway has hosted the championship finale for Cup, Xfinity and Trucks since 2020. Chase Elliott won the Cup title there in 2020. Kyle Larson followed in 2021. Joey Logano won the crown there in 2022.

This year’s Cup finale at Phoenix will be Nov. 5 and air on NBC.



Drivers to watch at World Wide Technology Raceway


After the fireworks from the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR heads to World Wide Technology Raceway, a 1.25-mile speedway just outside of St. Louis. Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1) marks the second time the Cup Series has raced at this track.

Much is at stake. The race to win the regular season championship has intensified. Tempers are high. The pressure to make the playoffs builds. Ten drivers have wins this season. Twelve races remain in the regular season.


Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 11th
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Richmond, Martinsville)
  • Past at WWTR: 12th last year

While a driver coming off back-to-back finishes of 20th or worse might not seem like a frontrunner, it actually does make Larson one. His topsy-turvy season has seen him place outside the top 10 in back-to-back races four times. In the three previous times he had consecutive finishes outside the top 10, he came back to finish second, first and second. Can he keep that streak going this weekend?

Bubba Wallace

  • Points position: 15th
  • Best finish this season: 4th (Las Vegas I, Kansas I, Coca-Cola 600)
  • Past at WWTR: 26th last year

Wallace has scored three consecutive top-five finishes, his best streak in his Cup career. He has climbed from 21st to 15th in the standings during this run.

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best finish this season: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I, Darlington I)
  • Past at WWTR: 19th last year

Byron has finished no worse than seventh in the last five races. He’s led nearly 20% of the laps run during that time. Byron has averaged nearly 47 points a race during that streak.


Corey LaJoie

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best finish this season: 4th (Atlanta I)
  • Past at WWTR: 36th last season

NASCAR’s one-race suspension to Chase Elliott gives LaJoie the chance to drive a Hendrick Motorsports car for the first time. This will be the best car LaJoie has driven in his career. Many eyes will be on him to see how he does.

Ross Chastain

Chastain has finished 29th and 22nd in the last two points races. He’s not gone more than three races without a top-10 finish this season. After his struggles last weekend at Charlotte, Chastain saw his lead cut to one point over Coca-Cola 600 winner Ryan Blaney in the standings. Five drivers are within 17 points of Chastain in the season standings.

Aric Almirola

  • Points position: 26th
  • Best finish this season: 6th (Martinsville I)
  • Past at WWTR: 5th last year

Almirola has finished 13th or worse in all but one race this season for Stewart-Haas Racing. In the five races since placing sixth at Martinsville, Almirola has finished an average of 21.0.