Michael McDowell wins Daytona 500 for first career NASCAR Cup victory in major upset

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Michael McDowell scored an upset Daytona 500 victory — his first in the NASCAR Cup Series — after the Team Penske cars of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano collided while racing for the lead on the final lap of the 63rd Great American Race.

McDowell led only the final lap for his first career victory, which came with the No. 34 Ford driver’s 358th start in NASCAR’s premier series.

It’s only the third victory for Front Row Motorsports and team owner Bob Jenkins, whose cars have 1,081 starts in Cup.

McDowell had two previous top fives at Daytona International Speedway (including a fifth in the 2019 Daytona 500), but the Glendale, Arizona, native’s car still went off as a major underdog in betting lines.

“To think that (I’d) get my first Cup win at the Daytona 500 is just unbelievable,” McDowell, 36, told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider (video below). “For so many years, just grinding it out to stay in this sport, and to finally get a great opportunity with Bob Jenkins and Front Row Motorsports. To do this where we keep putting ourselves in that position at the end of the Daytona 500.

“A lot of times I made the wrong move at the wrong time or went too soon or didn’t go with the right guy. Tonight it just went right. To be a Daytona 500 champion is just amazing.”

In becoming the 40th driver to win the Daytona 500, McDowell also became the eighth to earn his first career Cup victory in NASCAR’s biggest race and the first since Trevor Bayne in 2011.

“I had a plan coming to five to go I was just going to stick to Brad’s bumper,” McDowell told Snider. “I knew Brad was going to take a shot at it, and I just figured if I can stay right on his bumper coming off 4, then I’d make my move. Then he got together with Joey, the seas parted and I went right through the middle. It all went just now we needed it to go.”

Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott finished second, followed by Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.

Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet was beside McDowell’s car entering the final corner when the final yellow flag flew, freezing the finishing order on the 200th and final lap.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
Michael McDowell celebrates after winning the 63rd Daytona 500, his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

“I don’t think it was very close,” Elliott told Fox. “I kind of got next to him, and then I saw the lights come on, so I knew it was over right then. We had a fast car. We did a really good job of executing. Staying out of trouble, that’s not something I’ve done a good job of in this race, so I’m glad we could at least finish this one and have something to build on when we come back.

“The top was just so fast. It didn’t seem to matter who got down low. You couldn’t make anything go.”

Ryan Preece, Ross Chastain, Jamie McMurray, Corey LaJoie and Kyle Larson rounded out the top 10.

The checkered flag fell at 12:15 a.m. Monday in a race that started shortly after 3 p.m. Sunday, but was interrupted by a nearly six-hour delay for rain.

The final crash was a fiery wreck that collected several drivers after Keselowski made contact while trying to pass Logano for the lead. With drafting help from McDowell, Keselowski had swung into the low line and was moving alongside his teammate when Logano threw a late block, causing the contact.

“Had a big run down the backstretch, went to make the pass to win the Daytona 500, and it ended up really bad,” Keselowski, who remained winless in 13 attempts at trying to win The Great American Race, told Fox. “Don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everyone else’s car.

“Frustrating, the Discount Tire Ford was not the fastest, but (crew chief) Jeremy Bullins and the whole team did a great job of keeping us in position, and right then, we were in position. That’s exactly where I want to be running second on the last lap at Daytona with this package. Had the run, made the move. Then it didn’t work out.”

Said Logano: “Pandemonium, I guess. Chaos struck. (Keselowski) kept trying to back up, trying to get a run. I was trying to back up to him and try to keep the runs from being too big. I guess he got to the back of (McDowell), and it ended up being a really big run coming at me, and it seemed we all just collided in one spot.

“Real bummer that neither Penske car won, but at least a Ford won, and I’m really happy for McDowell.  … If we couldn’t win, I’m really happy to see McDowell win this thing. He’s a great guy, a great person. A good leader in life and has helped me a lot in my life. So very cool to see him win the Daytona 500.”

Their Fords both slammed the wall, as did the No. 18 Toyota of Kyle Busch at full speed. The wreck also collected Austin Cindric, Cole Custer, Bubba Wallace, Preece and Chastain. All drivers were evaluated and released from the infield care center.

“It’s to be expected,” Busch told Fox. “Just a matter of time before it all kind of breaks loose, and whatever happens, happens here. I saw a window to the outside, and all of a sudden, I had (Keselowski) on my hood, so I don’t know. I felt like those guys were going to get bogged down on the bottom, so I was trying to shoot for the top and get a run around the outside of them. That’s typically where everybody was going all night long.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
Fire engulfs the cars of Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano during a last-lap wreck in the Daytona 500 (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images).

“Hopefully get a run off 4 and try to shoot for a top five. We were too far back to make anything happen for a win but got clobbered a few good times here obviously. Just fortunate that I’m all good.”

Hamlin led a race-high 98 of 200 laps and won both stages in his bid to become the first driver in NASCAR history to score three consecutive victories in the Daytona 500.

But the No. 11 Toyota driver was burned by green-flag pit strategy on his final stop, as the Fords and Chevys leap-frogged his car by pitting earlier. When Hamlin left the pits, he was well ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch and Wallace, and the trio of Toyotas couldn’t regroup to stave off the hard-charging pack of Fords and Chevys.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
Denny Hamlin led a race-high 98 of 200 laps but finished fifth in the Daytona 500 (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

“We were too far out front,” Hamlin told Fox. “We just got on and off pit road too good. I was just too far ahead of the pack. I figured the Chevys would make a move with two or three (laps) to go, because they’re not going to win on the last lap from fifth or sixth.

“I was able to gain some positions there. I was 12th, everybody was running single file, so it handcuffed me. I couldn’t really do anything.

“Once I got to eighth, I was like, ‘OK, as long as they make a move with two to go, I’m in the energy area where I can make something happen.’ All we could get to was a top five. Dominant car. Just a dominant car. It’s one of those things where you execute too good and just got freight-trained at the end.”

Wallace finished 17th after running well for most of 500 miles and becoming (on Lap 129) the first Black driver to lead the Daytona 500. He rebounded after starting from the rear in the debut of the No. 23 Toyota 23XI Racing team co-owned by Hamlin and Michael Jordan.

But the strong run was negated when a wheel vibration caused an unscheduled pit stop under green for Wallace, who had been running in the top five with 25 laps remaining.

The race was stopped for five hours and 40 minutes because of storms that produced lighting, hail and torrential amounts of rain on the 2.5-mile speedway, which initially fell under the fed flag at 3:28 p.m. ET.

The yellow flag was lifted at 9:07 p.m., but it still took another 25 minutes and 15 laps of caution to dry the surface.

Just before the red flag, several contenders were eliminated in a 16-car crash on Lap 14 that started at the front.

The pileup was triggered when Christopher Bell tried to bump-draft Aric Almirola, who was running in second behind Harvick entering Turn 3. The impact on the right rear of the No. 10 Ford sent Almirola careening right up the banking, collecting pole-sitter Alex Bowman’s No. 48 Chevrolet.

Both cars hit the wall and started a chain reaction that also collected Ryan Blaney, Ryan Newman, William Byron, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, David Ragan, Anthony Alfredo, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray and Daniel Suarez.

NASCAR Cup Series 63rd Annual Daytona 500
Aric Almirola finished 34th after his No. 10 Ford was crumpled in a crash while running second on Lap 14 (James Gilbert/Getty Images).

The accident immediately knocked out Almirola, who had won a qualifying race Thursday, Blaney, Bowman, Suarez, Ragan, Newman and Jones. DiBenedetto, Alfredo and Buescher also were eliminated nearly six hours later when their teams couldn’t fix their damaged cars in time to make minimum speed.

“We were just getting pushed too hard too early,” Almirola said. “It’s a long, long race. Man, we were in a fine position, just sitting there riding around in the top two, three and (Bell) just came with a big run and hit me really hard in a bad spot, and it turned me to the right and tore up our race car and ended our Daytona 500 way too early.”

Said Ragan: “It’s just unfortunate to have a bunch of tore-up race cars that early.  I’ve never met a driver that said, ‘Hey, I’m gonna start this 500-mile race and just be super-aggressive.’  We all talk about give and take and making it to the end, but it seems nobody does that once they get out there.  It’s frustrating that everybody is pushing and shoving and I just saw the 48 get turned and whenever someone wrecks in the top five or six it tears up a lot of cars.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Denny Hamlin

STAGE 2 WINNER: Denny Hamlin

NOTABLE: Front Row Motorsports has three victories with three drivers: David Ragan at Talladega in 2013, Chris Buescher at Pocono in 2016 and McDowell in the 2021 Daytona 500. Buescher and McDowell both earned their first career victories with the team.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: With a career-best second in the Daytona 500, Chase Elliott has consecutive runner-up finishes at Daytona International Speedway. … Ross Chastain (seventh) posted his best career finish in Cup. … Denny Hamlin has four consecutive top fives in the Daytona 500.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola … take your pick of the 16 drivers involved in the Lap 14 wreck.

NEXT: The Cup Series will return Feb. 21 to the Daytona International Speedway road course (3 p.m. ET, FOX).