Daytona 500 win brings back many memories for Michael McDowell

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COVID-19 protocols muted Michael McDowell’s celebration, but it was still special to be standing in Victory Lane after last year’s Daytona 500. 

When he returned to North Carolina the following day, stepping off a private plane and carrying the winner’s trophy into Concord-Padgett Regional Airport, family and friends rejoiced. Hugs and smiles filled the small terminal.

On the way home — less than 24 hours after ending a 357-race winless drought in Cup — his professional achievement mattered little.

“We’re driving home, and my oldest daughter, she got sick and started throwing up,” McDowell told NBC Sports.

“So, the first thing that I did when I got home was take all the seats out and clean out the car, vacuum out the puke.

From Daytona 500 winner … to cleaning puke out of the family vehicle.

“It was back to reality very quickly,” McDowell said.

Such can be life for a racer. Wins can be followed by mundane duties at home, whether taking out the trash, walking the dog or cleaning up after the kids.

“I kind of consider myself like an average Joe that has made it to the highest level and won the biggest race in motorsports,” McDowell said.

As the one-year anniversary of his Daytona 500 win— and the start of this season — nears, McDowell has a better appreciation of what his first career Cup victory means and what it doesn’t.

While the public viewed Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano as among the favorites for last year’s Daytona 500, McDowell’s reputation grew among close observers and competitors. He had three top-10 finishes in nine Daytona 500s before last year’s race, including a fifth-place result in the 2019 event.

With two laps to go in last year’s 500, McDowell was fourth. He had run in the top five the final 25 laps, waiting for his chance to make a move. Logano led. McDowell followed Keselowski by Kevin Harvick to move into third place as they approached the white flag to begin the final lap.

“Coming to the white flag, I knew I was in a really good spot, the spot I wanted to be in,” McDowell said. 

As the field entered Turn 3, Keselowski made a run on Logano. Keselowski and Logano made contact, sending Logano down the track to the apron and Keselowski up the track into the SAFER barrier. McDowell, who was on Keselowski’s bumper, ran through the opening between the two cars to take the lead.

McDowell led, but Chase Elliott ducked low to make a move. Then came the caution. What happened next remains a distinct memory for McDowell.

“It was the waiting to know if we won the race or not, because the caution came out, and I felt like we had won, but you have all this doubt of what if you didn’t,” McDowell said.

It was more than two minutes after he crossed the finish line that NASCAR declared McDowell the winner.

After the celebrating that followed at Daytona, at the shop and elsewhere, McDowell began to feel the impact of that win in an unexpected way.

“I didn’t realize how much pressure and how much anxiety and just how much I put on myself — until the following week after the 500 when we went back to Daytona for the road course,” he said of the race that came a week after his victory.

“It’s not that you lost that fire to win, but I just didn’t have this weight that I was carrying around that I’ve had and I didn’t even know I had. So I felt like I was a much better driver after the win, decision-making and just being able to capitalize on the moment and opportunities inside the race car.

“I was holding on for dear life before of ‘This is it. This is your only shot. You got to make it happen. If you make the wrong move, if you make the wrong decision, if you speed, if you lock a tire, it’s over. It’s the only shot you have.’ 

“So the following week to kind of go there and not have that extra pressure and anxiety that I had going into the 500 was probably the biggest change I noticed personally on the racetrack.”

Another change is that he’ll go into this year’s Daytona 500 as the reigning champion. McDowell seeks to become only the fifth driver in NASCAR history to win back-to-back Daytona 500s. The others are Richard Petty (1973-74), Cale Yarborough (1983-84), Sterling Marlin (1994-95) and Hamlin (2019-2020).

“More than anything, what I learned, was how much and how big a deal winning the Daytona 500 is, bigger than I expected even being in the industry and being around it,” said McDowell, who begins his fifth season at Front Row Motorsports.

“From just an exposure standpoint and a value standpoint to the partners and momentum and confidence and all the things that come with it, not just with myself or your immediate core group of guys on the road, but everybody, from sponsors to partners, everything. The ripple effect was a lot bigger than I expected. 

“The flip side of it that is now you’re into a new season, and not that you forgot about it, because you never forget about it, winning again is the goal when you head back to Daytona. For me, it’s not thinking what we accomplished last year, but what we can accomplish this year.”

Whatever he achieves this year, it will be with the Next Gen car. Various changes to the body and mechanics of the car will change how it feels to drivers, but the racing? That shouldn’t change much, McDowell said. 

“I think the guys that are good at … putting themselves in position will be the same guys,” he said. “(The Next Gen car) might level the playing field a little bit from the front to the back. I do believe you are going to see the same guys up front that you normally see at Daytona and Talladega.”

With three top 10s in the last four Daytona 500s, he could be back in contention.

He still has some time left as the reigning champion before the Feb. 20 race. Nearly a year later, though, his kids still look at him the same way.

As dad.

“We got to do a lot of great things and experience neat things we wouldn’t have otherwise, but at the end of the day, your kids don’t really care about that,” McDowell said of his Daytona 500 win. “They just care that you’re there and you love them and that’s about it.”

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.