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.
— Wendy Venturini (@WendyVenturini) February 15, 2021
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.
“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.”