Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell "never lost hope"

Jim Utter
·5-min read

He insists he always knew he would win a series race before his career came to an end, although he finds it difficult to articulate the reasons why he came to that conclusion.

“Y’all could ask my wife because she’s more realistic, and she’s just like, ‘Man, I don’t think it’s in the cards.’ Just for whatever reason, I don’t know. “I’m like, ‘It’s going to happen. I just know it is.’

“You know, I don’t know why. I don’t know why I have that feeling. But I also feel like if I don’t come to the race track thinking like that, then why am I coming to the race track?”

McDowell had been all over the map in his Cup career, driving for start-and-park rides and low budget teams but slowly he worked his way onto teams which provided opportunities for good finishes – and if everything went perfect – maybe a win.

Finally a winner

His record remained 0-for-357 entering Sunday’s Daytona 500 and while he had shown himself to be an accomplished superspeedway driver, he wasn’t among the list of favorites to end his winless streak in the race.

But in the early hours of Monday morning, following 200 laps that took more than nine hours to complete thanks to an extended rain delay, there was McDowell riding around the track after taking the checkered flag waiting for NASCAR officials to complete their review of the finish, which included a last-lap wreck and caution.

Either McDowell or Chase Elliott – the sport’s most popular driver and fresh off his first series championship – was going to win their first Daytona 500.

“It took a full lap, so I made an extra lap,” McDowell said. “I wasn’t about to pull down pit road. I didn’t know at all when the caution came out. It was just so chaotic that I had no idea when the caution came out and where I was at the time.

“I was fairly confident that I was close to being ahead because I pretty much stayed ahead through most of the corner. When I came across the line, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, is this possible? It’s possible that we just won the race.’

“And then immediately it sunk in that if we didn’t, I was going to be so upset. We’re so close, you know? It was a long lap. It really became a blur when they said we won and to go to the start/finish line. It was just overwhelming.”

In his long motorsports career, McDowell, 36, had tasted victory only a few times – a win in the Xfinity Series in 2016, four wins in ARCA in the 2007 season and a victory in 2005 in the then-NASCAR Grand-Am Sports Car Series.

Suddenly, he was being directed to Victory Lane, not only to celebrate his first career win, but also in NASCAR’s biggest race, its grandest stage.

Some of NASCAR’s most successful stars have never made this trip, but now he was.

His belief in himself and his persistence had been validated, and perhaps in no bigger way.

“I think that for so long, that was a hard part because I knew that with start-and-parking and all that stuff, I’m not going to run the full race, not going to have a shot (at winning),” McDowell said.

“But even when I was start-and-parking, 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.”

Now a playoff driver

With a victory in hand that all-but guarantees him a berth in the Cup Series playoffs, a range of new opportunities seems to have quickly been played on his path ahead.

McDowell, with his sports car background, is also a stout road racer, and next on the schedule is Sunday’s race on the Daytona Road Course, where he secured a 10th-place finish last season.

Because of his win Sunday, he will get the benefit of starting closer to the front Sunday as a driver’s finish in the previous race is part of the formula to determine the starting line when there is no qualifying.

With NASCAR’s schedule changes this season, the series goes from two to seven road course events, including one in the 10-race playoffs.

Even if Front Row Motorsports’ cars may not be on par with Hendrick Motorspsorts or Team Penske or Joe Gibbs Racing on the intermediate tracks, seven road courses and three more superspeedway races are plenty of chances for more strong finishes or even more victories.

“When I come to the race track, when we load up and go, I really think every weekend, ‘Okay, this is the weekend it’s going to happen.’ And I know that sounds crazy, but I do, and I have, and I have for a long time,” McDowell said.

“I think that’s an important part of it is just believing that it’s possible. It’s not so much believing like, ‘Oh, I can do it, I’m good enough.’ I don't care about that stuff, just believing that it’s possible that it could happen.

“And it did.”