Daytona 500 Winner Michael McDowell Takes Us Through The Wild Final Lap

The 2021 Daytona 500 was a marathon affair, with the green flag dropping at 2:30 p.m. ET and the checkered flag waving just shy of 12:30 a.m. ET on Monday. In the 10 hours in between, there was a lengthy lightning and rain delay, two Big Ones, and a first-time winner on the Cup circuit taking home the sport’s biggest prize.

Michael McDowell wheeled the Love’s Travel Shops Ford Mustang to victory lane in what was the latest wild finish at the Daytona 500, picking up his first win in his 358th career Cup Series race. The veteran went from third to first in the final lap when the two fellow Fords in front of him, Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, wrecked in turn 3 after Logano tried to put a block on Keselowski’s run with McDowell pushing. As the 2 and 22 spun in opposite directions, the sea parted for McDowell, who held off Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon for the biggest moment of his driving career.

On Tuesday, we got to talk with McDowell about being a Daytona 500 champ, how the Fords all got themselves to the front, what that crazy last lap was like from his seat, and why he believes he can back up that win with a strong performance on Sunday when they are back at Daytona to run the road course in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

Last time we talked was last March about iRacing, so a little bit has changed for you since then. What have the last 36 hours been like and what’s it like now to hear that introduction of “Daytona 500 winner” before your name?

Yeah, I mean, the last 36 hours has been crazy with just so much excitement and joy and just a range of emotions. It’s been quite the journey. And, you know, to hear that, to hear Daytona 500, winner and champion it brings a lot of emotion because of the journey and the work that it’s taken by so many people to get to this point. It definitely means a lot.

You mentioned the journey, I think something that not necessarily everybody considers is how big this is not just for you, but for Front Row Motorsports and everybody that’s put the time in the shop over the last four or five years in getting to this moment. What have been the conversations you’ve been able to have with the team, and what does this mean to the entire organization there?

Yeah, like you said, it’s not just a PR thing or cliche. This is 100 percent a team sport. And you have to have fast race cars, and it takes so many people to make a fast race car — and partners and it just goes down a huge list of hands that have touched this organization that’s allowed us to be a Daytona 500 winner. And so that part of it makes it special. It makes it very rewarding for everybody in the shop that’s a part of that, and for all our partners that are a part of that. So it’s a big moment. I mean, it’s a big moment for any team. I think it’s a lifetime achievement to be a Daytona 500 champion and winner as an organization, but for a team that hasn’t won a ton of races and isn’t probably talked about a lot as as contenders, to win the biggest race on the biggest stage, it’s going to last a lifetime.

After the race it seems everybody in the garage was just so happy to see that you were the guy that came out on top. Joey Logano coming out of the care center saying if he couldn’t win, he wouldn’t want to pick anybody other than you that to see win. What does it mean to you to get that kind of support from the garage and the other drivers and kind of validate, like you said, all that work that you’ve put in over your career?

Yeah, it does. It means a lot. I mean, to me that the part of it for me that’s probably the most rewarding is knowing that while so many years I was uncompetitive and grinding it out that people still respected me and saw me working hard. And to have those relationships and have people that genuinely are excited for you that you accomplished what you set out to accomplish, even your competitors, it does mean a lot. It’s not something that I took lightly for sure. I really feel like at the end of the day, relationships and people are what matter and to have support and to feel like you’re a part of that is awesome.

Just generally, what was the day like? You have that that first 14 laps and then you have the big wreck and then it’s a five or six hour rain delay. What was it like watching the weather reports and trying to have the conversation with your team about what you felt on the track in that brief period you’re out there and what you wanted to do going forward, and how did you make sure that you stayed engaged and stayed ready when you did eventually come back at 9 p.m.?

Yeah, it was it was a unique day for sure. And it was a long day, no doubt about it. In that first big accident that took out you know a lot of great cars, we actually got some damage. We weren’t too tore up too bad, but we did get some damage and then obviously with the lightning we had the the five and a half hour delay. And so during that delay we actually were working on the strategy. Drew Blickensderfer, my crew chief, and all my guys were figuring out “OK, what do we got to do to fix the damage?” You know, “what if this brace is broke,” and all those things that go into making sure that we can make these repair, still have a competitive car, not have too many men go over the wall, and not go beyond the caution clock that can take you out of the race when you have damage.

And so there was all these factors that we had to sort of balance and figure out how do we how do we execute this really well, where we don’t lose a lap and our car’s still competitive. And so a lot of that five and a half hours was just going through that and making sure that we all knew what we were going to do, and we’re ready to do it. And then when we went back racing, it was, for me, it was all about positioning. It was all about getting with my Ford teammates, and making sure that we could get ourselves into that position at the end when you needed it. So it’s a process and it’s a long one. And it always comes down to that last lap, but leading up to that every lap counts to put yourself in that position.

What were the conversations in that last stage when you guys in the Ford were able to get into the pits early and get yourselves connected up at the front? I mean, what all goes into that? What are the conversations that you’re having, your crew chiefs are having about timing and making sure you’re all on the same page so you can put yourself in that position?

It’s orchestrating a whole lot, for sure. Ford has done a great job of uniting the drivers and the teams, in particular at the superspeedways, and just making sure that we can communicate, and we all know when we’re going to pit and what we need to do. So that was executed really well. I mean, I think one of the things that, you know, I hate to say it, but that helped us do that were less Fords at the end of the race and there was at the beginning. And because of that, it was actually a little easier to organize, you know, four or five guys rather than ten. And so we were able to get to pit road really well, and we all did the same on our pit stops, and we all left pit road together, and we were connected leaving pit road, and we’re able to be organized early. And that gave us the race winning track position.

If it wasn’t gonna be me, that gets the victory lane, it was gonna be a Ford. I can almost guarantee you that just based on how we were positioned coming to the white flag having four cars leading the pack. You have four Fords leading coming to the white flag and that all came from that pitstop and that strategy and all of us working together and executing. We really controlled the race at that point, and it was ours to lose.

And then you get to that last lap. You got that big run behind Brad and what was going through your mind as you’re making that move? Because obviously you can feel that you’ve got a big run, and what was your expectation going into making that move? Were you thinking, “OK I’m probably going to push Brad to first, and then I might have to try to make a move? Then obviously, things change very quickly, when he and Joey start spinning.

Yeah, that was exactly my plan was to stay with Brad and push him. I knew Brad was going to try to make a move, and he was backing up and playing around with the runs, you know, a couple laps leading into it just to see how much of a gap he needed. And so I kind of, without it being communicated, because it wasn’t communicated, I knew what he was trying to do and what he was getting ready to do. And so when we came off of Turn 2 and he built a little bit of a gap, I knew that he was getting ready to make the run.

At that time, I had a push from [Chase Elliott] and was able to get a big run to get hooked up with Brad and when he and I had that momentum, he took it and tried to make a pass on Joey. And Joey blocks the pass and then they came together and I mean, it was just crazy. It’s not what we planned or what we hoped for. My plan was, like what you said, to stay connected to Brad. Let him make the move on Joey and when he made that move, and Joey went to block, they open up the hole and I take the hole.

Unfortunately what happened was Brad had a run, Joey blocked a run, and they make contact and both of those cars were crashed out. That wasn’t the plan but the seas parted and I drove through the middle and and had to block Chase Elliott, they had a big run, and Austin Dillon and we were able to hold those guys off and get a Ford to victory lane.

Can you even describe the chaos of that moment and — obviously you have to stay in the moment of like, “OK, I’m here on the final lap with a chance to win the Daytona 500” — but you see this wreck start and you’re trying to dodge those two guys, and then you have to think about those two cars behind you. I mean, kind of how does the adrenaline get go in that situation and can you even put into words how wild that half a lap is?

No, there’s no way to put it into words. Like, I couldn’t tell you one thing, my spotter said about what’s going on, because you’re just laser focused and you’re in the moment and everything’s happening so fast, especially at 200 miles an hour. When Brad and Joey spin, I didn’t think anything of it, I just drove right through the middle and immediately had to throw a block on the 9 car. Like, there was no hesitation, there was no thinking, there was no processing. It was just all happening in that moment, and you’re just reacting and responding and you only have time to process that you’re just doing it. And then when it all happens and it works out and you go back and you watch it, it’s just crazy to think you know, all the things that had to happen in that moment for you to be in that spot and to miss that wreck and to make that block and for the caution to fly when it did, and there’s a lot.

Now this week, you stay at Daytona and y’all are going to run the road course, and I know you’re a guy with plenty of road course experience. You get to come back to a track, obviously, it’s gonna be a very different race than than the 500, but you’re coming back and you get to run the same place that you just won, even on on the road course. How excited are you to try to back this up with another strong finish here?

Yeah, I think it’s awesome that we’re going to the Daytona Road Course. I’m always confident going into Daytona, but I’m ultra confident when it comes to the road courses and feel like, if anything, we have a better chance there. And so, to have two races that are really strong for us back to back is a lot of fun. And, also, we know that there’s going to be tracks where we’re not as competitive, right? I mean, we’re not trying to be — we know who we are. And we know that there’s going to be tough, tough weeks and great weeks. But to know that we can follow the Daytona 500 win up with a solid week is good [laughs].

It’s nice to know that we’re going to go to that road course with our Fr8Auctions Mustang and have a shot and run in the top five and run in the top 10 and be a contender. Rather than go to a track maybe where we struggle, and we go from winning the race to running 20th. That’s no fun. So, yeah, we’re looking forward to this weekend and I feel like we can keep that momentum going.

Y’all have seven road courses on the schedule this year. Do you like when you have a year like this, where there’s maybe going to be a little more diversity in the tracks you run? I know as a fan I like to watch when you guys go the road courses when you go to the short tracks and when there’s a little bit more variety. Do you feel that as a driver, too?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, selfishly, this schedule is incredible for me. I mean, I love road courses and new road courses, I think are an advantage for me. And Road America is where I got my Xfinity win, so when we looked at this schedule, it was exciting. We felt like this could be a great year for Front Row Motorsports and for the Love’s Travel Stop Ford Mustang. We really felt like, “Man, this could be the year where we get a win,” and to do it on week one, race one at the Daytona 500, to be locked in the playoffs. It’s just crazy. It’s just unbelievable.

And the schedule opens up for you. You’ll be in the All-Star Race, you know you’re headed to the playoffs. What does it do to settle you in and know this is gonna be a good season and just feeling that momentum that you get to build on?

I think it allows us to enjoy it more being locked in the playoffs and and having already won a race. It’s going to make the rough days a little less, and just allow us to enjoy the season and enjoy it longer than it would have if it had been later in the season or not happened at all. So for us to know that we’re locked in and to know that as a team, we’ve already in one week accomplished so much, everything else right now just feels like you know is a bonus. It doesn’t change our approach. We’re going to race hard. Every week counts, and we’re competitive. We want to run well, and we want to make it count and we have some momentum. But then we’re going to enjoy it because you just never know when the next one comes.