Michael McDowell reflects on how years of grinding created his own Daytona 500 legacy

In February 2010, the concept of winning at Daytona was a relative thing for Michael McDowell.

His first attempt at qualifying for the Daytona 500 was barely announced, and more hopelessly than fulfilled. His car had no sponsor and his team was one of those that took up space in the back of the garage. Of the 54 cars that showed up to try to qualify for the 500, McDowell placed 50th in the time trials.

But on the final restart of his 150-mile qualifying race, McDowell did. He cut through the middle of the pack, passing other cars he needed to finish ahead in order to qualify and finish 14th, making the Daytona 500 champ improbably thanks to little more than sheer willpower and power. and the handling its engine and chassis had to offer.

“I feel like I won the Daytona 500,” McDowell, then 26, said in his post-race interview. “I’m really excited to be here and racing on Sunday.”

Revisiting those comments now, what McDowell accomplished on that Thursday more than a decade ago pales in comparison to what he has accomplished now. He returns this year as the defending Daytona 500 champion, having won the 2021 edition in one of the most notable upsets the speedway has seen. But what made McDowell’s triumph at Daytona a compelling testament to the resilience and perseverance needed to survive in the face of adversity were times like 2010, when not qualifying for NASCAR’s biggest race was something he just couldn’t afford.

“The prize money for the Daytona 500 was a huge swing, so if you missed the race, you’re probably not going to race the rest of the season. It was definitely a big deal,” McDowell told CBS Sports. . “You feel that pressure… And just that relief that you feel when you cross the line, you know you’re in and you can start your first Daytona 500.

“But more than anything, it was just the relief. Because the amount of pressure that was missing was huge.”

In order to retain his place as Cup driver, McDowell took on the undignified job of being the driver of start and park cars – cars that would run tricked-out qualifying setups fast enough to make the starting field, run a dozen or so laps, then park in the garage and retire from the race in order to collect purse money while spending the bare minimum necessary to field a team. This meant that McDowell could drive a race car at NASCAR’s top level, but it was far from desirable or glamorous.

“At first I just wanted to be in the Cup Series and I wanted to race, I wanted to prove I could be there,” McDowell said. “And over the years it didn’t really turn into opportunities – it was just more opportunities to start and park, I felt like – I was just trying to figure out ‘What is What am I doing? Why am I doing it?’

“There were several reasons why I was doing it. The first is that I was never successful and I never made millions of dollars, so this is what I do to support my family. .That’s one element.And then the second was to keep hoping that one day I would have the opportunity to race again.Not just to start and park, but to race again and do it. on a higher level than I was doing it. was a process, it was a journey.”

During those years, Daytona International Speedway and the Daytona 500 provided McDowell with an annual opportunity to run a full race and show what he could do against other Cup drivers. And since he worked differently from week to week, Daytona began to smile on him: especially in the 2013 Daytona 500, when McDowell surprised many by finishing ninth in his career.

It was this race that led McDowell to a superspeedway epiphany, as he began to see order in a place where many others saw only chaos.

“I just realized that ‘This will probably be my only chance to race well and have a chance to win a race.’ And so from that point on, I really became a student of those races in particular, Daytona and Talladega,” McDowell said. “And I just looked at the guys who always raced ahead, constantly challenged for wins. Everyone talks about Daytona like ‘Oh, anyone can win, it’s a roll of the dice, luck, you just have to survive.’

“But I found that’s not really true. That it was the same five or six guys who raced out front, who won races consistently, and there were a lot of repeat winners. And so repeated winners, for me, that doesn’t mean luck.”

Eventually, McDowell was able to move past the start-and-parks and move up the ranks of the mid-pack Cup teams: first with Leavine Family Racing, then with Front Row Motorsports. And as it happened, his work to be competitive at Daytona began to pay off: he finished second at the white flag in the track’s 400-mile summer race and finished fourth at the finish. The following year, he led 20 laps at the midpoint of that race. In 2019, he mixed it all up on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and finished fifth.

Each time, McDowell’s success was treated simply as a great story – an underdog having his day up front and earning a finish that would be his biggest run in the grand scheme of his career. But unbeknownst to most, a trend was developing and McDowell’s own ideas of winning a Cup race were becoming increasingly realistic.

“Every time I got a little closer, a little closer, it became more real. Not less of an opportunity, but more of an opportunity,” McDowell said. “So I feel like that fourth place, that fifth place, there were decisions in there that weren’t good that I made. I felt like I probably could have won a few places or even put me in a position to win. So you learn from those, and you feel even more confident coming back that ‘Okay, if I do this and that when I get to the white flag, it’s ‘is what I need, it’s what I can’t do.’ And so you just build on that.

“And I felt like we were doing that at Front Row. Our program was getting better and better on the superspeedways, confidence was building, but more than anything else, just raw speed to be able to do things what you need to do. I think it was a four or five year process of feeling that we were getting a little better, a little better, a little closer. And then it all finally fell into place.

Coming down the straight on the final lap of last year, McDowell finished third and pushed Brad Keselowski as he charged Joey Logano for the lead and the win. Then Logano threw a late block, and the two spun in opposite directions entering Turn 3. McDowell, a spectator and the first witness, split the difference between the two cars and took the lead as a jailbreak happened behind it. As fire and smoke from a huge crash played out behind him, the yellow flag flew with McDowell ahead and returning to the finish line as the winner of the Daytona 500.

Just like that, after 358 tries, McDowell had won a NASCAR Cup Series race. And he had done it in a way that forever changed his career, his legacy, and his life. No matter where he goes or what else he does, McDowell will forever be known as a champion of the Daytona 500, a race that transformed McDowell from a career journeyman into a name forever part of great speedway history.

As it stands, Michael McDowell’s legacy as a Daytona 500 winner is shared by other drivers who scored their first-ever Great American Race victory. Unknowns who became instant stars like Tiny Lund, Pete Hamilton and Derrike Cope. Young people who have become stars like Mario Andretti and Trevor Bayne. Enduring veterans who were eventually rewarded like Sterling Marlin and Michael Waltrip.

Going into the 2022 Daytona 500, McDowell is more than confident he can come back, especially since he no longer has to deal with the pressure of having only one chance to win a race. . History, as well as McDowell’s own abilities as a superspeedway racer, suggest it’s perfectly possible. In 1994, Sterling Marlin took his first career victory in the Daytona 500 after years of trying, then came back the following year and won the 500 again for his second career victory.

Whatever Daytona has to offer McDowell this year and in the years to come, his triumph at the 2021 Daytona 500 secures him a place as a speedway hero forever.

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