When the victorious No. 34 Ford stopped at Daytona International Speedway early Monday morning, even its triumphant driver seemed in disbelief.
Michael McDowell had somehow just won the Daytona 500.
“I just can’t believe it,” he said.
McDowell might not be the unlikeliest winner in the 63 runnings of the NASCAR Cup Series’ biggest race, but he’s up there.
The 36-year-old Arizona native doesn’t drive for one of the juggernaut teams; he’s with Front Row Motorsports.
McDowell isn’t an established champion like the driver who was leading at the last-lap white flag (Joey Logano) or a rising superstar like the one he held off late (Chase Elliott). He’s a road-course specialist who had no wins and only three top-five finishes in his first 357 career Cup races entering this weekend.
McDowell simply had the good fortune of driving the right kind of car to get in the front of the field late and the ability to slip through a fiery crash on the final lap to get his first Cup victory on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
“I cannot believe this,” McDowell said.
He withstood challenge after challenge over nine hours, starting with wrecks and rain.
The first “Big One” happened on Lap 14, as Tampa’s Aric Almirola battled for second. Cristopher Bell nudged Almirola from behind, forcing the No. 10 Ford to veer right into pole-sitter Alex Bowman.
“Unbelievable,” Almirola told his team on the radio. “Unbelievable.”
The pile-up collected 16 drivers. Among them: Ryan Newman, who survived a vicious crash in last year’s 500, and former Cup champions Martin Truex Jr. and Kurt Busch.
Almirola, a Hillsborough High alumnus who grew up rooting for the Bucs and Lightning, had hoped to become the latest addition to Champa Bay. Instead, he finished 34th in the 40-car field.
After that collision came the condensation. Rain brought out the red flag for 5 hours and 40 minutes, turning Sunday’s matinee into a prime-time showcase that ended after midnight.
The delay was fortuitous for McDowell, who sat on the grid with a pair of easily fixable flat tires and a flattened right side.
As the race resumed and settled down, perennial contenders gravitated toward the front. Denny Hamlin won the first two stages and led 98 of the first 180 laps. Former race and series champion Kevin Harvick, wasn’t far behind.
But the Tampa-born Hamlin’s quest for a record-third consecutive 500, and fourth overall, faded thanks to a doomed pit-stop strategy. The field made their final stops by car manufacturer — Fords on one lap, followed by Chevrolets on the next and Toyotas soon after. When Hamlin and the other Toyotas returned to the track, they were stretched out and left without drafting partners.
“We were too far out front,” he said. “Too far ahead of the pack.”
The Toyotas’ aerodynamic disadvantage caused Hamlin to drop outside the top 10 (he finished fifth). Logano, leading the pack of Fords, charged into the lead. Lurking a few spots back in that new pack of Ford frontrunners: McDowell.
The single-file line disappeared in the final frantic moments at the famed tri-oval. McDowell, running third, pushed Brad Keselowski toward Logano on the backstretch.
“Chaos struck,” Logano said.
Specifically, Keselowski touched Logano, his Team Penske teammate, setting off a fiery crash. McDowell, somehow, split the two to assume the lead.
“Luckily I was able to make it through,” McDowell said.
His job still wasn’t done. The race wasn’t over until NASCAR officially called the final caution. That meant that McDowell had to hold off everyone else until the yellow flag finally came out. McDowell held on ahead of Elliott (whose runnerup finish was his best ever at the 500) and 2018 race winner Austin Dillon.
Moments later, fireworks were exploding into the night sky to celebrate one of the most unbelievable winners Daytona has ever seen: a 14-year journeyman who didn’t lead until the final yards of the final lap.