DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Somebody had to make a move to win the Daytona 500, and maybe Michael McDowell would have pulled out of traffic to take his shot at a monster upset.
McDowell never had to play his hand.
He stayed right where he was, flat in the gas, and drove through a crash scene at Daytona International Speedway. With a fiery multicar pileup in his rearview mirror, the journeyman pulled off a stunning upset early Monday morning.
A 100-1 underdog when the race began Sunday afternoon, McDowell won for the first time in 358 Cup starts when the checkered flag finally flew about 15 minutes after midnight. The race was stopped by rain for almost six hours and ended nine hours after the green flag waved at Daytona International Speedway.
“So many years just grinding it out and hoping for an opportunity like this,” McDowell said. “Such a great way to get a first victory — a Daytona 500. Are you kidding me?”
NASCAR’s season opener was stacked with storylines. Denny Hamlin was trying for a record third consecutive Daytona 500 victory, and the team he started with Michael Jordan was debuting with driver Bubba Wallace.
Kyle Larson was back after nearly a year in exile for using a racial slur, and reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott was trying for his first Daytona 500 win.
And all the way at the back of the field, 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope was making what he said would be his final NASCAR start. At 62 he was the oldest driver in the field, and his upset victory 31 years ago is considered the biggest in race history.
McDowell didn’t challenge Cope for that distinction because McDowell is considered a talented superspeedway racer who just needed to be in the right place to finally win.
He watched and waited as he trailed Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, and it was Keselowski who finally broke free from the parade of cars. Keselowski tried to pass Logano, but the teammates made contact, triggering a melee all over Daytona International Speedway.
Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are in the middle of a big wreck on the final lap of the Daytona 500, which results in a win for Michael McDowell.
“I wanted to make the pass to win the Daytona 500 and it ended up really bad,” Keselowski said. “I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everybody else’s car. So frustrating.”
Logano had no explanation for the ending.
”Pandemonium, I guess. Chaos struck,” he said.
It was indeed mayhem once McDowell cleared the crash. The collisions were one on top of another, flames erupting all over the track as McDowell drag-raced Elliott and Austin Dillon until NASCAR finally called a caution.
A batch of solid contenders was knocked from the race just 15 laps in by a 16-car accident that began at the front of the field. It thinned the pack and set up a showdown between Kevin Harvick and Hamlin.
Hamlin and Harvick had the two best cars, but pit strategy ended Hamlin’s shot at winning a record third consecutive Daytona 500. The Ford drivers pitted first as a group, followed by the Chevrolets a lap later and finally the Toyotas.
But the Toyota group has just five cars and they couldn’t group back together to reclaim control of the race. It put Logano, Keselowski and the Ford drivers out front and Logano led the final 25 laps until Keselowski made his move.
McDowell led only the final lap — less than half of it really — and held off Elliott and Dillon. Harvick finished fourth, and Hamlin was fifth after leading a race-high 98 laps.