Here’s to Michael McDowell, who originally came to NASCAR as a road-course specialist. He’d been coming up through the open-wheel ranks and not quite grabbing on to the success he needed to make sure he had quality teams desiring his services. The Glendale, AZ native, 36, has always been a smart racer but hasn’t always had the equipment he needed, the team he desired to get to the front of the NASCAR Cup Series field.
Since the Daytona 500 is such a crapshoot, with under-powered engines dictating the action and the “Big One” never far away, McDowell had a chance. He took advantage of that chance on the final lap of this long race – held in two parts after a Big One on the 15th lap was followed by a protractive series of thunderstorms and simple rain showers – and didn’t culminate until early Monday morning.
McDowell knew, in the closing laps, that he wanted to go with the other Ford Mustangs, specifically with Brad Keselowski of Team Penske. The No. 34 Mustang from Front Row Motorsports was right there in the top 10 as the remaining cars not already eliminated following the lap 15 conflagration stayed in single file until the very last lap.
Then all hell broke loose after McDowell gave Keselowski a push. He and teammate Joey Logano got together in the third turn and eliminated themselves, along with Kyle Busch’s Toyota Supra and Cup Series rookie Austin Cindric, driving a fourth Team Penske Ford. McDowell split through the mess and came to the checkered flags ahead of reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon, the 2018 Daytona 500 winner., both driving Chevrolet Camaros.
It took NASCAR a minute or so to figure out just who the winner was, but after that, Michael McDowell joined an elite group of drivers who claimed their first Cup victory at NASCAR’s biggest race. McDowell’s friend Trevor Bayne was the most recent driver to make this list in 2010, one that started with Lee Petty. It’s been 20 years since Michael Waltrip won his first Daytona 500 on the day Dale Earnhardt died in the final turn of the race as Waltrip was driving an Earnhardt-fielded Chevrolet. Others include Sterling Marlin, Derrick Cope (who raced on Sunday but was out with the first caution), Pete Hamilton, Mario Andretti, Earl Balmer, Tiny Lund and Bobby Isaac.
After getting through post-race inspection that followed celebrations in Gatorade Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway, McDowell didn’t sleep. He still hasn’t slept and knows a Monday night rest is in the cards but won’t be easy. But he doesn’t care. He’s the newest winner of the Harley Earl Trophy, like the BorgWarner Trophy easily one of the most coveted in all of motorsports. And he’s bound for the Cup playoffs later this season, which will allow him and his team to take more risks than they would have after the first race of the year.
McDowell’s been in the Cup Series as a full-time driver since 2012, when he worked with PhilParsons Racing after part-time work in all three NASCAR touring series since 2007. He was initially hired as a road-course specialist, due to his open-wheel experience, having won Champ Car’s Star Mazda Series championship in 2004. He also drove twice in Champ Car for Rocketsports Racing, at Surfers Paradise and Mexico City.
McDowell then moved to the NASCAR-owned Grand-Am sports cars in 2005, then to ARCA in 2006 and then with NASCAR from 2007 to the present day. He joined Front Row Motorsports with a ninth-place result in the 2018 Daytona 500 and has been racing the No. 34 Ford Mustang ever since. In 2019 he finished fifth in the Daytona 500, so he knows how to run up front at this race. “This sport has so many highs and lows,” he said. “I love being in NASCAR and I love the challenge of it, how difficult it is. The sacrifice is worth it because this is what I’ve dreamed about doing and to to win, that’s what it’s all about.
“We all show up on Sunday for one reason, we want to win the race, but even if you didn’t it’s still worth it. This is such a great sport and I’m so thankful to be one of 40,” McDowell admitted. “I think it’s so easy to take that for granted, how many race car drivers there are in the world, and to be one of 40 that gets to start on Sundays, that’s amazing, so it’s definitely worth it.”
Now that McDowell and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer have this win in hand, they’re looking forward to the balance of the regular season. “Our opportunities,” Blickensderfer said, “come at speedways and road courses, and we can sprinkle in another five or six races where we think we have a really good chance to compete. I think Front Row has done a really good job of maximizing the possibilities of getting a win, and in today’s format, you can kind of throw away your cards at a couple of different races throughout the year for your real chances to win a race, and that automatically propels you to the top 16 in points.”
For many on this team, not just the driver, this was also their first win, which made the customarily exciting Victory Lane even more so. “This is also good for the business side of Front Row and for the competition side. Hiring people gets a little easier when you have a playoff car and a resume where you’ve won the Daytona 500 recently,” Blickensderfer admitted. “It’s something that could really turn the corner for us, hopefully.”
Team owner Bob Jenkins believes that getting into the playoffs this early will really help his team. “We’ve got almost a whole season to prepare for it and I think that’s really what propels us,” he said. “The money part of it is nice, but you can ask Drew, we all got in this because we’re racers. It just feels really good to win the race, so it would feel good if it didn’t pay anything. It just feels better when it’s the Daytona 500. it’s a big payday.”
Love’s Travel Stop has been with Jenkins’ No. 34 team for years and their faith has been returned with this victory. They could have another win to celebrate this coming weekend when the series takes to the Daytona International Speedway road course with Michael McDowell. After all, he cut his teeth on road courses and came to the stock car set because of that singular capability. This was a very popular win in the NASCAR Cup Series garages. They might have to get used to seeing the No. 34 Ford Mustang in Victory Lane.