DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There was a 16-car pileup near the start of the afternoon race and another fiery one right before it ended shortly after midnight. In between, Sunday’s Daytona 500 had a bit of everything.
Hail the size of golf balls. A nearly six-hour rain delay. Fiery crashes, smoky crashes and muddy crashes. Drivers sprinting for shelter, fans running for safety and at least three contenders who left the track in search of dinner, including one who went through a takeout window still wearing his racing suit.
A car partly owned by the singer Pitbull crashed out early. One owned by the basketball star Michael Jordan was still battling for the lead late. Cars went out with crash damage, or tire damage, or engine damage, or all three. One driver deftly avoided trouble on the track only to have his car slide into its muddy bog of an infield, which tore out some of the key components that make it run.
And yet, when it was all done, when the rain stopped and the smoke cleared and the cars limped back into their garages, this year’s Daytona 500 still found one more way to surprise: with a 100-1 long shot, Michael McDowell, celebrating in Victory Lane.
“I can’t believe it,” said McDowell, who looked stunned as he stopped at the flag stand to collect the checkered flag. It was his first win in 358 starts in NASCAR’s top series. “So many years just grinding it out,” he added. “So many years just hoping for an opportunity like this.”
Over its 63 runnings, dating to 1959, the 500 has become known as the Great Equalizer, a race that allows a wider measure of competitiveness as unheralded drivers can keep themselves up front with the major teams through drafting. It has blessed a statistically significant number of underdogs with victories, a group that has included little-known rookies and stars moonlighting from other series, like IndyCar’s Mario Andretti in 1967. It also has produced shocking upsets: Derrike Cope in 1990 and Trevor Bayne in 2011 were two of the more recent examples.
Early Monday morning, fate smiled on another underdog. McDowell, a 36-year-old journeyman with 14 years in the series, drove unscathed through a fiery last-lap crash to take a car-length victory over Chase Elliott.
McDowell never led a lap in the 200-lap event until the last few feet of the final time around. He won because he had just moved out front as the yellow caution flag came out for a multicar pileup triggered by the Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Elliott tried to sneak ahead of him but was ruled to have finished second. Austin Dillon was credited with third, followed by Kevin Harvick and the pre-race favorite, Denny Hamlin, who was trying to become the first driver to win three straight Daytona 500s.
“To get a first victory in a Daytona 500 — are you kidding me?” McDowell said in remarks to those that remained from a socially distanced crowd of about 30,000. “We’re a Daytona 500 champion. I cannot believe this.”
McDowell wasn’t so lucky early in the race, when a 16-car melee was triggered on lap 15. He was right in the middle of that one, and his Ford suffered damage on all four corners. But his veteran crew chief Drew Blickensderfer — who worked for Matt Kenseth’s winning 500 team in 2009 — expertly assessed the damage during the long race stoppage that followed. When the race restarted hours later, McDowell was able to run his repaired car up front with the leaders the rest of the way.
“It was pandemonium, chaos, out there; I hated that we couldn’t win,” said Logano, whose crash collected not only Keselowski but also a third Penske teammate, Austin Cindric. “But if we couldn’t, I would root for Michael.”
Kyle Busch also drove into the fiery pileup, along with Darrell Wallace Jr., who had led the race briefly in his debut for a team run by Hamlin and Jordan. Wallace’s hopes were dampened on a final pit stop that went haywire, and forced him to make an additional stop to replace a loose wheel. The mistake cost him a full lap.
The problem for Hamlin, who led nearly half the race, was that he got too far out front of the pack. Driving alone left him without drafting partners, and it allowed the field, moving faster as a group, to reel hin in.
“We had the dominant car,” Hamlin said. “I was the fastest, but I got too far ahead, by myself, and got freight-trained.”
The Ford teams, including McDowell’s, also outfoxed the rest of the Chevrolets and Toyotas in the field on the last scheduled round of pit stops. They all pitted unexpectedly, together, in tight formation. And all of them executed their pit stops with identical precision and came back out on the track in a pack. The three Toyota drivers remaining in the race — Hamlin, Wallace and Busch — were unprepared to respond in kind; they were all spread out on the track after their stops, and Hamlin found himself relegated to 12th place with about 25 laps to go.
After the final pits stops, there were five Fords in formation running up front, followed by the Chevrolets of Elliott and Dillon, and the Toyotas of Busch, Hamlin and Wallace.
McDowell was in fifth, then fourth, and then suddenly in the lead — on the final lap — as the crashes unfolded around him. Elliott actually passed him, but an official review said the pass came seconds too late.
The longest of races had produced a most unlikely winner.