NASCAR: Michael McDowell continues what was once a rare trend

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

Michael McDowell led only the final lap of his Daytona 500 victory, the first of his NASCAR Cup Series career. That hadn’t happened until a few years ago, but now it is common.

We hear it all the time in NASCAR Cup Series racing and in motorsport in general: the only lap that counts is the final one.

Technically, of course, that isn’t true. But when it comes to the results and who gets the trophy, that’s the phrase that everybody keeps — or should keep — in the back of their minds.

That wasn’t on the minds of everybody early on in Sunday’s 2021 season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, when a collision caused by a huge run on lap 14 of 200 led to a 16-car pileup that ultimately knocked 10 of the 40 cars in the field out of contention.

But one driver involved in that accident who was able to continue was Michael McDowell.

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Driving for the lesser funded Front Row Motorsports team for the fourth consecutive season as the full-time driver of the #34 Ford, McDowell entered his 14th season of Cup Series competition with 357 starts under his belt.

The Bob Jenkins-owned outfit entered the season with 1,078 entries over the course of 16 seasons since they entered the sport in 2005. They entered the season with two wins: a 1-2 finish with David Ragan and David Gilliland at Talladega Superspeedway in 2013 and a win with Chris Buescher in a rain-shortened race at Pocono Raceway in 2016.

But McDowell had always run well at the four-turn, 2.5-mile (4.023-kilometer) high-banked oval in Daytona Beach, Florida and at superspeedways in general. He finished in fifth place in the 2019 Daytona 500 and then fifth again at Talladega Superspeedway later in the season.

That proved to be the case again in 2021.

After his crew repaired the slight damage to his #34 Ford from the wreck, he ran in the top 10 for much of the race and had a car fully capable of being in the mix at the end.

But he could never quite get the lead.

Coming to the white flag, Team Penske’s Joey Logano had led the last 25 laps. But coming down the back straightaway, teammate Brad Keselowski, trailed closely by McDowell, tried to make a move on the #22 Ford. In doing so, the #2 Ford and the #22 Ford made contact, causing a massive accident that collected most of the cars remaining in the field.

But McDowell made it through, and at the time the caution flag came out to effectively end the race, he was ahead of Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott.

In the first 58 Daytona 500s, there had never been a winner who had led only the final lap. Now it has happened three times in the last five years.

Kurt Busch became the first to pull it off in 2017. Three different drivers led that race’s final three laps, including Busch, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.

Austin Dillon became the second when he pulled it off in 2018. He wrecked race leader Aric Almirola on the back straightaway on the final lap and did not get collected in the carnage himself. But like in 2017, three different drivers led the race’s final three laps. Denny Hamlin led eight laps before Almirola led the penultimate circuit and then wrecked.

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So what was once a rare trend happened yet again in 2021, and this time, it was McDowell breaking through for his first career Daytona 500 — and Cup Series — victory.