DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Michael McDowell was glued to Brad Keselowski’s bumper, watching and waiting for his chance to win the Daytona 500. Joey Logano was the leader, the laps were winding down and yet no one had the nerve to pull out of traffic. McDowell was certain Keselowski would go for it eventually, and when he did, McDowell would play his hand.
On the final lap, Keselowski attempted to dart around Logano, but Logano threw a block on his teammate that crashed them both. McDowell stayed right where he was, flat in the gas, and drove through a crash scene for a stunning upset. 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. 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 going for his first Daytona 500 win. And all the way at the back of the field, 1990 Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope made 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 was considered the biggest in race history. McDowell didn’t take that title from Cope, partly because McDowell is a strong superspeedway racer capable of mixing it up with the usual suspects. If he could ever find himself in the right place at the right time, McDowell figured he could steal a win. McDowell was in the mix even before the two Penske cars derailed the finish. His Ford was strong enough to push Keselowski, and McDowell figured with the checkered flag in sight, he’d try to pass Keselowski as they exited the final turn.
Logano’s block of Keselowski — it seemed late, Keselowski had already started to pull alongside his teammate — triggered a fiery multi-car pileup that was in McDowell’s rearview mirror. McDowell, who led less than half of a lap, drag-raced Elliott and Austin Dillon until NASCAR finally called a caution. A batch of solid contenders were 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. McDowell held off Elliott and Dillon. Harvick finished fourth, and Hamlin was fifth after leading a race-high 98 laps. Only 11 cars finished on the lead lap.