By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Reporter
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Daytona 500 is known for the occasional surprise, and it delivered early Monday morning at Daytona International Speedway.
Michael McDowell won for the first time in his 358th career start after Brad Keselowski tapped leader and teammate Joey Logano on the backstretch of the final lap as Logano tried to block the Keselowski move.
McDowell, running third, inherited the lead. He won the race moments later, when the caution came out as Keselowski’s car went airborne and atop the car of Kyle Busch.
“My plan was to stick to the 2 car [of Keselowski],” McDowell said. “I knew he would go for a race-winning move, and my plan was to let him make that move and then coming off of [Turn] 4 to try to get to his outside or inside.
“I knew I didn’t want to make my move too early, so I was committed to the 2 car’s bumper, and when he made the move, the hole opened up. It’s just unbelievable.”
No one was injured in the wreck in a race that started with an early, big crash on Lap 14, then had a 5-hour, 40-minute rain delay before racing resumed. With 11 cars already out of the race, drivers stayed mostly single file until that final move.
The win wasn’t just the first for the 36-year-old from Arizona. It also put him in the playoffs for the first time in his career.
Here are three takeaways from the race:
MCDOWELL SURPRISE, NOT SHOCK
This was McDowell’s 20th start at Daytona, and he was fourth in the July race in 2017. He finished fifth in the 2018 Daytona 500.
“I know it’s going to sound crazy,” McDowell said. “But I always think I’m going to win this race.”
Seeing McDowell near the front at the end wasn’t a total shock, though Front Row Motorsports had won just twice in its previous 17 years and 1,078 starts – once with David Ragan at Talladega and with Chris Buescher in a fog-shortened race.
This was the fourth top-5 finish of McDowell’s career, with the three finishes at Daytona and a fifth at Talladega in October 2019.
His victory is the opposite of the 2011 win by Trevor Bayne, who won in his second career race.
“Whether I win this race or not, it’s not what defines you,” McDowell said. “It’s unbelievable, and I’m so thankful, but I’m thankful to have a happy, healthy family and a beautiful wife and a great family.
“Not everybody makes it to victory lane, and for 14 years, I didn’t. So just to be here now is just so amazing.”
KESELOWSKI MOVE ENDS PENSKE HOPES
Keselowski got a good run with the push from McDowell, but Logano was having none of it and attempted to get in front of Keselowski — to no avail.
“I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everybody else’s car,” Keselowski said. “So frustrating.”
It didn’t seem Keselowski and Logano were too happy with each other afterward, and that is understandable. The reason they both are at Team Penske is because of the bullheadedness and competitiveness that have made them NASCAR Cup Series champions.
“I was trying to back up to him to keep the runs from being too big and just, I guess … it ended up being a really big run coming at me, and it seemed like we all just collided in one spot,” Logano said. “It’s a real bummer that none of the Penske cars won.”
Although there are hurt feelings, there also is the realization that sometimes stuff happens on a track such as Daytona. McDowell’s car, with a broken rear spoiler, likely was the best pusher in the field, but it wasn’t expected that he could make a move for the win.
“Everybody has to make their own decisions, and that was his decision,” Kevin Harvick, who finished fourth, said of Keselowski’s move. “I don’t think he was going to win from there, but he definitely had the best pusher behind him with the broken spoiler. … He thought he was in a good position, and that was probably his best chance to win.
“So you can’t blame him for doing that.”
TOYOTA NUMBERS HURT HAMLIN
Denny Hamlin led 98 laps, but with Toyota having only five cars in the field, the Toyotas were buried deep in the lead pack after they pitted under green with 27 laps remaining. Behind four Fords and several Chevrolets, Hamlin knew there wasn’t much he could do.
“It was the first time that a lack of numbers really played a big role in the finish,” Hamlin said. “We pitted when we did and … I don’t know what we could have done different. Our fate was sealed when we got shuffled there, and everyone committed [to] going single file until the last lap.
“I thought the Chevrolets would make a move.”
With the outside lane the best lane, Hamlin didn’t have many options to make a move to win, despite having a great car. He finished fifth in his attempt to become the first driver to win three consecutive Daytona 500s.
“I’m certainly disappointed simply because we had a dominant car and won the stages and led a lot of laps,” Hamlin said. “I hate being helpless. I hate not being able to do anything, not being able to use the skill set that I have to make moves.”
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