Orlando Sentinel

Cup Series needs Wallace, Jordan to take checkered flag

- Mike Bianchi

DAYTONA BEACH — On Friday, one of the Twitter poll questions we were debating on our radio show included this question: Which potential winner would make for the best story for NASCAR at Sunday’s Daytona 500?

The four choices included: (1) Denny Hamlin getting a Daytona 500 3-Peat; (2) The great Kyle Busch finally winning his first Daytona 500; (3) Bubba Wallace winning in Michael Jordan’s car; (4) Ryan Newman winning one year after his death-defying crash.

We could have had 25 choices and journeyman Michael McDowell winning his first

Cup series race after 14 years of trying would not have made the list. But that’s exactly what happened when McDowell won the rain-delayed Daytona 500 early Monday morning after Penske Racing teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were running 1-2 but crashed on the final lap.

That left McDowell to shockingly collect his first career win in the Great American Race after 357 previous races of coming up short. McDowell led the only lap that counted — the final one — and his victory was a testament to dedication, perseveran­ce and never giving up on yourself.

Hopefully, Bubba Wallace was taking notes.

As heartwarmi­ng as McDowell’s victory was, it will not resonate with the masses or move NASCAR forward in any way. In my mind, only Wallace and

the importance of the Great American Race and, more important, his father’s challengin­g, circuitous path in the sport of racing.

“I talk to them about those things,” McDowell said of his children.

McDowell has quite a story to share, beginning with his perilous jump to the Cup Series from ARCA as a 23-year-old in 2008 to race for Michael Waltrip’s Racing’s nascent team.

McDowell was out by the end of the season and would not complete a full Cup Series schedule until 2017.

Following his breakthrou­gh win, McDowell hopes his kids realize this wisdom of their father’s message: Nothing in life is guaranteed, yet the rewards can be endless.

The Daytona 500 victory is a textbook case of perseveran­ce and self-belief paying off.

“I think that’s what it’s all about is just not giving up and just keep fighting hard,” the Phoenix native said. “I think that that’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, but that’s the moral of everyday life. That’s the moral of our race team, and we just keep fighting hard, and you just never know what’s possible.”

True to his humble persona and hardscrabb­le story, McDowell drives for Front Row Motorsport­s.

The organizati­on is perhaps the best of the small-budget race teams in the Cup Series, but cannot match the resources of the heavyweigh­ts Joe Gibbs, Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick pour into the enterprise.

“Hey, I get it,” McDowell said. “... Don’t you think I want to drive Joey Logan’s or Kyle Busch’s car every weekend?”

But late Sunday night, McDowell and Front Row were not taking a backseat to anyone. He and his team were firmly in the mix as the final laps were winding down.

Those out on the track expected nothing less.

McDowell finished in the top-10 in the 2018 and 2019 Dayona 500s and had not finished outside the top-15 during the previous five races.

“He really does find himself at the front and finishing many of these races quite often,” third-place finisher Austin Dillon.

Yet, McDowell also had never finished off one of his late-race runs.

McDowell entered the final lap trailing leader Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski — a pair of Penske Fords and superspeed­way maestroes. But when Logano looked to hold off his teammate the two cars collided to clear McDowell’s path to victory.

“Brad was turning right, Joey was turning left and I went right through the middle,’’ McDowell said.

And straight into the history books, alongside the names of many of the best drivers in NASCAR history.

For every Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt or Jimmie Johnson, there is a Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin or Kyle Busch — champion drivers whose names are noticeably missing from Daytona’s Harley J. Earl Trophy.

“I know a lot of people are asking, ‘Who the heck is Michael McDowell and how is he wearing this Daytona 500 ring?’” said McDowell, a 100-to-1 longshot entering Sunday.

McDowell did not himself have a clear answer as he fielded questions from reporters until well past 2 a.m. Monday.

McDowell made sure not to oversell his struggle. But this unlikely Daytona 500 champion’s tale inevitably had a moral to it.

It was well past bedtime in the McDowell household, but he could not wait to get home to share the story with his children.

“I wouldn’t say like there was super lows where I was eating top ramen noodles and scraping to stay alive,” McDowell said. “But when you show up to the racetrack and you know that you’re — I don’t even know how to say it. You’re just in the way, taking up space, it’s hard to do that year after year and week after week, and so you’ve got to have a bigger purpose than that

“For me, it was knowing that I would get an opportunit­y eventually.”

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