Who… should you be talking about after the race?
With duct tape on the hood and all hell breaking loose around him, Michael McDowell drove through a fiery last-lap crash and held off Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon just long enough for the caution flag to fly, winning his first career NASCAR Cup Series race on the sport’s biggest and brightest stage.
There are few tracks where teams like Front Row Motorsports can compete equally with the wealthier teams. Simply put, money buys speed, and that doesn’t allow a group of drivers who are better than most people realize to show their talent much. Instead, they’re often maligned for finishing where their equipment is capable of (and sometimes better). This year’s Great American Race showed that running a smart, capable race still matters.
McDowell’s reaction to his win was genuine, and a reminder that nothing in this sport comes easily.
“I just can’t believe it. The only thing I can think of is just God is so good,” he said. “For so many years I’ve just been grinding it out trying to stay in this sport. Bob Jenkins gave me a great opportunity to go full-time in a competitive car and Drew Blickensderfer and my whole entire team.
“We’ve been working so hard for years to get into this position and I’m so thankful to Love’s Travel Stops and SpeedCo and Ford, Doug Yates. All of my Ford partners out there, we had a good plan coming to the white and unfortunately, Joey and Brad got together and the hole opened up. I just can’t believe it. I’m so thankful. It’s amazing.”
Speaking of good superspeedway drivers, despite not running a race since the 2019 Daytona 500, Jamie McMurray piloted the No. 77 Spire Motorsports machine to a top-10 result, finishing eighth. McMurray, the 2010 Daytona 500 Champion, had damage to his Chevrolet from an earlier incident but he was able to stay in the lead draft and snag the top 10.
On a night where many of the faces in the top 10 were unfamiliar ones, McMurray’s was only a surprise because of his underfunded ride. He’ll return to the television studio next week, where he has proven to be an excellent analyst, but on Sunday, he reminded us why he can give good insight on how to run a race.
What… is the buzz about?
And so it begins again, everything new, the road ahead stretching to the horizon, everything still a possibility. Simple in all its complexity, the past never really that far away and always keeping watch, and once again, it’s time.
The promise of a new season is ripe with possibility. And while some of that will, inevitably, fade and change in the coming weeks and months, the beginning of everything never fails to make the heart race in time with the thrumming of the engines. For this one day, this moment, all is new, and all is right. Drink it in this year as in every other one. Embrace it, breathe its essence. For this one day, anything is possible. It’s racing season again.
Where… did the other key players wind up?
Polesitter Alex Bowman was looking to make an impression in his first race in the No. 48, a car that Jimmie Johnson took to victory lane 83 times. Unfortunately for Bowman, he was caught up in a multi-car wreck and was forced to retire after completing just 13 laps. He finished 35th, a result that’s more indicative of racing at Daytona than anything Bowman did.
New defending Cup champion Elliott fared considerably better than teammates Bowman and William Byron (finished 26th), finishing second to McDowell after the last-lap shakeup. New teammate Kyle Larson was also strong in his Hendrick Motorsports debut, coming home 10th after nearly a year out of the driver’s seat.
First-time Daytona 500 starters Chase Briscoe, Anthony Alfredo and Austin Cindric all learned just how difficult the sport’s biggest race can be. None of the rookies caused any trouble, but trouble found all three. Alfredo, teammate to winner McDowell, was one of the victims of the early crash, finishing 32nd after his team ran out of time to make repairs to his Ford. Briscoe tangled with the No. 00 of Quin Houff after the No. 24 of Byron dropped debris in Houff’s path, leaving Briscoe 19th, three laps down. He was at least able to finish the race and log laps, which will serve him well. Cindric was running with the lead pack on the final lap, but when his Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski tangled fighting for the lead, Cindric was caught in the aftermath, winding up a still-respectable 15th.
Denny Hamlin, in his bid to make history with a third straight Daytona 500 win, made just one mistake as he and the Toyota contingent got caught off guard on the last pit sequence and got broken up. He had too big a lead, and was a sitting duck when the field got organized. Being a bit further back in the lead pack may have saved Hamlin’s finish, though. He came in fifth, while teammate Kyle Busch, who had been ahead of him, got caught in the carnage on the final lap.
When… was the moment of truth?
Everybody knows about death and taxes, but race fans know that in recent years, there’s a third inevitability: multi-car crashes at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. This year’s Daytona 500 included a pair of big incidents and a couple of smaller ones that involved a total of 29 cars.
The fireball on the final lap, triggered by contact between Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano, wasn’t intentional. In fact, it wasn’t really even anyone’s fault. Keselowski got a push from McDowell and thought he had a run. The teammates got together and it ended with Keselowski’s car in flames.
NASCAR has an opportunity with the new racecar on the horizon, to create a superspeedway package that breaks up the pack. But will that happen? Superspeedway races before the big packs dominated featured smaller packs of cars coming and going, setting up true slingshot passes in the draft, and often a late pass for the win.
But will it happen? In an era when a near-fatal crash like Ryan Newman’s last year makes the highlight reels a year later, this one is certainly spectacular enough that it will be used to entice fans to tune in when the series returns to Daytona. And therein lies the root of the problem. The networks use these kinds of crashes to attract viewers and it works. Will they be keen to give that gift-wrapped highlight reel up? Not likely… and their money talks.
Why… should you be paying attention this week?
After the dust clears from the season opener (that Penske team meeting might be a little tense), what was to be the start of the annual West Coast venture at Fontana was put on ice due to continuing COVID-19 concerns. That decision, which came late in 2020, put NASCAR on the spot to find a venue for the second race of 2021. The choice was made to keep teams in Daytona for another week, this time racing on the track’s infield road course. It adds another road course to a schedule already stacked with them, but it wasn’t a bad move given the 11th-hour need.
The Busch Clash was originally moved to the road course in part so that qualified teams wouldn’t have extra practice for the 500, but as it turned out, they had it for this race instead. If that race was an indication of who will have the cars to beat Sunday, the Joe Gibbs Racing camp might have the edge, even over recent road-course ace Elliott. The Toyotas of winner Kyle Busch, Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. could seemingly run up front at will, with only Ryan Blaney looking to have anything for them without using pit strategy. Will Elliott’s reign on the right-handers end Sunday? Or will he find a little more and make strategy count when the rubber hits the road course?
How… many times have we seen this rerun?
It’s understandable that FOX wants to maximize viewership and race into the evening, up against its new primetime shows to keep people tuned in. But late afternoon and evening in Daytona Beach all too often mean rain, no matter the time of year. Time and again the Great American Race has been derailed by rain delays, and time after time it gets scheduled in the late afternoon anyway.
Had the race begun at the once-traditional and almost universal 1 p.m. ET, it would have been official, if not over, when the rains came. Yes, that’s 10 in the morning on the West Coast, but that’s late enough that most people are either up or will get up to watch if they’re fans and have plenty of time after it’s over for a good lawn mowing and Sunday supper.
There’s a time and place for late afternoon and evening races; the Coca-Cola 600 is a good example of that. While the racing is better by day, fans like night races anyway, and it’s usually a typical hot and sultry Southern summer night by then.
But those late-day Daytona rains suggest that the sport’s premier race isn’t the time or place. The summer night race isn’t much better. And that’s not likely to change. Sadly, neither is NASCAR and the networks’ insistence that maybe next time will be different and setting up the next race and the next and the next for the same wet outcome.