Ford Pit Strategy Helps Michael McDowell Capture Daytona 500 Win

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Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, FL — February 14, 2021

The NASCAR Cup Series kicks off the 2021 season today at Daytona International Speedway with the Great American Race, The Daytona 500. Storylines are abundant. The pandemic continues, so the grandstands will not be packed as Denny Hamlin goes for an unprecedented record 3rd straight win in stock car racing’s premier event.

Daytona International Speedway / Lasco Press Photo

NASCAR’s most popular driver, Chase Elliott, begins the defense of his 2020 Cup Championship. Driver seat swaps are plentiful. Bubba Wallace slips behind the wheel of the 23XI team’s new entry by owners Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. Byron, Michigan’s favorite son, Erik Jones, teams with The King, Richard Petty to pilot the iconic 43 from Richard Petty Motorsports.

Aric Almirola, a Tampa native, hopes the Tampa Bay magic of the Stanley Cup-winning Lightning and Super Bowl Champion Buccaneers continues. He already added a victory of his own taking the win in one of Thursday’s Bluegreen Vacations Duels. He then called out Clint Bowyer, the Chiefs fan from Kansas City who joined the Fox Broadcast booth for 2021.

Kyle Busch, the 2019 Cup Champion, seeks to redeem himself from a poor 2020 when he did not even qualify for the NASCAR playoffs. He’s off to a good start, winning the Busch Clash with a last-second pass mere yards from the checkered flag. The Daytona 500 is the only crown jewel of the sport Kyle has not captured.

NASCAR Remembers

Today’s race is the 20th anniversary of the event in which Dale Earnhardt lost his life. Everyone at the track and in the garage is well aware of the dangers of the sport. Ryan Newman returns to the scene of his horrific crash last year that almost resulted in a similar disaster.

The crew of Richard Childress Racing displays a #3 flag to honor Dale Earnhardt prior to the running of the Daytona 500, 20 years after Dale Sr was involved in a fatal accident at the track. / NASAR Photo

Kyle Larson races in the Cup Series for the 1st time since his suspension for using a racial slur during last year’s covid shutdown iRacing events. Will the fans forgive and welcome him back? Team owner Rick Hendrick, who gave Larson his ride this year, will be watching. So will series sponsors.

The Starting Grid

Alex Bowman and William Byron earned front-row starting positions based on Pole Qualifying speeds from Wednesday evening. Byron was involved in an on-track incident during his Duel race and will move to the rear of the field after going to a backup car.

Bowman had engine issues in Duel 1, but his crew was able to make repairs and avoid the penalty for making an engine change at Daytona. Erik Jones was not so lucky, RPM replaced the engine in the 43 car and he will start from the rear in today’s race and next week’s race on the Dayton Road Course.

Bubba Wallace will start from the back of the pack also as his car failed pre-race inspection twice. Not the best of beginnings for the new team. Other drivers moving to the rear for adjustments made after accidents during Thursday’s qualifying races.

  • Brad Keselowski, (qualified: 24th)
  • Kaz Grala, (qualified: 40th)
  • Martin Truex Jr. (qualified: 26th)
  • Anthony Alfredo, (qualified: 36th)
  • Cole Custer, (qualified: 27th)
  • Ross Chastain, (qualified: 34th)

That should not be an issue for any of these drivers as moving from the rear to the front in a few laps is possible given what we have seen so far during speedweek. In fact, some more drivers may choose to join them, during the first few laps, hoping to avoid the “Big One” riding out time in the rear until the final segment of the race.

Stages for the 500 are 65/65/70 laps, 200 circuits of the 2.5-mile speedway make up the race distance. There is rain in the forecast for later today in Daytona.

The Start

With William Byron(24) moving to the rear, Duel 2 winner Austin Dillon(3) moves to the front row next to Alex Bowman(48) for the start. Kevin Harvick(4) found the rear bumper of Bowman and pushed him to the lead. Harvick dropped down to assist the run of Aric Almirola(10) and the pair of Ford Mustangs hooked up to move well out into the lead.

The yellow flag flew on Lap 3 as 62-year old former 500 winner Derrick Cope(15) bumped with Bubba Wallace(23). Cope tapped the wall and flattened a tire. The shredded rubber on the track brought out the day’s first caution. Cope, who has not run a Cup series race in 16 years, was making a nostalgic start 31 years after winning the 1990 Daytona 500. Ironically Cope’s win came after Dale Earnhart suffered a flat tire on the last lap allowing Cope to pass for the victory.

The “Big One”

On the restart, Harvick and Almirola resumed their two-car tandem at the front while the rest of the pack divided into three-wide racing behind them. On lap 14, the Big One occurred early. Kyle Busch(18), bump drafting with teammate Christopher Bell(20), sent Bell into the rear bumper of Almirola. The impact shot Almirola sideways where he locked up with Bowman sending both cars nose-first into the Turn 3 wall.

The “Big One” occurs early in the 2021 Daytona 500 / NASCAR Photo

With the incident occurring at the front of the field, total chaos ensued. A total of 16 vehicles were involved in the crash. Kurt Busch(1), Ryan Blaney(6), Tyler Reddick(8), Ryan Blaney(12), Chris Buescher(17), Bell, Martin Truex Jr.(19), Matt DeBenedetto(21), Byron, David Ragan(36), Anthony Alfredo(38), Erik Jones(43), Jamie McMurray(77), and Daniel Suarez(99) joined the wreck along with Almirola and Bowman.

A lightning strike adjacent to the speedway brought out the red flag on Lap 15 as the expected rain moved close. The skies opened up a few minutes later and the race went on pause. Work on cars is suspended during red flag conditions, so it will take a while before it can be determined if any of the race cars can be repaired and return to the track. Most will be retired to the garage.

Restart

After a 5:40:29 delay, the yellow flag was displayed and cars began to roll off pit lane. Almost everyone returned to pit road for service prior to the race going green. Reddick(-2 laps), McMurray(-2), Byron(-3), Truex(-4), and Kurt Busch(-4) were able to rejoin to the track.

Kaz Grala(16), BJ McLeod(78), Bell, Kyle Busch, and Chase Elliott(9) are the Top 5 as NASCAR has the field turning laps under caution to blow more heat onto the track as they ready for the green flag.

A number of drivers came to pit road to top off fuel and make sure they can make it to the end of the stage. Elliott, Dillon, Kyle Larson(5), Ryan Preece(37), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.(47) take over the top spots as the restart comes with 30 laps complete.

Another Caution

Byron was back flagged after a piece of the left rear fender on his car flew off and the rear bumper facia was flapping in the wind. He was forced to come to pit road for body panel repairs.

William Byron’s crew works to repair his damaged race car / NASCAR Photo

Quin Houff(00) ran over a piece of the debris, flattened a tire, and spun causing Chase Briscoe(14) to also lose control bringing out the caution flag again. Houff was towed to the garage as Briscoe limped back to pit road with body damage.

McMurray got the free pass on the caution and gained a lap back on the field. However, he still remains a lap down.

Back to Green

Back to racing with 22 laps to go in Stage 1. Hamlin, Brad Keselowski(2), Kyle Busch, Bubba Wallace(23), and Joey Logano(22) led the pack to the green flag. Positions behind the leader shifted around, but for the most part, drivers appeared content to run in single-file-line to near the end of the stage.

The scramble for Stage points began with a lap to go when the line broke apart. Hamlin held on for the stage win, some drivers gained positions, some lost them.

Stage 1 Results

Position Number Driver Points
1 11 Denny Hamlin 10
2 37 Ryan Preece 9
3 3 Austin Dillon 8
4 5 Kyle Larson 7
5 33 Austin Cindric* 6
6 20 Christopher Bell 5
7 23 Bubba Wallace 4
8 22 Joey Logano* 3
9 42 Ross Chastain 2
10 41 Cole Custer* 1

*Ford Mustang Drivers

With McMurray getting his 2nd lucky dog free pass of the race, 23 cars are on the lead lap for the start of Stage 2.

Stage 2

Hamlin won the race off pit road. He will be followed by Bell, Austin Cindric(33), Dillon, and Logano. Two-wide racing allowed several drivers to swap the lead on the restart. When cars settled out into single-file, Bell held the lead.

Green flag pit stops began on Lap 106 when most of the Ford Mustangs pitted together. As pit stops concluded and the lead pack was reforming the caution flag waved again.

A left rear tire going down on Bell’s car caused him to lose control. He bumped into Stenhouse who made slight contact with Larson. McMurray was also involved. Bell’s car suffered the most damage.

During the caution period, Kaz Grala’s right rear wheel caught fire. It was speculated a wheel bearing failure may have caused the axle grease to ignite. Safety crews doused the fire several times until it was extinguished. Only to have it reignite when Grala ill-advisedly returned to the track. He quickly returned and the car was retired for the evening.

Trouble for Kaz Grala / NASCAR Photo

Hamlin was back out front when the race resumed with 13 laps to go in the Stage. The race for Stage points began down the backstretch with a lap and a half to go. Hamlin won Stage 2 also, only after the lead was swapped several times on the last circuit before the green and white checkered flag fell.

Hamlin Wins Stage 2 / NASCAR Photo

The intensity on that final lap of the Stage was intense, almost resulting in another multi-car wreck. No doubt the finish will be exciting. Just 18 cars remain on the lead lap after Bell got the free pass.

Stage 2 Results

Position Number Driver Points
1 11 Denny Hamlin 10
2 4 Kevin Harvick* 9
3 23 Bubba Wallace 8
4 9 Chase Elliott 7
5 3 Austin Dillon 6
6 22 Joey Logano* 5
7 34 Michael McDowell* 4
8 5 Kyle Larson 3
9 18 Kyle Busch 2
10 2 Brad Keselowski* 1

*Ford Mustang Drivers

Final Stage

The final stage began after 11:00 pm at night with 70 laps still to run. Dillon led, followed by Hamlin, McDowell, Harvick, and Wallace.

Hamlin quickly returned to the top spot with Harvick following. Last year’s two winningest drivers were leading the Daytona 500. Harvick bump drafted Hamlin to get the pair separated from the two-wide racing and almost knocked Hamlin into the outside wall.

The move was successful as the cars strung out, content to run to the expected final pit stop of the race.

Those pit stops began with 31 laps to go as the Fords again pitted together. The other manufacturers followed suit. This time, team orders worked as planned. The Mustangs of Logano, Harvick, Cole Custer(41), Keselowski, and McDowell blew to the front as the rest of the pack tried to form up behind them.

The Finish

The lead pack consisted of 12 lead lap cars and Bubba Wallace who had to pit a 2nd time for a loose wheel. A major mistake for the new team on their final pit stop.

Hamlin went from the lead to the rear of the draft as a result of pit strategy and the timing of their stop. As the laps ticked off, all 15 cars on the lead lap bunched up into a single line.

Custer got shuffled out of position and dropped to 11th. Dillon moved up to 5th with Elliott in 6th. With 2 laps to go, Harvick lost the position battle and fell back. On the final lap, the  Penske teammates of Logano and Keselowski led followed by McDowell.

A Ford Mustang won the race, but not the one most people would have expected. The trio did an excellent job of blocking runs coming from drivers seeking to steal the win down the backstretch. As they formed up for the sprint to the finish McDowell bumped Keselowski in the rear, the #2 car got a little loose and tapped the leader Logano.

Logano spun to the bottom. Keselowski spun right, hard into the outside wall, and then got blasted by Kyle Busch. Michael McDowell drove through the middle and was in the lead with Chase Elliott on his bumper when the yellow flag ended the race.

McDowell came around to take the checkered flag but was unsure of the win until NASCAR checked the race video at the time the caution waved and determined the Front Row Motorsports driver was indeed the winner.

First NASCAR Cup Series Win for Michael McDowell in Daytona 500 / NASCAR Photo

It was the first win for the 16-year Cup veteran as he became the 8th driver to get their 1st career win in the Daytona 500.

Results of the 2021 Daytona 500

Position Number Driver Behind Laps
1 34 Michael McDowell 200
2 3 Austin Dillon 0.071 200
3 9 Chase Elliott 0.203 200
4 11 Denny Hamlin 0.410 200
5 4 Kevin Harvick 0.411 200
6 42 Ross Chastain 5.185 200
7 37 Ryan Preece 7.496 200
8 77 Jamie McMurray 14.630 200
9 7 Corey LaJoie 14.924 200
10 5 Kyle Larson 23.855 200
11 41 Cole Custer 30.656 200
12 22 Joey Logano wrecked 199
13 2 Brad Keselowski 0.120 199
14 18 Kyle Busch 0.403 199
15 33 Austin Cindric 1.435 199
16 20 Christopher Bell -1 199
17 23 Bubba Wallace -2 198
18 47 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -2 198
19 14 Chase Briscoe -3 197
20 53 Joey Gase -4 196
21 51 Cody Ware -4 196
22 1 Kurt Busch -5 195
23 78 BJ McLeod -5 195
24 52 Josh Bilicki -6 194
25 19 Martin Truex Jr. -7 193
26 24 William Byron -9 191
27 8 Tyler Reddick -12 188
28 16 Kaz Grala -85 115
29 0 Quin Houff -163 37
30 12 Ryan Blaney -186 14
31 17 Chris Buescher -186 14
32 38 Anthony Alfredo -186 14
33 21 Matt DiBenedetto -186 14
34 10 Aric Almirola -187 13
35 48 Alex Bowman -187 13
36 99 Daniel Suarez -187 13
37 36 David Ragan -187 13
38 6 Ryan Newman -187 13
39 43 Erik Jones -187 13
40 15 Derrike Cope -197 3