DAYTONA BEACH, Fla — The pay window was open and Michael McDowell cashed in on the final lap of last year’s 63rd annual Daytona 500. A 66-1 betting line makes him an underdog winner by definition. He’s a deserving winner though and one that should be actually be applauded. McDowell has always been a good superspeedway racer and always on the cusp of victory on them.
This year, Austin Cindric was 30-1 and he prevailed. That’s four first time Daytona 500 winners in the last six years. Now in saying that, does this win tarnish the Daytona 500 a bit or instead do the opposite — make it even greater?
Case for Tarnish
In the case of tarnishing it, the Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s Super Bowl. It’s their biggest race of the year. It’s an event to where legends of the sport are made. You have Petty, Earnhardt, Allison, Yarborough, Jarrett, Waltrip, Gordon, Johnson, Hamlin, etc all as winners. But, do fluke winners dilute this star studded list?
A Daytona 500 champion should be a special class of drivers. It’s like the Hall of Fame. You don’t just let anyone in that fraternity. Does the somewhat recent nature of what some consider fluke winners dilute this?
Out of the 64 year history of this race, we’ve had just nine drivers now earn their first career Cup win in it. Four of those nine in the last six years.
Really, this all was predicated by the restrictor plate era. There were only nine drivers combined between the ‘500 and the ‘400 to notch their first career Cup victories at the World Center of Racing prior to the restricted air on these cars. There’s been 13 in the 34 years since, with three now coming in the last four seasons.
The thing is, out of the 22 first time Cup winners to occur in Daytona, 13 of which occurred during the ‘400. For the Daytona 500, the list is just Tiny Lund (1963), Mario Andretti (1967), Pete Hamilton (1970), Derrike Cope (1990), Sterling Marlin (1994), Michael Waltrip (2001), Trevor Bayne (2011), Michael McDowell (2021) and Cindric.
Lund, Andretti and Hamilton would make names for themselves. Hamilton only made 64 career Cup starts but he won four of them. Lund and Andretti don’t require further assessment.
Cope stole a win in 1990. He’d only win twice in 428 career Cup starts. Bayne, won in just his second career start in 2011 but hasn’t won in the 185 starts since. Waltrip, was 0-for-462 before his triumph. He did win another Daytona 500 and look vastly improved with DEI than he was before. Then you get McDowell who was 0-for-357 prior to his triumph.
Cindric was just 0-for-7 so it’s far too early to know the course of his future.
Austin Dillon scored his second career victory in the Daytona 500. Kurt Busch earned his first and only superspeedway win a year prior.
Does this hurt the cause for the Daytona 500 winners fraternity? The races are being won by a more random nature than skill. My question is, does this dilute it?
“It’s been frustrating to not get a great finish here in the 500,” Alex Bowman said. “Obviously we’ve had some other superspeedway success, and we want to win this deal. This is the Daytona 500. Everybody wants to win this deal. We’ve just got to get through the whole race. We just haven’t been able to get through the whole race, and it hasn’t ever really been our fault. We’ve always had great driving race cars, fast race cars, led laps, but just got to get to the end. I feel like if we do that we’re going to have a shot at it.
“But yeah, it’s a really hard race to win. So many things have to go right. Your day has to go so well, and it’s hard. It’s tough to do.”
Brad Keselowski has seven points paying superspeedway wins, most among all drivers. He’s 0-for-13 in this race.
“That’s been the hardest part for me,” Keselowski said in 2019. “I feel we’ve been good enough to win it multiple times. We get caught up in somebody else’s wreck or problem. I think you see that a lot.
“Besides the luck factor, first things first, you got to be running at the end of that race. For whatever reason, I think maybe because it’s the first race of the year, maybe because it’s one of the biggest races of the year, I’m not entirely sure, but the Daytona 500 has traditionally been a race of very high attrition. Getting to the end has been very difficult for us.
“It’s probably kept us from winning it at least once or twice because, like I said earlier, I think we’ve had the car to do it. I think that’s a big part of why it’s so hard to win, the attrition factor, just surviving it to begin with.
“Again, of course, it is a difficult racetrack. This time of year, Florida is a lot hotter than most parts of North America, but this time of year it seems to be one of those racetracks that you practice and you qualify, then the race day, for whatever reason, the track temp goes way up, the cars slide around a lot more, chaos ensues. Trying to survive to the end for me is the biggest part.
“The races we have survived till the end, we have ran really well and been in a position to win. Hopefully that’s the case for us this year. I feel confident if I can be there at the end, we can win the race.”
Kyle Busch is 0-for-17. Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-18. Kyle Larson is 0-for-9.
“We’ll just keep going down in history of figuring out new ways to lose it,” Busch said in 2020.
Four of the last seven years saw the winner lead only one lap, the final one. Five of the last seven have seen a last lap pass for the win too. As Denny Hamlin said after last year’s race, he was “too far out front.”
He had the fastest car by a mile. He has the most skill in the field. He led 98 laps. Since when in racing is being too far in the lead a bad thing?
It is in superspeedway races though. You need drafting help to win them.
Also, does NASCAR wish that they didn’t throw the yellow out so quick a year ago now? Yes, it was a scary crash and I get the notion to throw the yellow out once we saw flames and chaos. In hindsight, everyone was okay and if the yellow doesn’t fly, Chase Elliott likely wins this race.
Doesn’t the defending series champion and three-time defending Most Popular Driver winning the Great American Race punch more weight than McDowell?
If the answer is yes, then doesn’t that answer the question of this topic? This is one of the only four races on the schedule to where literally everyone can win. Does that now deserve the praise of the biggest race if that’s the case?
The Case For It Adding To The Prestige
This piece is to just make you think so there’s no right or wrong answer to this. But, I can also make a case to where McDowell’s heroics last year and Cindric’s on Sunday add to the Daytona 500 lore too. The randomness nature of speedway racing makes winning here feel like you hit the lottery. That too can lead to an overwhelming feeling of joy because imagine your feeling if you did in fact hit the lottery personally.
That plus the race being dubbed the Daytona 500 gives you a large sense of joy. The fact that anyone can win this race and you have to be more lucky than anything else makes this overwhelmingly tougher to win. The four superspeedway races are the toughest races to win on the schedule as a result. Shouldn’t that punch weight too?
This race should be hard to win. It’s the biggest race. It shouldn’t be easy. That’s also why these wins should be praised. It shows how difficult it is to win here. The top drivers aren’t guaranteed a win and the levels the playing field for everyone.
Doesn’t that hold some merit?
Some of the greats have never won this race. It took Earnhardt 20 years of trying. Waltrip took almost two decades himself. Terry Labone finished 0-for-32. Rusty Wallace was 0-for-23. Mark Martin was 0-for-29. Tony Stewart ended 0-for-17. These are Hall of Famers.
Martin Truex Jr. is 0-for-18 now. Kyle Busch is 0-for-17 and Brad Keselowski 0-for-13.
This club doesn’t just let anyone in is the point.
“I think ‘wild card’ is a bit gimmicky because it’s not really true, but it is to some extent,” Denny Hamlin said. “We’ve seen a lot of first-time winners here which has all been really legit. I wouldn’t say Michael McDowell was a wild card winner because if you look at previous races, he’d been in the top 10 or top five pretty consistently. It wasn’t really an out of the blue shot there. But, in general, I just think I have a good understanding of the air here and how it moves around the walls. Talladega is different. If you look at our results, we haven’t won as much at Talladega, but we’ve been pretty good. Here, there is just something about – whatever it is – the banking or the width of the track, height of the walls or something that I just kind of know where those little pockets of air are it seems like that are a little bit better. We have a new car now and it’s going to move around a little bit different and we will probably be learning just like everyone else will be this weekend. I don’t know that the advantage really will be as big as what it was in the past.”
That’s why this is an interesting topic and I’m curious which side of the fence the race fans are on.