Entering Sunday’s NASCAR season-opening Daytona 500 — the “Great American Race” — driver Michael McDowell was a 100-1 underdog. After the race, which ended shortly after midnight in Florida thanks to two fiery crashes on either side of a rain delay that lasted nearly six hours, it was McDowell celebrating in victory lane.
The win marked his first in the Cup Series after only four top-five finishes in 357 previous Cup Series starts during his first 13 seasons.
>> Subscribe to Sports Spectrum Magazine for more stories where sports and faith connect <<
“I just can’t believe it,” McDowell said on the track immediately following the race. “I’ve just got to thank God. So many years just grinding it out and hoping for an opportunity like this.”
In the No. 34 car for Front Row Motorsports, McDowell was involved in the first crash on lap 15, but his car didn’t sustain enough damage to slow him down. He was third on the final lap when the two leading cars collided, causing another massive crash. McDowell emerged as the leader, and he held on to win. The final lap was the only lap he led.
During his press conference following the race, McDowell was asked if winning this race matches the dream.
“It does, but whether I win this race or not, it’s not what defines you,” he 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.”
It was Joey Logano who held the lead down the final stretch of the final lap, but his Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski tried to pass on the inside, and instead caused both to spin out. Logano was upset that he didn’t win the famed Daytona 500, but he was happy for McDowell.
“I feel like we had a great shot being where we were and leading on the last lap, but if we couldn’t win I’m really happy to see McDowell win this thing,” Logano told FOX. “He’s a great guy, a great person, a good leader in life and has helped me a lot in my life, so it’s very cool to see him win the Daytona 500.”
McDowell’s win also essentially secures him a spot in the playoffs this fall for the first time in his career. For the 36-year-old McDowell, his success to begin 2021 is a sweet reward for his countless hours of work without a win to show for it.
“There’s been lots of years where I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it? I always knew if I just kept grinding that one day everything will line up and go right,” McDowell said after the race.
He later expounded, saying, “When you show up to the race track, 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. So you’ve got to have a bigger purpose than that. For me, it was knowing that I would get an opportunity eventually.”
McDowell told the Sports Spectrum Podcast in early 2019 that he has relied on his faith in God throughout his career, and he wants others to know about the love of Jesus too.
“I’m passionate about people coming to know Christ,” McDowell said. “Part of that is just a realization that you’re either alive in Christ or you’re dead. There’s no in-between.”
McDowell explained that he did not grow up learning about Christianity. When some of his racing mentors introduced him to the faith, it was unlike anything he’d encountered before. Soon after, McDowell sustained a horrific accident in qualifying at the 2008 Samsung 500 in which his car slammed against the wall before barrel-rolling to a stop. Amazingly, McDowell walked away from the wreckage unscathed and went on to race that weekend.
Through his brush with death, God revealed to McDowell the true power of the racing platform he’d been given.
“Once I fully surrendered, I realized that I love speaking and I love talking with people,” he said on the podcast, “and if I’m going to do that, then I need to be doing it, 1) to glorify God, and 2) to lead people to Christ. … That area between your feet, that’s your mission field.”
In 2014, McDowell also spoke with Sports Spectrum about his faith, how he sees his position in NASCAR and what he feels God is calling him to.
Now with a Daytona 500 victory to his name, McDowell will try to win again at NASCAR’s next scheduled race, the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 at Daytona on Feb. 21 at 3 p.m. ET.