NASCAR: Hamlin and Harvick picking up where they left off in 2020

Alex Bowman, NASCAR

During last year’s unprecedented NASCAR Cup Series season, we saw Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin become the two most dominant drivers over the course of the season. Although neither won the championship, the duo combined for 16 wins and 38 top-5s.

And now, three races into the 2021 season, Harvick and Hamlin have picked up right where they left up. Both are winless thus far but have run up front in all three races of the Florida slate and currently lead in points.

To open the season, both drivers managed to avoid the last-lap crash of the Daytona 500 and placed in the top-5. Hamlin ran up front all day and won the first two stages of the race, but green flag pit-stops shuffled him to the back of the pack and out of contention. Harvick quietly ran towards the front all day, missing the lap 14 crash and other incidents.

A week later at the road course, Hamlin placed 3rd and Harvick placed 6th. Hamlin won another stage and ran up front, while Harvick didn’t make a push until towards the end of the race.

At Homestead, Harvick registered a 5th place finish while Hamlin finished 11th. Harvick was solid all-day, while Hamlin battled. Hamlin believed the car was losing power early and struggled, but got the car up front by the beginning of stage three. However, a pit road speeding penalty sent Hamlin to the rear, and could never recover.

Although they haven’t won yet this year, Hamlin and Harvick are by far the two fastest cars once again in 2021. They are the only two drivers to have placed consistent finishes this year and show promise at three different track types. As NASCAR heads to another intermediate track this weekend in Las Vegas, look for Hamlin and Harvick to run up front again and contend for the win.

NASCAR: William Byron dominates final stage at Homestead-Miami

William Byron led the final 58 laps of the Dixie Vodka 400 to earn his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory.

Hendrick Motorsports ruled the day at Homestead-Miami Speedway, as William Byron brought the team’s iconic No. 24 Chevrolet to victory lane at the Dixie Vodka 400. Byron earned his second career NASCAR Cup Series victory, the 264th in HMS history. Hendrick is now four wins away from tying Richard Petty for the most wins as a Cup Series team owner.

Byron took his first extended lead of the race at lap 160 of 267, when stole the second stage victory from Martin Truex Jr. The win in the second 80-lap stage was settled in a single session shootout after Corey LaJoie’s down vehicle brought out a caution. Byron dominated the final 107 laps, leading all but the final eight circuits to secure his first victory since last summer’s regular-season finale at Daytona. His victory in just his third Cup race with crew chief Rudy Fugle, with whom he previously collaborated on seven wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

The win was earned shortly after the last caution flag of the day flew at lap 200 for a get-together between Aric Almirola and Ryan Blaney. Byron lost a few positions after the stops, but a strong restart allowed him to swipe the lead from Truex once again by lap 210, a lead earned through a push from his teammate Kyle Larson. He eventually built a five-second lead over the final laps to earn the victory, the first for HMS since Chase Elliott won the 2020 season finale at Phoenix last November.

Byron’s victory is also the first for Chevrolet after Ford and Toyota respectively took the first two events of 2021. Those races, each coming at Daytona International Speedway, put Byron in an early points hole. Wrecks marred the season-opening Daytona 500, as he lost separate cars in his Bluegreen Vacations Duel qualifying race and in a multi-vehicle pile-up in the main event. After finishing a lap down in 33rd last weekend on Daytona’s road course, Byron sat in 29th place in the Cup Series standings. He came into Homestead simply hoping for a strong run but departed with his first career victory on a 1.5-mile track. His best prior finish at such a venue was a fifth-place posting at Kansas last October.

“It was a tough start to the season, but we didn’t really think about that going into this week,” Byron said. “We just thought about executing a good race. It’s always nice when the speed is there, but I feel like we put in the effort to make sure it was, and it was kind of a flawless weekend really.”

With the win, Byron is now more or less guaranteed a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. He has reached the playoffs in each of his last seasons, each of those clinches came down to the last event of the 26-race regular season. He is the third different winner in three different 2021 events, joining Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell, who each won in the Cup Series for the first time.

“It’s going to be fun this year,” Byron declared. “I think I’ve spent kind of a lot of my Cup Series career kind of on the bubble of the playoffs and now I don’t have to worry about that. It’s crazy; I’m going to take all that stuff in, and just got a great team, got an awesome crew chief. It’s going to be a fun year.”

Tyler Reddick earned his second top five in as many Cup starts at Homestead, putting on a late charge to finish second ahead of Truex and Larson. Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell continued his surprisingly strong opening run with a sixth-place finish. This marks the first time both McDowell and his team, Front Row Motorsports, have earned three consecutive top ten finishes at any point in their tenures. McDowell and Harvick are the only drives to earn top ten finishes in each of the first three races this season.

 

  • Chris Buescher won the first stage and led 57 laps, the most a Roush Fenway Racing Ford has led since Greg Biffle led 58 at Talladega in October 2014. However, Buescher faded later in the race and wound up in 19th. The day was not a total loss for RFR, as Ryan Newman finished seventh in the No. 6 Ford.

 

  • Points leader Denny Hamlin sat on the pole, but was forced to start at the rear after making unapproved adjustments to his No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Hamlin made it to the front by the midway point of the race and even battled Truex aggressively for the second stage win (drawing Truex’s ire over the radio) but a pit road speeding penalty forced him to start from scratch. Hamlin finished 11th and continues to hold a 20-point advantage over Harvick for the points lead.

 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers in need of a strong run this weekend at Homestead-Miami

Through two races in the 2021 Cup Series season, we’ve seen some of NASCAR‘s top drivers have a mixed bag of results thus far. Denny Hamlin sits first in points after two top-5s to start the year, while Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick are right behind him.

However, there are a handful of drivers who have gotten off to brutal starts this year. Headlined by wrecks, Matt Dibenedetto, Tyler Reddick, and William Byron are already in a giant points hole and have a lot of work to do if they want to make the playoffs. All three drivers need strong runs this weekend at Homestead-Miami to begin their points comeback.

Matt DiBenedetto

DiBenedetto has gotten off to a terrible start in 2021, getting caught up in wrecks during both the Daytona 500 and the O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 Road Course race. He’s received just five points all season and sits 37th in points.

Homestead hasn’t ever been a great track for DiBenedetto, but he’s only raced there once in good equipment. He finished 14th there last season but has otherwise never placed in the top-20. This weekend’s a great time for DiBenedetto to finally get a top-10 in South Beach.

Tyler Reddick

Reddick, like DiBenedetto, has wrecked in both races to start 2021. A 27th place in the Daytona 500 and a 38th place finish at the Daytona Road Course puts him 33rd in points heading to Homestead-Miami.

This race is definitely one of the events that Reddick has had circled on the calendar for this season. Homestead-Miami is one of Reddick’s best tracks and a place where he could contend for the win. Reddick finished fourth in Homestead last year and won the Xfinity Series race there in both 2018 and 2019. Expect Reddick to run up front all day and collect a lot of stage points.

William Byron

Byron has had tough sledding to start 2021, wrecking in the Daytona 500 and finishing a lap down on the Road Course. 26th and 33rd place finishes have him 29th in points and well outside the playoff line.

In three Cup Series starts at Homestead, Byron has one top-10 and two finishes outside the top-20. He does, however, have a win in South Beach in the Camping World Truck Series and a top-5 in the Xfinity Series. Expect Byron to run up front and contend for the win and stage points.

 

NASCAR: Michael McDowell follows up win with strong comeback

McDowell’s Daytona defense got off to a brutal start, but he recovered to set a new landmark in his NASCAR Cup Series career.

The phrase “what have you done for me lately” makes the professional sports world go round. The greatest achievements can be quickly disregarded with poor follow-ups.

NASCAR’s Daytona 500 seems to situate its winner in a compromising position. Eternal motorsports glory accompanies the Harley J. Earl Trophy, but the race’s status as the opener to the NASCAR season put pressure on the winner to keep the good vibes going. Some winners never regain that swagger. A decade ago, for example, Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner of the event at 20 years and a day…he never visited victory lane again and last ran a full Cup Series season in 2017.

Michael McDowell is the latest winner of the prestigious race, executing a last-lap pass for the lead as a fiery pile-up erupted behind him in the wee hours of last Monday morning. The victory likely propelled his mid-budget Front Row Motorsports team into a playoff spot and McDowell spent the past week on a victory tour, appearing on nationally-aired talk shows like Fox & Friends and Live with Kelly and Ryan.

There quietly seemed to be a foreboding sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop for McDowell and the No. 34 Ford. After all, McDowell had been winless in the 357 races prior to last week’s win. Only Michael Waltrip, the winner of the star-crossed Daytona opener in 2001, had raced longer before visiting victory lane for the first time. His FRM equipment has never been able to consistently run with the circuit’s larger names. Save for a brief playoff appearance by Chris Buescher in the 2016 playoffs (earned through a rain-shortened win at Pocono), McDowell’s 23rd-place posting in 2020 was the best standings finish for an FRM vehicle.

Sure enough, McDowell’s day appeared to be headed south right from the get-go when NASCAR returned to Daytona on Sunday to the Cup Series’ O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 on the facility’s road course. Living up to his team name, McDowell’s performance from last weekend on the oval afforded him a starting position in the front row next to defending circuit champion Chase Elliott. But issues during the pace laps cost McDowell his steering, causing chaos in the first turn of the race that ate at his tires. The tire later fell off of the No. 34 entirely, bringing out the first caution flag of the day.

“We had a flat tire there coming to the green. I knew something was wrong,” McDowell said in recalling the incident, per quotes provided by Ford Racing Performance. “I should have just pitted, so I screwed that up and that hurt us a little bit.”

But, over the course of the 70-lap event, McDowell would go on to live up to the name many of his respectful competitors bestowed upon him after his Daytona victory: a grinder.

After all, McDowell has maintained consistent work in the Cup Series despite working with less-than-stellar equipment throughout his career. It’s led to some dubious history, including the record for the most last-place finishes in Cup Series history. But McDowell, a man of strong faith, continued to work with the hands dealt to him. It paid off over two events at Daytona.

“He’s been grinding his whole career and he finally won one and it’s the biggest race ever,” Joey Logan, a fellow Ford driver and road course race runner-up said of McDowell. “I’m ecstatic for him and he should be over the moon (about the win).”

Over the rest of the road course race, McDowell avoided trouble and used some strong strategy in conjunction with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer to create something out of nothing. As several contenders faded, McDowell worked his way back into the top ten and eventually brought the No. 34 Ford home in eighth-place. It marks the first time that McDowell has earned consecutive top ten finishes in his Cup career, which began with Waltrip’s race team in 2008.

McDowell’s name also appears alongside some elite company, and not just through his victory last week. He is one of three drivers to earn top ten finishes in each of the first two 2021 races (joining Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Preece) and is one of only three to finish in the top ten at each of the two races held at Daytona’s road course (Hamlin and Logano).

“Pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong today, but this is what our team is all about. Front Row Motorsports, we grind it out and we fought hard,” McDowell said. “We just kept the fight in it and ended up with another top 10, so it’s pretty crazy how that all went down.”

“It was another great run.  I’m really excited to keep this momentum going.  We’ve got to clean it up a little bit, but not a bad night altogether.”

McDowell and the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Christopher Bell steals first career win at Daytona Road Course

Bell’s late pass of Joey Logano allowed him to capture his first NASCAR Cup Series victory, a week after Michael McDowell earned his.

Joe Gibbs hasn’t coached in the NFL since 2007. Yet, his teams are still finding ways to win on Sunday.

Less than 24 hours after his grandson Ty earned a win in his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start, Gibbs’ unit at the premier Cup level also featured a first-time victor. Christopher Bell earned his first Cup Series victory at Daytona International Speedway’s road course in just his second career start in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Bell would pass Joey Logano with less than two laps remaining to secure the win.

“This is the happiest moment I’ve had in a very long time. 2020 was one of the hardest seasons I’ve ever had in my racing career,” Bell said. “To be able to come back in 21 and win in the Cup Series this early on a road course is something that I’m going to cherish for the rest of my life.”

Bell has been part of Gibbs’ developmental endeavors for several seasons, previously winning 16 races over three years in his Xfinity program. The 26-year-old also won the 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title in a Toyota Tundra owned by his current teammate Kyle Busch. His rookie season at the Cup level was a struggle, driving the No. 95 Toyota for the Gibbs-affiliated Leavine Family Racing. Bell struggled in lesser equipment but showed some speed in last season’s maiden voyage on Daytona’s road course.

Early in the race, Bell took an early risk, staying on the track during a caution for debris on the track toward the end of the first 16-lap stage while a majority of the rest of the field pitted. The No. 20 failed to earn stage points with a 12th-place finish, but there was no denying its speed. Defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, also the winner of the past four road course events, dominated the early portions of the race, but Bell’s Toyota was matching his times. Elliott and Bell were running in the top two spots after each pitted at lap 57 of 70 when a caution came out for rain.

Both Bell and Elliott visited pit road, but Elliott fell out of contention after two separate incidents with Corey LaJoie and later Bell’s teammate Denny Hamlin, relegating him to a 21st-place finish. Bell won the race off pit road and restarted 12th, quickly making his way through the field on fresher tires. He made it up to sixth after the Elliott-LaJoie get-together and another incident involving Tyler Reddick brought out cautions.

Going back green, Bell worked his way through on-track chaos and some of the sport’s most renowned names to earn his way to the front. His pass of Logano left behind Hamlin, as well as prior champions Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, and Kevin Harvick.

“The last lap was pretty surreal,” Bell recalled. “All race long I kind of felt like I was trying to do my best job and not screwing up, hit my marks, not overdriving the corners. Whenever I got by the 22 coming to the white flag, I knew I was faster than him. I ran him down from a while back. All I had to do was get a couple of good corners and get away.”

With his win, each of the first two events of the Cup Series season has featured a first-time winner, following Michael McDowell’s win at the Daytona 500 (run on the traditional oval) last weekend. This is the third time a season has opened with consecutive first-time winners, with such a feat also occurring in 1949 and 1950.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Dixie Vodka 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Race Notes

  • McDowell got into trouble on the first lap of the race, missing the first turn and losing his steering. However, the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford recovered to finish 8th, earning consecutive top-ten finishes for the first time in his 14-year career.

 

  • AJ Allmendinger ran his first Cup Series race in November 2018, finishing 7th in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. Allmendinger earned his lone career Cup victory at another road course, Watkins Glen, in 2014 and has won four more on the Xfinity circuit. He is currently racing full-time for Kaulig in the Xfinity Series.

 

  • Reddick was one of four cars not to finish, a list that also included Josh Bilicki (brakes), Ross Chastain (crash), and Quin Houff (engine).

 

  • Hamlin takes over the Cup Series points lead, pacing Logano by 12 points.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch for this weekend at the Daytona Road Course

After Michael McDowell’s upset victory in the Daytona 500, the NASCAR Cup Series once again heads to Daytona International Speedway. This time, NASCAR’s best will take on the Daytona Road Course in a 70-lap, 253-mile shootout. Here are three drivers to watch for this weekend who could contend for a win.

Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott has proven to undoubtedly be the best full-time road course racer in NASCAR. Of his 10 career wins, five of them have been on road courses, including last summer at Daytona. Elliott has also won the last four Cup Series road-course races dating back to Watkins Glen in 2019.

Coming off a Cup Series championship, NASCAR’s most popular driver is looking to get on the board early in 2021 with a win.

AJ Allmendinger

After racing part-time in the Xfinity Series in both 2019 and 2020, AJ Allmendinger is back in the Cup Series. He’ll run a part-time Cup Series schedule with Kaulig Racing in 2021 and will run full-time with the team in the Xfinity Series.

Allmendinger is a road-course specialist; his only Cup Series victory coming in 2014 at Watkins Glen. Four of his five Xfinity Series wins have come at Road Courses and is coming off back-to-back wins at the ROVAL in 2019 and 2020. Allmendinger has also run the Rolex 24 at Daytona 15 times, meaning he has more experience on the track than any other driver.

With Allmendinger being in good equipment, expect him to contend for the win at Daytona.

Kyle Busch

After a disappointing one-win 2020 season, Kyle Busch started off his 2021 campaign strong with a win in the Busch Clash on the Daytona Road Course on February 9. He’s won four Cup Series road-course races over his career and would like a fifth on a new track on the circuit.

With a new crew and a clean slate in 2021, expect Kyle Busch to contend for a win to punch his playoff ticket early.

NASCAR: Austin Cindric reflects on Daytona debut, next steps

Cindric’s NASCAR Cup Series debut literally went up in flames, but there were plenty of positives to glean from Sunday’s race.

Austin Cindric had an epiphany in the wee hours of Monday morning on the final lap of the 2021 Daytona 500…

“Fire is hot”.

That’s what Cindric, driving the No. 33 Team Penske Ford, posted on Twitter after the race ended in a fiery finale, a multi-car wreck that also totaled the cars of his teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. The on-track damage ended the race early, as the caution was flown for safety reasons, allowing Michael McDowell to earn his high-publicized first career victory.

According to Cindric, his postrace tweet was not meant to be tongue-in-cheek, as it was the first time he had been involved in a firey accident (set off by excess fuel remaining in the cars). Armed with his health and a slight sense of humor, he was able to smile about it days later, but overall called his introduction to fire “unnerving”.

“I wasn’t trying to be a smart-alek, but it is amazing. Holy cow. The amount of heat that comes off that,” Cindric said. “There was a big fire. That was the first time I had been in a fire. I didn’t know if I was on fire or not. That was a bit unnerving, to be honest. It was a big impact. I’m fine.”

It’s a shame that Cindric’s Speedweeks, the opening festivities of the NASCAR season, will be best remembered for the chaos on the last lap. In making his Cup debut, Cindric ran in the top ten for most of the day and even led two laps after finishing the first 65-lap stage in fifth-place. It’s the first of several starts Cindric, one of the modern stars of the NASCAR Xfinity Series (the AAA-baseball equivalent of NASCAR), will make in anticipation of his full-time debut on the premier circuit. The 22-year-old will race for the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers Racing next season, taking over the No. 21 Ford now occupied by Matt DiBenedetto.

Cindric was officially credited finished 15th in the main event. Prior to the wreck, a miscommunication on pit road pushed him toward the back of the lead-lap field. He previously overcame pit road disaster, in this case a speeding penalty, in the Bluegreen Vacations Duels to qualify for the 500. The No. 33 finished 16th but gained some assistance when Ryan Preece finished ahead of Ty Dillon to secure the “open” spots available.

Cindric was pleased with the way his Cup endeavors went overall. He earned some positive feedback from Penske teammate Logano, with whom Cindric united as a draft partner for a good portion of the evening. Logano’s No. 22 Ford was leading on the final lap before McDowell’s victorious move and chaos erupted to close things out. Working with teammates was a fresh experience for Cindric, who operates as a one-driver show in Penske’s Xfinity program, where he represents the same numerals as Logano. Cindric won last season’s Xfinity Series championship, Penske’s first since Keselowski also won in the 22 back in 2010.

“I definitely wanted (Logano’s) feedback as far as things to do better and things we could work on moving forward,” he said. “He is really positive and really strong at that discipline of racing. It is great to have guys to lean on. I haven’t had teammates in a few years so to have guys to bounce ideas off of but also in an application where we can work together and make ourselves stronger as an organization is a great tool to have.”

“I’m a competitor so I’m frustrated by the missed opportunities,” Cindric continued. “But for me, it’s a first step of establishing myself amongst those drivers. Obviously, speedway racing is a much different discipline than a lot of the other race tracks we go to. I definitely know I have a lot more to learn and I am excited for the next opportunity to drive the 33 car, wherever that track may be, and try to keep building that momentum moving forward.”

Cup Series regulations allow for a handful of starts at the top level without sacrificing Rookie of the Year status. Cindric is expected to pilot the part-time No. 33 again at some point this season, but his next entry has yet to be determined. He hinted that he probably won’t return to the summer Daytona race in August or visit the other superspeedway at Talladega, as Cindric would like to get a taste of the different kinds of tracks the circuit has to offer.

“I want to get the experience and I think the intent on the team as well is to get me experience at intermediate, short tracks, and road courses,” he said. “As much as we can get done in the short schedule we have planned. That’s why I haven’t said any race tracks because I don’t want to commit to anything knowing that some of it is out of our control. That’s the intent.”

On the Xfinity front, Cindric began the defense of his 2020 title on a strong note, winning the season-opening Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner. 300 at Daytona. NASCAR’s national series now returns to the Daytona road course, where Cindric led 21 of 52 laps en route to victory the Xfinity circuit’s maiden voyage on the track. Cindric will start in the front row for the return trip on Saturday (5 p.m. ET, FS1) next to Brett Moffitt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Safety advancements may have once again saved lives in the 2021 Daytona 500

Early Monday morning, Michael McDowell shocked the sports world when he avoided a last-lap crash to win the 63rd Daytona 500, his first Cup Series win in 358 starts. He was just second to Michael Waltrip in starts before a drivers’ first win, Waltrip making 462 starts before his first NASCAR Cup Series victory.

However, one of the more underrated stories of the race was the crash on the final lap. Without the crash, McDowell’s chances of winning would’ve been a lot slimmer, but the crash could’ve been catastrophic if not for the safety advancements in the cars. This week marks 20 years since the death of Dale Earnhardt. If Earnhardt never got killed racing in 2001, some of the safety measures currently in place may never have been instituted, potentially leading to more deaths.

On the final lap of this year’s Daytona 500, Brad Keselowski had a great run down the back straightaway thanks to a push from McDowell. Going into turn three, Keselowski tried to pass his teammate Joey Logano on the bottom for the lead when the two made contact, setting off a major crash.

While Logano went spinning through the grass, Keselowski shot up the track, right in front of Kyle Busch. Busch hit Keselowski hard, sending Keselowski spinning through the air and clipping the catch fence. Other cars piled into the wreck, including Austin Cindric, who nailed Busch in the driver-side door.

Busch and others were slow to climb from their cars but were all okay after the fiery crash.

Many of the new safety advancements include more roll bars, improving the sturdiness of the car. Without some of the driver-side roll bars, Busch could’ve been crushed by Cindric’s car and seriously injured, if not killed.

Incidents like that just show how much safer this sport has gotten. 20 or 30 years ago, drivers don’t survive similar crashes, when now we see drivers escape under their own power.

Although cars are safer, we’re still reminded about the dangers of NASCAR, like with Ryan Newman’s crash at this race last season. Newman’s crash was the worst accident the sport had seen since Earnhardt’s crash, and fortunately, Newman survived and made a full recovery.

Seeing drivers survive crashes like Busch’s and Newman’s are testaments to the race shop workers and NASCAR for everything they’ve done to keep drivers safe. Next week, we’ll head back to Daytona to race the road course with everyone safe and healthy, and that’s all that matters.

NASCAR: Michael McDowell scores upset victory at the Daytona 500

A daring last lap pass allowed Michael McDowell to secure his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 358th career start.

Michael McDowell hadn’t won in any of his first 357 NASCAR Cup Series starts. He was more than likely willing to wait a few extra hours brought up by rain.

In the wee hours of Monday morning, McDowell’s pass of Joey Logano on the 200th and final lap of the Daytona 500 allowed him to earn his first career Cup Series victory. His No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford led only the final lap but now goes down in history as a winner of NASCAR’s most prestigious race. It’s the first time mid-budget FRM has visited victory lane since Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened summer race at Pocono in the same No. 34 car in August 2016. The victory also allowed McDowell to clinch the Cup Series playoff spot that comes with the win.

“Don’t give up. I think that’s what it’s all about…keep fighting hard. That’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, it’s the moral of everyday life. It’s the moral of our raceteam. You just never know what’s possible,” McDowell said about his upset victory. “I always knew if you just kept grinding , everything will line up…I’m just thankful to everyone who made it possible.”

McDowell, 36, has been racing at the Cup level since 2008, thrown into one of Michael Waltrip Racing’s original Toyotas after strong years of open-wheel racing. Years of struggling to gain traction followed, forcing him to take on several odd jobs and low-budget rides. A culmination of bad luck and poor equipment has led McDowell to take over the dubious record of most last-place finishes in Cup Series history (34).

But throughout the tough process, McDowell kept a strong sense of faith that never wavered. Even when he was languishing in “start-and-park” rides, taking over microbudget cars built solely to earn a last-place purse, he was confident that the elusive victory was eventually coming. Now, he takes home a title in one of auto racing’s most renowned events.

“Even when I was start and parking, I knew Id’ be able to have a shot at it…I never lost hope in that,” McDowell said. “I really think every weekend, this is the week it’s going to happen. I know that sounds crazy.”

The prowess of McDowell and FRM at superspeedway races was well documented. FRM’s first Cup victory came at Talladega in 2013, when David Gilliland pushed David Ragan to the triumph on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499. McDowell himself was a staple in the top percentiles of many superspeedway events at both Daytona and Talladega, previously earning a top-five in the Great American Race back in 2019. This time, however, he was ready to close the deal.

Drivers played things mostly conservatively after the 2021 edition of “The Big One” took out several contenders on lap 15. That incident took out 16 contenders on its own, including McDowell’s FRM teammates Ragan and Anthony Alfredo. Ragan was temporarily ending his retirement to drive the No. 36 Ford while Alfredo was making his Cup Series debut in the No. 38. Other notable names involved in the accident included top qualifiers Alex Bowman and William Byron, as well their fellow 2020 playoff drivers Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney, and Kurt Busch. The incident started when contact from Christopher Bell sent Almirola spinning, triggering the big wreck. A red flag period of over five hours ensued when lightning storms visited the area.

Despite some close calls from there on out, drivers mostly kept to themselves in single-file racing for a majority of the final segments, working together in manufacturer-based alliances. McDowell lurked with his fellow Fords for a majority of the race and earned bonus points with a seventh-place finish after the second stage. The Ford group took the lead after final pit stops around lap 170, with Joey Logano taking the lead from Denny Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver seeking an unprecedented third straight Daytona 500 victory.

Even as the laps dwindled away, drivers kept the single-file pace, a situation prolonged by the fact that only 15 cars were scored on the lead lap. But when Logano took the white flag, McDowell teamed up with Brad Keselowski to hunt down Logano for the win. The two made it up there, but, after disconnecting, Penske teammates Logano and Keselowski made contact, triggering a fiery wreck that also engulfed the cars of Kyle Busch, Austin Cindric. and Bubba Wallace. The caution came out with McDowell barely ahead of the Chevrolets of Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon. Harvick avoided the carnage of his fellow Fords to finish fourth, while Hamlin rounded out the top five.

“I don’t know Michael very well at all, but he certainly has stuck around over the years and battled hard throughout the course of his career…I respect it,” Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion said of McDowell’s win. “I’m happy for him. Hope he enjoys it.”

The NASCAR Cup Series will remain in Daytona for another week, as proceedings now move to the circuit’s road course next Sunday for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 254 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). This race will be the first of a record seven road course events on the 2021 docket. Elliott has won each of the last four races on such tracks and nearly won the exhibition Busch Clash all-star race held on the course on Tuesday night but lost out to Kyle Busch after late contact with Blaney.

Race Notes

  • McDowell earning his first career victory in his 358th career start. Only Michael Waltrip (463) endured a longer winless streak to opening his career, ironically winning the Daytona 500 two decades prior.

 

  • Despite missing out on history, Hamlin let his Daytona dominance be felt with wins in each of the first two stages and leading 98 of 200 laps.

 

  • In his official debut for 23XI Racing, Bubba Wallace ran in the top ten for most of the day and even led a lap before a late vibration in his tires forced him to pit road, creating a 16th-place finish

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Hendrick Motorsports

Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR watch has ended at HMS. Are Chase Elliott and his teammates ready to follow in the steps of Johnson and Jeff Gordon?

2021 Hendrick Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Kyle Larson 5 Cliff Daniels NationsGuard/HendrickCars.com
Chase Elliott 9 Alan Gustafson NAPA Auto Parts/Hooters/Llumar
William Byron 24 Rudy Fugle Axalta/Liberty University
Alex Bowman 48 Greg Ives Ally

History

In metropolitan terms, Hendrick Motorsports could well be the New York Yankees. Since North Carolina auto dealer Rick Hendrick entered the sport in 1984, some of the finest names in the sport have driven his Chevrolets…including fictional ones, as Hendrick provided the cars used in the NASCAR blockbuster Days of Thunder.

The early days at HMS were dominated by strong runs with names like Geoffrey Bodine, Tim Richmond, Darrell Waltrip, and Ken Schrader, but championships proved elusive. That all changed in 1995, when wunderkind Jeff Gordon, in just his third season on the Cup Series circuit, held off Dale Earnhardt to earn the 1995 championship with the No. 24 team. Hendrick vehicles took each of the next four championships, with Terry Labonte triumphing in the ensuring 1996 season before Gordon captured two more. The fourth and final championship for Gordon came in 2001. Each of his 93 Cup Series victories, third-best all-time, came in Hendrick’s No. 24.

Just when the circuit had enough of Hendrick dominance…Joe Gibbs Racing was rising to power through championships for Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart…Hendrick and Gordon unleashed the monster known as Jimmie Johnson unto the racing world in 2002, driving the newly formed No. 48 Chevrolet. It took a little more patience for Johnson to earn his first championship, but once he did so in 2006, his fifth full year in the Series, there was no stopping him. Johnson would go on to win five consecutive championships (2006-10) before adding two more (2013, 2016) to solidify himself as the driver with the most titles alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Like Gordon, Johnson won each and every one of his Cup Series races under a Hendrick banner, tallying 83 when all was said and done.

So, suffice to say…there’s a lot to live up to for Hendrick’s current crop.

2020 in Review

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, as Semisonic routinely sang during Jeff Gordon’s heyday. That perfectly defined the Hendrick Motorsports mindset in 2020. As Jimmie Johnson struggled in a swan song, failing to earn one last win or a playoff berth in a tough season, Chase Elliott followed in his father Bill’s footsteps behind the wheel of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott had been consistent all season…his three-win tally entering the penultimate race at Martinsville could’ve been more than doubled if not for some bad luck along the way…but many were expecting him to perform to a higher standard with strong equipment and a legendary NASCAR pedigree.

But Elliott proved his mettle in historic ways during the final segments of the season. An advancement to the championship round thanks to a win at Martinsville was seemingly for naught when he was forced to start the title-clincher at Phoenix at the back of the field due to failed inspection. But Elliott looked at the best possible way a racer could: more cars for him to pass.

“The confidence level with Chase Elliott is unbelievable,” Hendrick told the media this week. “That’s something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. told me one time. He said you have to know when to race. He said you have to know how to race, but you have to know when to race. And Chase does that.”

Elliott not only worked his way up to the front at Phoenix, but he wound up leading a race-best 153 of 312 laps to clinch the title, the 13th in HMS’ treasured history. He and Bill also became the third father-son duo to take home matching Cup Series championships, joining the Jarretts (Ned and Dale) and Pettys (Lee and Richard).

Other drivers had their chance to shine for Hendrick as well. Alex Bowman, the internal successor to Johnson in the No. 48 Chevorlet, finished out his career under No. 88 branding with an appearance in the semifinal round of eight drivers, ironically dominating the California native Johnson’s final visit to Fontana early in the year. William Byron, bearing Gordon’s iconic numerals, earned his first victory at the regular season finale at Daytona.

Meet the Drivers

Kyle Larson

Experience: 7th full season
Career Cup Victories: 6 (last: Dover fall, 2019)
2020 finish: 34th
Best standings finish: 6th (2019)

By now, both the casual observer and the die-hard fan alike knows about Larson’s transgression that led to his ousting from Chip Ganassi Racing, uttering a racial slur during a virtual event on the iRacing platform. Larson’s return was earned through not only undergoing mandated sensitivity training from NASCAR but lending his time and resources to several charitable causes to educate himself on modern affairs and to be a better person. It was enough to convince Hendrick that Larson had earned a new opportunity, one to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet that Labonte drove to a championship a quarter-century prior.

“When you look at the character of what he is; a lot of people do things and they say I’m sorry, right?” Hendrick asked rhetorically. “They just say I’m sorry and go right on running their life. And that’s all they have to do. And people say okay, we’ll give you another shot. This guy did ten times that. And he’s created an image and things in that community that people really respect him. So, I guess the answer to the riddle is that I’m a part of it, but it was Kyle’s heart and Kyle’s desire that got him back.”

There’s no denying that Larson has the talent to succeed in racing. He won six races driving CGR’s No. 42 (four during the 2017 campaign) and earned countless victories driving dirt cars during his suspension.

Chase Elliott

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 11 (last: Phoenix fall, 2020)
2020 finish: 2020 Champion
Best standings finish: 2020 Champion

It truly is a bit of a shame that Elliott’s career is connected to so many of the sport’s most memorable names. He’s the son of Bill Elliott, originally took over for Jeff Gordon after racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team in the Xfinity Series. Such connections have helped Elliott reach this point, but may be used by detractors to discount his incredible success. With his first championship under his belt, Elliott is now ready to truly leave a mark on the sport; he knows that NASCAR is a world of “what have you done for me lately”, a feeling he feels has permeated every professional sport. He compared it to those who asked Jimmie Johnson the same questions toward the end of his career.

“In any sport, it’s what have you done lately,” Elliott remarked. “I think about all the disrespect that Jimmie Johnson got toward the end of this career. It’s like everyone forgot about how great he is just because he had a bad race or a bad stretch of races. The lesson that taught me is that no matter what you do, if you have a bad stretch or don’t do well, then they’re going to come after you about whatever you’ve done recently.”

“On the flip side of that, if you have a good run after being trashed for a year or something, everyone is going to be hyping you up, be excited for you and jumping on the bandwagon. It’s all about performance and all about what you’ve done lately. We want to push; we want to continue to do good for ourselves and push our team internally. That’s all that matters to me, and that’s all that matters to our entire group.”

Only making Elliott ever more dangerous this season? As the winner of the last four visits to road course events, perhaps no one is more excited to see a record seven on the 2021 slate than Elliott.

William Byron

Experience: 4th season
Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Daytona summer, 2020)
2020 finish: 14th
Best standings finish: 11th (2019)

Byron has had a little trouble racing up to the reputation that his numerals mandate, failing to finish in the top ten in any of his first four seasons. He did get one monkey off his back by earning his first career victory at the regular season finale at Daytona that punched his playoff ticket. Byron mentioned that going into the new year liberated from the burden of missing out on his first Cup win will work in the team’s favor.

“It’s great that there is not as much attention on that headline and not as much outside noise. For us, the goal is still the same – to win. Our goal has always been to win and now we can do it with some confidence. We can just focus on just doing our jobs.”

Alex Bowman

Experience: 6th full season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: Fontana 2020)
2020 finish: 6th
Best standings finish: 6th (2020)

To put things in metropolitan terms, Bowman replacing Johnson in the No. 48 is the equivalent of what Didi Gregorious went through when he took over the mantle of New York Yankees shortstop from Derek Jeter. It’s a spot that will feature increased eyes and heightened scrutiny, a challenge Bowman believes he’s handling well going into this fateful season.

Bowman is eager to fulfill those sky-high expectations but stays grounded by reminding himself that he’s working his way through NASCAR for himself.

“The biggest thing for me is there’s not a car number or situation in the world that’s going to put more pressure on me than I put on myself. I feel like all race car drivers are selfish but I’m really selfish,” he said. “I just want to win for me. Obviously, I want to win for Hendrick Motorsports and for Chevrolet and for Ally and for everybody that makes this deal possible.

“But more so than any of that, I want to win for me. I put a ton of pressure on myself each and every week to go do that and to run well and to run how we should. I think outside situations don’t really add to that. I probably put too much stress on myself and too much pressure on myself at times, but it’s all from me because I care about how we run and because I want to run well. It’s not really because somebody is saying oh the No. 48 has to go win or needs to go win a championship. It’s because I want to win and because I want to win championships.”

Outlook

Elliott is obviously going to be someone to keep an eye on in the grand scheme of things, while it’ll be interesting to see how Bowman handles the newfound responsibilities that are attached to the No. 48. Both Byron and Larson will each face heightened expectations as well, as Hendrick Motorsports undergoes a youthful revolt.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags