DAYTONA BEACH, Fla… The white flag is out. The race official has the hammer down, but both eyes are glued to the rearview mirror. What he sees is a group of angry, fast runners who want to be where he is. And suddenly, this leader is no longer the leader. The pack is no longer a pack. It’s a garbage dump. Meanwhile, the one who wasn’t the leader is now the leader, and not only that, he’s the new champion of the world’s greatest stock car races.
Just after midnight Monday, that’s exactly what happened at the Daytona 500 when Michael McDowell led his beautiful and underfunded underdog, the Pittsburgh Pirates of Ford Front Road Motorsports, to their most hallowed NASCAR victory. Not Joey Logano, who led a half lap before the finish and was one mile away from his second Daytona 500 victory. Not Brad Keselowski, the vice champion and former series champion whose only missing gem is a victory in the most prestigious competition.
No. They both ended up in the fence with six other cars slipping, colliding, some catching fire while others threw dirt and mud into the air. McDowell was engaged in a speed race with defending champion Chase Elliott Cup and 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon until the finish line before the caution flag froze the field and ended the race.
Keselowski said, “I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive someone else’s car. It’s so frustrating”.
Logano said, “Pandemonium, I think. Chaos has struck.”
McDowell said, “I know a lot of people are upset. I know a lot of people are wondering who Michael McDowell is and how he wears that Daytona 500 ring. Joey went one way, Brad went the other, and it was like watching a door open.”
When told that people (or rather, people on the Internet) were wondering how the door opened – how he had used his front bumper to open it – the driver who had just ended his 0-for-357 victory smiled, shrugged and laughed.
“It’s the Daytona 500, man,” McDowell said. “If you were shocked or surprised by what just happened, you haven’t watched this race, at least not in the last couple of years.
The runner they call “McDriver” is called McCorrect. Falls and leader changes on the last lap were an exception at the Daytona 500, and for good reason we grew up with constant replays of Richard Petty and David Pearson on the grass in front in 1976 and “There’s a fight!” between Cale Yarborough and the Alabama gang in 1979. Those were extraordinary moments in the truest sense of the word. That hasn’t happened in a long time.
Now it happens every year. Chaos and pandemonium are the modus operandi. The great American race has become the Joe Cheatwood Thrill Show.
To paraphrase the great philosopher Richard Flair: You can love it or hate it, but you’d better sit down for it, because that’s what the Daytona 500 is today.
In the first 57 editions of the 500 laps, there were nine leader changes on the final lap. This has happened four times in six years. And these are just the official statistics of the lap leader scoring a point at the start and finish line. It doesn’t count as a blast like a year ago, when Ryan Newman led the white flag lap and came within three points before spinning into the wall that overtook his now-famous slump winner Denny Hamlin.
Prior to 2017, no one had ever won the Daytona 500 who was not in the lead until the last lap of the race. Michael McDowell is the third driver in the last five years.
What exactly does this all mean? Should we feel manipulated because this finish may be the product of an increasingly rigged system to create parity? Should we fight over our motorsports morals because the great American races of today are so different from those won by the greatest generation? Have we sold the soul of our stock cars in the name of something better than CGI images with crashes and flames and heroic banzai movements at the finish line that are straight out of Mario Kart?
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General Maximus is about to throw his hands in the air and expose our thirst for knowledge by exclaiming, “Don’t have fun!
“I don’t really know,” McDowell said early Monday morning in the vacuum of Victory Lane as he watched the video of her transition to the lead role again. It was the first time he had seen it, and his eyes grew big as the crash occurred and the screen of the reporter’s smartphone turned orange with images of flames.
“As a sports fan, you can only ask not to know what’s coming, right? A grand finale at the end,” he continued. “In this race, you never know what’s going to happen. Especially not these days. So I think it’s very fun and entertaining”.
McDowell stopped, turned around and displayed the huge Harley J. Earl trophy behind him. Track workers were already screwing a new engraving of his name onto the silver plate, along with Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt and many other former winners of the Daytona 500 he had just passed, including future winner Logano, whom McDowell had come to personally congratulate a few minutes earlier.
“Entertainment and fun. I think I can say that easily, can’t I?