The emotion of what the Daytona 500 means was told in one crash and one celebration at approximately a quarter past midnight on Monday.
At the far end of the racetrack sat the junked race car of Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski: a driver who has a championship and wins in some of the sport’s biggest races on his resume, but no Daytona 500 ring on his finger. And the realization he’d have to wait another year to try again left Keselowski angrily throwing his helmet at his car.
After his 12th Daytona 500 defeat, Keselowski’s heart was as broken as his Ford Mustang. Seriously, did you see that thing?
That is what Daytona does to a driver. After months of preparing and dreaming of its glory, her ruthless nature can shatter the sport’s biggest names. Daytona is stubborn when it comes to welcoming a driver to victory lane.
“I had a run big run down the backstretch and wanted to make the pass to win the Daytona 500, and it ended up really bad,” said Keselowski. “I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everybody else’s car. So frustrating.
“It’s exactly where I want to be running, second on the last lap at Daytona with this package and had the run, made the move, and it didn’t work out.”
Keselowski later admitted on Twitter that his body was fine, but his heart was broken. Another Daytona 500 “slips away” he wrote, after “months of studying,” car prep, and being “in the perfect position.”
As Keselowski gathered himself, Michael McDowell took an additional cool-down lap while NASCAR reviewed the finish. It took a minute or two for officials to call over the radio that the 34 car was the race’s official winner.
McDowell had been 0-for-357 going into the day. In an instant – when the door opened in Turn 3 on the final lap – McDowell walked through it to go from an underdog easy to root for, to a Daytona 500 champion. In the last 13 years, McDowell has lost a ride with Michael Waltrip, driven start-and-park cars, and was a motorhome driver for Trevor Bayne. Of course, he is also known as the guy who took a spectacular tumble at Texas.
“I just can’t believe it,” said McDowell after climbing out on the frontstretch, the smile never leaving his face. “Such a great way to get a first victory – a Daytona 500. Are you kidding me?”
McDowell’s shock continued when meeting with the media. He explained how he was going from a high of realizing he’d won the Daytona to being humbled by it.
“Like, man, I cannot believe this,” McDowell said. “This is just unbelievable, and I’m just so thankful.”
Daytona is a career highlight and a life-changer. It is why Keselowski reacted the way he did. And it why McDowell was so stunned on the frontstretch. The Daytona 500 can make grown men cry, like Darrell Waltrip and Jamie McMurray did after their wins.
For all Dale Earnhardt accomplished, his long-awaited triumph in the 1998 Daytona 500 is always near the top of the conversation when talking about him. And from now on, no matter what happens, McDowell will forever be known as a Daytona 500 champion. It cannot be taken away, as the likes of Derrike Cope and Sterling Marlin have said about their wins.
McDowell is the eighth driver to win his first Cup Series race in the Daytona 500. He joins Tiny Lund (1963), Mario Andretti (1967), Pete Hamilton (1970), Cope (1990), Marlin (1994), Michael Waltrip (2001), and Trevor Bayne (2011).
“It’s been a tough road for me,” said McDowell. “I’ve had to spend a lot of years grinding it out, but I finally have felt like these last four years have been more competitive and greater opportunities with Front Row and Bob Jenkins. Daytona has been so good to us that we’ve been in the top 10, we’ve been in the top five, we’ve been close.
“The last lap, there’s been times where I’ve made the wrong choice, wrong lane, and pushed the wrong guy, and it’s just so hard to get in position and do it. And to get my first Cup win at Daytona is just unbelievable. I’m just so thankful, thankful for everybody that just has allowed me to do it. It’s not been an easy road, and there were a lot of years where I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it.
“I always knew that if you just kept grinding that one day everything will line up, and it will go right. But as you get further into it, you just don’t know. So I’m just thankful, very thankful to everybody that made it possible.”
Daytona is everything, and Keselowski and McDowell embodied that after the 63rd annual Daytona 500. Glorious, humbling, and every-lasting, but also heartbreaking and not easy to let go.