Flat Spot On – A New NASCAR Season, A New Winner

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 15 2021

Michael McDowell crosses the finish line ahead of Austin Dillon at the end of Sunday night’s Daytona 500. (Photos courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There was a new feel to NASCAR and its Cup Series at this year’s Daytona 500. New team owners like former NBA star Michael Jordan and hip musician Pitbull joined the parade. There were young, talented and as yet unproven-in-the-Cup drivers like Christopher Bell, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric. In the FOX Sports broadcast booth, former driver Clint Bowyer was a familiar face in a new role of quipster, which, funnily enough, added new energy.

Then there was the race winner, who thundered home in the first wee hour of Monday morning after a delay for lightning and rain of five and a half hours. Michael McDowell had never been in Victory Lane at a NASCAR Cup Series race, much less after the sport’s biggest race. But when Penske Racing’s most veteran teammates took out one another in Turn 3 on the last lap, the Ford of McDowell, who never lifted, had a nose for victory as the caution lights came on.

This was the first Daytona 500 under the new pandemic procedures that began in the spring of last year. Fans were limited in number but still plentiful due to the sheer size of the facility. Despite rainy weather, the mood among the fans and participants as well as NASCAR officials seemed to be “We got this.” Even though the mainstream sports media continues to generally ignore the fact, NASCAR was the first major league to successfully implement a COVID-19 plan that sustained a full season in 2020, which ended with a young twenty-something, Chase Elliott, claiming both the most popular driver and the championship. 

Unlike the NFL, which was the second major pro league to run a full season, NASCAR’s teams and drivers did not present a plague of COVID scenarios. To this writer, it set a necessary public health example by public figures that helps stem the pandemic tide, including the wearing of masks instead of lip service. Although cases popped up inevitably, the over-all response says a lot about the dedication and pride the participants have in their sport—and about the current crop of leaders under Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s relatively young president, who have implemented the pandemic plan.

Symbolic of the new start was a sign at the front of the Daytona International Speedway that explicitly banned the display of the Confederate flag. Coupled with the arrival of Jordan as a team co-owner of 23XI with driving star Denny Hamlin and the hiring of Bubba Wallace as their driver, NASCAR is entering its first full season absent the unstated shadow of being a “white only” sport. It’s no longer the exception, a last refuge of publicly celebrated bigotry in the form of flags. 

It didn’t take long for a big wreck stopped the action.

I first started covering NASCAR when security guards wearing long-barreled sidearms made it a point to carefully review your pass with an air of contempt before you could enter the garage. Roger Penske once opened a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City during the annual NASCAR awards banquet by apologizing for being late. “I got here on time,” said Penske, “but Oscar wouldn’t let me in.” Oscar, off course, was the sour-faced keeper of garage passes, a relatively small and coveted slip of paper that determined who could go to work “inside the fence.”

These days, NASCAR has long since adopted the standard corporate formula first promulgated by Disney World in nearby Orlando. If you greet your customers in a way that makes them feel welcome, they’re more likely to spend more money once on the property. And, they’re more likely to come back. Journalists are immune to such entreaties, of course. Walking toward the Houston Lawing Press Box on Level 5 of the tiered, fan friendly architectural extravaganza on International Speedway Boulevard, I got a friendly greeting from one of the ambassadors.

“Welcome back,” he said. “Yeah,” I replied, “Forty-five years later.”

It’s not the flattery that counts, of course, rather the effort to make it. “I remember you,” he quickly followed up, insisting on keeping things upbeat. Sorry, dude, I thought, you’ve got too much hair on your head to recall this member of the fourth estate’s first Daytona 500. But appreciate it—and thanks for not strapping on a Colt .45 with a barrel down to your knee!

Two-time champion Terry Labonte once thanked a press box full of writers in Atlanta for our work after his second title, saying, “If you didn’t love this sport you wouldn’t be here.” In some respects, that acknowledges the uphill climb it takes for everyone to go racing, which consists of endless travel, long hours and unpredictable circumstances such as a 5.5-hour rain delay.

In the days of yore, NASCAR too often took participation for granted, whether it was team owners, drivers (who were replaceable according to relatively slack safety standards), fans or journalists. These days, after a long glacial thaw that took decades, the scene is far more user friendly—starting with facilities like the new Daytona envisioned by Lesa France Kennedy, one of major league sports’ highest-ranking female executives.

I don’t bring a bias other than preferring the facts and a keyboard. But if I had a bias, it would be favoring first-time winners. After all, it makes for good stories.

When the yellow (Joey Logano) and white (Brad Keselowski) seas parted just like the Red Sea for Moses in Turn 3 on the last lap, there was McDowell in day-glow yellow. There’s no cheering in the press box, but this aging cowboy was back in the bunkhouse preparing for an early start to the long drive home despite a deadline window painfully shortened up like a car that just hit the wall. 

I think I woke up all the neighbors in adjoining motel rooms when I shouted, “Mc-DOWELL!”

As was evident in post-race comments, McDowell is well regarded in the garage, in no small part because he races for a second-tier team owner, Bob Jenkins, and keeps it clean as well as competitive on the track. 

This was his seventh straight year of finishing on the lead lap at Daytona, a remarkable feat considering he established this streak while driving for Leavine Family Racing and Jenkins. McDowell knows Daytona, where the draft is the great equalizer.

Following the call for a two-tire stop by Crew Chief Drew Blickensderfer, a winner in this race with Matt Kenseth in the rain-shortened year of 2009, McDowell was in the winning position of third place in a line of Fords on the last lap. He followed the traditional path of bump-drafting Keselowski in an attempt to follow him past Logano. If successful, that would put McDowell into the classic slingshot/sidedrafting position behind the leader coming to the checkers. Alas, the internecine Team Penske warfare (familiar to most as blatant blocking by Logano) gave McDowell a path to an impassioned post-victory speech that was also typically composed.

Tall and sturdily built with classic long and strong arms that enable deft handling of the wheel, McDowell lives his Christian religion by knowing and being who he is. Unlike some racers, he goes to every track believing he can win, especially the drafting tracks like Daytona and the Talladega Superspeedway. (If that sounds far-fetched, his win at Daytona was the third by a Jenkins driver on three different tracks.) In my last conversation with McDowell, he told me about leaving home and saying good-bye to his young daughter on the way to NASCAR’s longest and fastest track. “Why do you go racing?” she asked. “Because we can win,” he said in reply. We were in the Talladega driver’s lounge at the time, two years ago. “I believe I can win this race tomorrow.”

On the weekend that marked the anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in Turn 3—20 years later a fiery furnace of wreckage on this long night—McDowell is testimony to the value of the HANS Device that was mandated after the seven-time champion’s death along with other significant landmark safety changes. Following a practice crash at the Texas Motor Speedway including multiple wall impacts and flips, the tall McDowell had what’s known as a “HANS bruise” on his forehead. That results when the head restraint holds the helmet in place during a very high-energy meeting with the wall that otherwise would prove fatal.

When I arrived at the gates of the France family’s speedway by the sea this year, I thought about saying farewell to the Daytona 500 in the future due to the hassles of travel, the expense and the eternal, infernal (sometimes inspiring) deadlines. But as the saying goes in racing, never say never. Just ask McDowell.

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram’s book “CRASH! From Senna to Earnhardt – How the HANS Helped Save Racing” comprises a comprehensive account of the fatality-marred decade from 1994 until 2001 in major league racing. Published by RJP Books, signed copies of “CRASH!” are available at www.jingrambooks.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 15 2021
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