Michael McDowell not defined or changed by 2021 Daytona 500 victory
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Reporter
Michael McDowell, who will forever be introduced as the 2021 Daytona 500 champion, won’t let winning the Daytona 500 define him.
He can’t. After going 357 Cup starts without a win, he can’t pretend that the victory is something that completed him, made him whole or gave him peace about his career.
"It will change some things around me, but it’s not going to change me," the 36-year-old said. "Part of it is because if you are not content with who you are before the win, you’ll never be content with yourself after the win.
"We always want to achieve goals, and we push really hard for that. But what you do is what you do — it’s not what defines you."
For those just learning the Michael McDowell story, you might have heard about his perseverance over the past 14 years. Or you might have heard that he has run well occasionally enough at Daytona that few saw his win in the wee hours Monday morning as a fluke.
But there’s more to the McDowell story, and it’s about his approach to racing and life. A father of four, he doesn’t shy from his strong religious beliefs, wearing a cross on his helmet.
Some might have learned of McDowell’s faith after he wrecked Bubba Wallace last year at Bristol. Wallace cracked that, "People say he’s one of the nicest guys in the garage. I can’t wait for the God-fearing text that he is going to send me."
McDowell didn’t have an ounce of sympathy nor regret, it seemed, in turning Wallace amid their battle on the track, but he also reached out, and they ended up signing a piece of Wallace’s car for charity.
The zinger from Wallace had to annoy McDowell, but he put it behind him.
"These drivers and teams and crews, you see them every single week," McDowell said. "You have to separate the two, or otherwise you’d just be miserable in the community."
McDowell indicated that a driver persona can mimic that of a football player, who will want to hit someone as hard as necessary but not hurt the person or be angry with him.
"Just being reasonable is important and also just not shying away from it," McDowell said. "It’s hard when guys say, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to.’ Well, everybody knows you meant to, so just say you meant to and call it what it is, and you can still be a human."
McDowell isn’t taking a whole lot personally.
"I don’t want to say you separate [at the] track and you separate real life because obviously the worlds combine," McDowell said. "But sometimes in sports and in motorsports, you’ll get judged by decisions that you make on the race track.
"You’re supposed to go all-out, and you’re supposed to lay it all on the race track, and our sport is at times a contact sport. That is just part of it. But I also don’t leave the race track just sideways with that person and challenge their character and who they are."
Many people believe in McDowell’s character. They have seen him work on race cars when driving for underfunded teams whose primary goal was qualifying for the race, not winning it.
They have seen him counsel other drivers throughout the ups and downs of their careers, as the Front Row Motorsports driver has been there and can relate.
"He's super loyal," McDowell crew chief Drew Blickensderfer said. "He's super honest. He knows at the end of the day, no matter what the spotter says to him, the owner or I say to him, it's for the better good of the car, and he doesn't wear his ego on his sleeve.
"Super humble guy. He's fun to work with."
Not every driver is that grounded. Of course, when a driver hasn’t won in 357 starts, reality has a way of grounding him.
"A lot of times, I'll tell my kids, like, ‘Hey, I get it. Life sucks. I want to drive Joey Logano’s car every weekend or Kyle Busch’s, but I don't get to,’" McDowell said. "And I use that as an example of not everything goes how you think.
"I would love to be in that opportunity all the time, but it's not. I always teach them to just make the best of what you have, and you just do everything you can."
McDowell has won races in other series, including a 2016 Xfinity Series race at Road America. Most of his trophies don’t take up space in his home, but the Daytona 500 trophy will.
"I've given away every trophy that I've gotten over the years," McDowell said. "I'm not somebody that keeps, like, helmets and suits and trophies — it’s kind of a weird thing, but this one I'll be keeping for sure.
"I remember more of the moment and the pictures and all those things and just the people and trophies are cool, but a lot of times, they get, like, real rusty, dusty, and take up a lot of space."
That might offend some people who have never won a trophy or some places where he won races as a youth.
But as McDowell said earlier, he doesn’t shy away from things, and being honest is key. As such, it isn’t difficult to believe him when he says he won’t change.
"It’s an awesome moment in my career, and some might call it a defining moment in my career," McDowell said. "But it’s not a defining moment of who I am or being a father and a husband and all the things that really matter."
What to watch for
In the Busch Clash, rumble strips at the Daytona International Speedway backstretch chicane did little to dissuade drivers from driving over them and into the grass, kicking up mud and dirt along the way Tuesday.
NASCAR will put a stop to that, as it has added concrete patches behind the rumble strips and will put humped curbing (known as "turtles") to keep drivers from running off course.
That will create two things to watch this weekend, as all three national series compete on the Daytona road course. Drivers will have to change their line into the chicane and through the turn. If a driver does mess up and hit that curbing, it could slow the car down at best and damage the car at worst.
Bob’s hot take
The Xfinity Series has more than 40 teams that wanted to run the full season, and with no practice or qualifying for most races, a few teams are left out in the cold with a 40-car field. The worst part is those teams never got a chance to qualify at Daytona because of rain, and by not getting into the opening race at Daytona, they are too low in owner points to get into races as long as the 40 cars that raced Daytona keep showing up.
That might leave Jordan Anderson Racing, Bassett Racing a second car at Our Motorsports and a fourth car at DGM Racing — all teams that had plans to run a full season — unable to compete at any races unless a team that has competed does not enter a race.
That is devastating, and it makes fans want NASCAR to make a change or an exception. But it isn’t that simple, and the problem is these teams knew the rules. Big Machine Racing Team made a deal to get the 2020 points of the RSS Racing No. 93 from last season just for this instance and so they could make the Daytona race. Those other teams also had that opportunity. It would be unfair to penalize Big Machine Racing Team for spending its money to protect itself in this situation.
Buying points from another team can be an aggravating and frustrating expense for a new team. But it is nothing new for a team to do whatever it can to guarantee it gets in the first race because of rain, and advocating for NASCAR to change the rules after the fact seems unfair to the teams that made it in through the rules. NASCAR, however, needs to come up with a better way if it continues to have years with no practice and no qualifying. (Conventional wisdom is qualifying will return for most, if not all, races in 2022.)
They said it
"It is a good wreck. That was a big one. I still feel it a little bit." – Michael McDowell on his infamous 2008 Texas wreck
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass.