Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Daytona 500

What happened?

Michael McDowell won the 63rd annual Daytona 500 on Sunday (Feb. 14) after a fiery last-lap wreck for his first career victory in his 358th start.

Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Alex Bowman led the first lap of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, though it didn’t last long. Derrike Cope, 62, caused the first caution of the day on lap 3 when he got into the wall.

Just a few laps later, the first Big One of the day ensued. Christopher Bell (running third in line on the bottom) got a shove from Kyle Busch and he spun Aric Almirola up and into the field.

16 cars were involved, including potential contenders Bowman, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and more.

The lightning and rain arrived during that second caution, causing a red flag that lasted five hours and 40 minutes before cars re-fired at 9:06 p.m. ET. Cars paraded around the track under caution for over 10 laps to complete the drying before Elliott and Dillon led the field back to green.

It wasn’t long after the restart that Hamlin got to his customary position in front of the field at Daytona. The remaining cars stayed single-file for a bit before Quin Houff ran over a piece of debris deep in the field and wrecked with Chase Briscoe. The field stayed clean for the remainder of the stage one after that restart, with Hamlin winning the first stage of the season.

The second stage began with Austin Cindric sneaking out to the lead for two laps before Hamlin regained control. Everyone seemed content to ride around single-file and log laps in the second stage. With 26 to go in the stage, green-flag pit stops began. The three manufacturers came down on separate laps and Hamlin cycled back to the lead.

Soon after rejoining the track, Bell cut a tire while running near the front. The incident collected six cars – definitely not enough to classify as a Big One, though it still affected plenty of teams.

Hamlin retained the lead on the restart with help from Bubba Wallace. The 17 lead-lap cars rode around single-file until the final laps, as Wallace forced the issue and tried to steal the stage win before settling for third, with Hamlin sweeping the first two stages of the season.

To begin the final stage, Hamlin – who else? – took the lead by driving around Dillon. Once he got out front, there was a close call as he was being pushed by Harvick.

The story of the race continued in the final stage, as the remaining drivers just rode around single-file, with Hamlin leading Harvick, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch. The three manufacturers made their individual green-flag stops again, with the Fords going first, then the Chevys and lastly the Toyotas. Hamlin and the Toyotas got too far out in front following their stops, and the Ford brigade of Logano, Harvick, Cole Custer, Brad Keselowski and McDowell led the way.

No one made a move until the final lap, as Keselowski laid back and got a big run to move into second. He went for the lead, but his teammate Logano blocked and ended up causing a huge accident, which ended the race under caution.

McDowell, Elliott and Dillon snuck by the madness, and McDowell was declared the winner after a scoring review.

It was McDowell’s first career win, and just the third career win for Front Row Motorsports (David Ragan at Talladega in 2013, Chris Buescher at Pocono in 2016).

Who stood out?

McDowell always seems to be around at the end of superspeedway races, so it’s about time he ended up winning. Of McDowell’s 13 career top-10 finishes, seven have come at Daytona. He’s had Daytona 500 finishes of ninth, ninth and fifth prior to Sunday’s victory.

This win is a shocker – no one saw this coming. But maybe we should’ve? He clearly has a capable car at these tracks and a knack for avoiding crashes. And next week, the Cup Series races at a track where McDowell finished 10th last year. 2021 is shaping up to be a career season for the Phoenix, Ariz. native.

Hamlin remains the best superspeedway racer in the sport and it isn’t particularly close right now. At many points throughout the race, it seemed like Hamlin’s car had an extra gear. He routinely flexed his muscles by driving around capable competitors and set the pace for much of the race.

A fifth-place finish looks solid on paper, though Hamlin is clearly unhappy with anything besides a win. He did lead 98 laps, more than he led in the last two Daytona 500s combined. Every time the Cup Series goes to a superspeedway, you have to look at Hamlin as the heavy favorite. He’s just got this package and car figured out.

Dillon continues to establish himself as a consistent threat. He impressed in the Duels on Thursday and backed that up even further with his 500 performance. The No. 3 was frequently running in the front and probably would’ve looked even better if they ran more in a pack rather than single-file. He finished third and fifth in the stages and ended the race third, scoring more points than any driver besides Hamlin.

Who fell flat?

The Daytona 500 continues to haunt Keselowski. The man has won nearly everything in his career, except this race. The Coke 600, Southern 500, Brickyard 400, Bristol Night Race and Cup Series title are all on his resumé – the 500 is the final puzzle piece. He didn’t appear to have the best car Sunday, but a late run looked like it could end in victory.

Keselowski’s career is starting to mirror those of Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace and others. Major wins, championships and accolades, but the 500 eludes him.

Wallace deserved a better finish, but he’s going to walk away for the season-opener disappointed. The 23XI Racing Toyota was competitive all night long before a vibration after the final stop forced him down pit road again. He was involved in the carnage of the final lap and finished one lap down in 17th.

On the bright side for Wallace, Daytona was a great week for points. He leaves the opening weekend with 41 points, good for eighth in the standings. He’s off to one of the best starts of his young career and can’t get discouraged despite the disappointing finish.

Bell was out of control in a few moments throughout the race, which was disappointing to see from a non-rookie. I know, I know – he led a career-best 32 laps and ran out front before cutting a tire and falling off the pace. But oftentimes he just seemed out of control compared to his competitors. His move triggered the big wreck early in the race, as Bell was pushing at a point in the race where it was absolutely unnecessary. Bell will learn, no doubt about that, it’s just taking longer than most expected. We’ll see how he performs at more traditional tracks before writing him off just yet.

What did this race prove?

We were due for an upset 500 winner, and boy did we get one. Every 10 years we get a stunner. In 2001 it was Michael Waltrip’s first career win, then Trevor Bayne got his first career win in 2011. Right on cue, 2021 delivered another first-time winner. It’s fun to mix things up and see an underdog winner like Waltrip, Bayne and McDowell. Once in a while, it can show just how special winning the Daytona 500 truly is.

An early wreck can set the tone for the entire race. In the past, we’ve seen drivers stay patient in the early going before multiple huge wrecks in the final stage. This year, it was pretty much the opposite. One mistake in the early going caused a massive pileup, and then the race turned into a single-file train until the last lap. From a fan’s perspective, it was likely a disappointing evening after such an insane first 15 laps before the rain.

Paint scheme of the race

The best looking scheme on Sunday was the car that led the field to green (even if we only saw it for 13 laps). Bowman’s first No. 48 Ally Chevy is better looking than any Ally scheme Jimmie Johnson ran in the past few years:

Better than last year?

Last year, the rain played the same games with us. It let us have some fun before dominating the storyline. Luckily we were able to race on Sunday night this year rather than Monday night. In 2020, there were a lot more big wrecks toward the end of the race before the unforgettable ending with Ryan Newman’s crash and Hamlin’s win over Blaney.

Overall, 2020’s race was much better than 2021’s. The action throughout the race was much more intriguing than the single-file parade we saw for much of Sunday night. Drivers didn’t even make a move until the final lap, and at that point it all ended so quickly. The surprise winner was a nice wrinkle – and of course it was great that nobody was escorted to the hospital while unconscious – but Sunday’s race left me wanting more.

Playoff picture

McDowell is the first driver to (essentially) lock himself into the playoffs in 2021. That’s certainly not a sentence I was expecting to write in this column. But here we are! It’s way too early for me to be dissecting the playoff bubble, but here’s a little teaser.

Dillon actually leads the standings after winning his Duel and grabbing 14 stage points in the 500. Just behind him is Hamlin, Harvick, Elliott and McDowell. Some other fun names currently in (extremely too early to take seriously) playoff position: Ryan Preece (sixth), Ross Chastain (11th), Corey LaJoie (12th) and one-off racer Jamie McMurray (14th).

What’s next?

The Cup Series stays in Daytona for a race at the Daytona Road Course next Sunday (Feb. 21) at 3 p.m. on FOX. The O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 will run for 70 laps, with stage breaks coming at lap 16 and lap 34. Next weekend will be the first of a record seven road-course events on the 2021 schedule.

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Carl D.

Congrats to McDowell. I’m not so sure he wouldn’t have won even without that ugly last-lap wreck. Nothing I can say about the race itself that Logan didn’t already say. As for the broadcast itself, how come Fox didn’t mention that Bubba Wallace was in the race? Yes, I’m being sarcastic. I have nothing against Wallace and I wish him success, but the Bubba love fest by Fox is just too much and has to stop.

Bill B

Congrats to McDowell. I can’t say I am a fan but I am always happy for a first time winner, and he’s been out there slugging it out in the back of the pack for quite a few years.

I’m even happier that Hamlin (aka Mr Entitled) didn’t win.

Beyond that it was a boring race with too many single file “parade” laps. I believe this was the result of half the field being taken out (or severely damaged) in that first big one.

I doubt NASCAR will consider starting the race at 1:00 (or even noon) but they should. Having the biggest race of the year run from 10PM to midnight isn’t ideal for anyone.

Any attempt being made to read into the finishing order and what it means for the season is a waste of time. We all know these RP/TS races are crap shoots where luck, being in the right place at the right time, and missing the big one matters more than how good the car or driver is.

Get used to it Carl D., we will be subjected to the same for the rest of the season and beyond.


any taper spacer race typically is whoever survives the mayhem wins. after remembering that horrifying qualifying wreck McDowell had at Texas a few years ago, it was a good win this morning.

honestly that wreck on lap, what 15, shouldn’t of happened. these are supposed to be the best. well they were driving like it was the last lap of the final stage. thought it was interesting when we were told that the cars are set up for the rear ends to be off center, or a mini-little detectible by naked eye, crabbing. so the rear ends aren’t true straight when you’re bumping them.

i really don’t think any sporting event needs a 2+ hr lead-in program. chris meyers kids thing could be kept for rain delay. besides it was fun when the bowyer/larsen boys did it. i’d really like to see keelan harvick and brexton busch run in same kart race. keelan is tearing up that circuit he runs in.

i got tired of the 23xl lovefest quickly. i cannot believe michael jordan hadn’t met his driver, prior to that interview this weekend with michael straham. i don’t know what was more annoying the “threepeat” or bubba coverage.

and please……..stop milking the earnhardt name. we know the adavances sr’s death made in the sport with safety and yes ryan newman is alive because of them. espn did an hour long show on the legacy of him, and jr had his face shown on fox’s prerace coverage. i know it will be 20 yrs on the 18th. i don’t need to be reminded. most of sr’s fans know. na$car almost had it’s storybook ending with the 3 being in the hunt for the win this morning.

also got tired of clint bowyer quickly. i fear he’s going to be waltrip 2.0.

here’s an idea….watch the weather radar and move up the start time, especially if it’s your biggest race. not like they had to worry about bumping whatever fox had broadcasting prior to the start.


Another Demo-Derby 500 in the books. Are you not entertained!?


The 23 would have had a better finish if Michael Jordan was behind the wheel.


Glad to see McDowell get the win after all this time. As has been said, it was a typical plate race, where the winner comes from the group that survives the carnage.
I find it ironic that after all the talk about Na$car and their dedication to safety in the aftermath of Earnhardt’s crash, that they let Byron run with the rear bumper cover hanging off, then didn’t throw a caution when pieces flew off. That caused the later wreck when Houf ran over one of the pieces. Then they let Grala leave pit road when even Jeff Gordon knew that the wheel hub was going to catch fire again, not to mention that Grala probably couldn’t see very much with that much fire extinguisher smoke trailing out the car. They also restarted with the huge cloud from the fire extinguishers hanging in the air over the tri-oval. Yeah, that’s a sanctioning body that’s really dedicated to safety.
On the other hand, they threw the caution on the last lap instead of letting them race to the checkers.


I imagine the toadies in the control tower tried to time the caution to give Elliott the win but they messed up at that too.


I have a suggestion for the “road course” at Daytona for the Cup event: take out the chicane at the end of the lap and let them use the front stretch back to the finish line. It’s good enough for the Rolex 24 and would allow a drag race to the line.


Nice to see McDowell win, which made it worth staying up after mid nite to see Hamlin not win. Last week I commented about Blaney’s luck the last couple of years and was hoping it would change this year. Not off to a very good start. Tried to keep my eyes on him during the lap 15 melee. Saw him get by down low and thought he had it made and then it happened, a car slides down off the banking and nowhere else to go but into the mud. It’s over for the night. Once again bad luck prevails. Here we go again.


“Wallace deserved a better finish” , wow, can’t believe a supposed Nascar reporter said that. Get off the bandwagon now,.


Lol, so true. We haven’t even begun to experience the bubba fest. It will get worse. I have listened to Dave Moody for a long time, but that has ended over Wallace. If you call Moody’s show and express anything other than reverence for Wallace, his talent, and his character he immediately infers you are a racist. You cannot dislike Wallace on his show. Pathetic.


Lol, so true. It will get worse with Wallace, especially when he doesn’t produce any good results, they will scramble to explain it away. I have listened to Dave Moody for a long time, but that has ended over Wallace. If you call his show about Wallace and express anything other than reverence for him and his talent Dave immediately infers you are a …… (I guess you can’t use that term as my first comment attempt was rejected).

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