DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Michael McDowell, a 14-year part-timer with an independent team from Arizona, drove straight through a flaming crash scene on the final lap of the Daytona 500 early Monday to earn his first career victory in the NASCAR Cup Series.
The wreck was triggered when the Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski tangled going for the lead. They took out a half-dozen cars behind them, including another teammate, Austin Cindric, with flames erupting all over Daytona International Speedway at the race’s close, nearly nine hours after it began.
Kyle Busch and Darrell Wallace Jr. were among the other favorites caught up in it. No one was injured.
McDowell, 36, was able to squeeze past Logano and Keselowski’s cars, and was leading when NASCAR put up the race-ending caution flag. Chase Elliott finished a car length behind McDowell. Austin Dillon was third, followed by Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
The wild finish was a bookend to a wild start: A 16-car chain reaction accident brought chaos to the race after only 15 of 200 laps on Sunday, and during the ensuing cleanup, a violent lightning storm and rain shower caused a lengthy delay.
Busch had pushed Christopher Bell into the back of Aric Almirola, who was running second. Almirola’s car lost traction as it drove over a slick, painted double line on the inside of the track. It veered into the car of Alex Bowman, who had started on the pole and was then running third.
As Harvick, the leader, sped away unscathed, a closely bunched pack of cars piled blindly into the wreckage behind him. The cars slammed into the outside retaining wall, into one another and into more danger in the infield.
The grassy infield had been turned into a muddy bog by a week of rain. Mud flew in every direction, splattering windshields, blocking drivers’ vision and coating the track with slime, worsening the melee.
The storm, carrying golf-ball-size hail, lightning, thunder and strong winds, moved over the track even as the cars were skidding to a stop. The cars still running were ordered to pit road, and drivers got out as tarps were put over the cars. The race was stopped and no repairs were allowed.
Fox television, which broadcast the race, announced that 16 cars had received significant damage. The affected drivers included the early leader, Ryan Newman, who was making his comeback after a near-fatal accident at the end of last year’s race. Others involved included William Byron, the other front row starter; Martin Truex Jr.; Erik Jones; Kurt Busch; and Jamie McMurray. Ryan Blaney made it through the wreck, only to spin into the infield mud, which tore out key components under his car.
During the delay, Marissa Briscoe, the wife of driver Chase Briscoe, tweeted a photo of her husband, still dressed in his racing suit, ordering food at a Panda Express drive-through.
The ferocity of the storm caused officials to order evacuation of the grandstands, which contained about 20,000 socially distanced fans. Fox television camera positions were also ordered abandoned. Track drying efforts, which typically require two to three hours once the rain stops, began when the lightning alert was lifted after an hour.
Hamlin, the prerace favorite who was going for an unprecedented third consecutive Daytona 500 victory, avoided the crash entirely, having dropped back to the rear of the field on purpose. He said he’d had a “premonition” that something might happen.
“Predictable,” he said, shrugging. Hamlin had won three of the last five Daytona 500s and finished fourth in another by following his instincts, he said.
Wallace, who drives for the team Hamlin started with the basketball legend Michael Jordan, brought out the race’s first yellow flag on Lap 3 when he tangled with Derrike Cope. After minor repairs, Wallace was able to continue, although Cope, the race’s oldest driver at 62, crashed out of the event.