Daytona 500 is the jewel of American motorsport and the perfect race for Michael McDowell to break his duck

As one major US sport finishes, another starts and what better way to begin than with the world-famous Daytona 500?

Michael McDowell crosses the finish line ahead of Austin Dillon to win the NASCAR Daytona 500. Picture: John Raoux/AP

The football season is over, allowing the focus to switch to the jewel of American motorsport.

The points system in NASCAR is convoluted. Sometimes it feels that only those who have been following the races since the 1940s can explain the weekend-long, leading-at-a-specific-moment, system of scoring. But what I can explain is how Michael McDowell secured the first race win of his 13-year career.

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Daytona is the spiritual home for NASCAR and it’s a race that all the drivers dream of winning.

Michael McDowell celebrates after his Daytona 500 victory. Picture: John Raoux/AP

The 63rd Daytona 500 kicked off with its usual panache as musician Pitbull got the racers underway in front of the 21,000 fans lucky enough to get into the event in these Covid times. The attendance is usually north of 100,000.

The field included Denny Hamlin, the bookies’ favourite and two-time winner, defending Cup Series champion Chase Elliott, and Joey Logano, who finished third last year. All three qualified in the top 12.

The race took its first twist - I'd say turn, but they only turn left in NASCAR - when Aric Almirola, who was having a hot weekend having picked up some momentum in the proceeding races, was involved in a pile-up on lap 14.

The collision resulted in a pack of leaders dropping out of the race as the stewards intervened, temporarily putting the race on hold while stewards cleared debris from the track.

Then, not to be outdone, the weather decided to play a part too. A five-hour rain delay caused the race that started Sunday afternoon to push deep into the night before finishing in the early hours of Monday morning.

The final lap proved pivotal for veteran McDowell as another major collision gave the racer his first career win.

The cars entered the final lap with Logano in the lead, last year’s Cup Series runner-up Brad Keselowski in second and McDowell in third, with a group including Kyle Busch and Elliot right behind them.

As the cars raced down the back straight McDowell applied pressure on Keselowski who lost control and in the process took out Logano right in front of him. As these two cars split, Keselowski went high into the wall and Logano low into the grass, allowing McDowell to emerge through the middle and take his maiden win as chaos reigned.

It’s not been an easy journey for the racer. His pursuit to reach the top of the racing world has included only nine top-ten finishes, and his previous highest finish was seventh.

McDowell started our racing BMX bikes at the age of three, before moving on to karting at eight. He kept progressing and moved on to the ARCA stock car series where he was rookie of the year and collected a second-place championship finish. That’s when the NASCAR teams came calling.

But, after entering NASCAR, McDowell’s career stalled. The competition was tougher, and the added pressure of sponsorship and the need for results all hampered the driver as he bounced between teams. That all changed in 2018 when he found a long term home with Front Row Motorsport.

The stability helped his career and over the past four years he has crept up the standings. He was still searching for that first win but was spending large parts of races leading the field and finished last season with his most top 15 finishes.

It is little surprise that his first win came at Daytona where McDowell liked performing - he had finished in the top 15 in his past five races there.

McDowell will be hoping his first win is the start of a fairytale season, rather than the cue for a return to the battle in the middle of the field.

But as the season progresses and the more famous names return to the top of the rankings, the one thing that won't be taken away from him is this maiden victory. McDowell will always have Valentine’s Day at Daytona.

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