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A golfer can miss the cut more often than not, but winning The Masters Tournament just once alters the way the sports world remembers him. It works similarly in NASCAR. And that’s great for Michael McDowell since he might otherwise go through life as motorsports’ version of Vinko Bogataj, the personification of the agony of defeat.

McDowell experienced a version of beginner’s luck 14 years before winning the Daytona 500, but there was no drive onto Victory Lane to accompany it. Rather, his reward was that he lived to race another day after a high-speed crash.

Michael McDowell won the 2021 Daytona 500 in dramatic fashion

Michael McDowell could win a bunch more races in his NASCAR Cup Series. But it won’t matter unless one of them is another Daytona 500. Once you’ve won Daytona, that’s all that people will remember unless you capture a season championship. Even then, the Daytona victory will show up in the second paragraph of your obituary instead of the first.

McDowell scored his Daytona win, the only Cup Series triumph of his career, in 2021 with the help of “The Big One,” a massive wreck on the final lap. Brad Keselowski tried passing Joey Logano for the lead on the backstretch when they tangled. Keselowski plowed into the outer wall and catch fence after being rammed by Kyle Busch. McDowell, running right behind the leaders, came through unscathed, splitting the difference as Keselowski and Logano went spinning on opposite sides of the track.

Four others followed McDowell’s path through the hazard. After viewing the video, officials ruled McDowell possessed the lead when the yellow flag came out. The race concluded under the caution, and he became the eighth driver to score his first career Cup Series triumph in the Daytona 500.

Michael McDowell’s other unforgettable moment: ‘I hope I don’t get fired’

There is only one Daytona 500 per year, but there are typically a couple of crashes that remain memorable for years because of how frightful the wrecks look. One such instance occurred on April 4, 2008, at Texas Motor Speedway as McDowell tried qualifying for the Duck Commander 500.

It was a run-of-the-mill effort until McDowell’s Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota got loose exiting Turn 1. In the course of trying to recover, the Phoenix native slammed into the outer wall nearly head-on. That began a phenomenal sequence in which the car rolled more than a dozen times.

“I went to go to the brake pedal and the brake pedal wasn’t there,” McDowell recalled in one of the many times he has relived the crash. “The brakes were pulled back and so I didn’t know what to do but just hit the gas. So, I smashed the gas and that was the wrong choice. I should have just rode it out.”

Though people point at inexperience because McDowell was trying to qualify for only the second time in his rookie season, there was a more significant culprit. Minutes earlier, David Gilliland blew an engine on the 1.5-mile track. Crews put down Speedy Dry to absorb the oil, and McDowell is sure he got caught in some of the residue on his way to one of the wildest rides ever.

“I remember when it landed, it landed on all fours and I kind of wiggled my toes and moved around a little bit. I realized I wasn’t hurt and climbed out. But, you know, the biggest thing that went through my mind was, ‘Oh, man. I hope I don’t get fired.’ Your second race in the Cup Series, a rookie, and to have a crash like that.”

Michael McDowell

The defending champ has a big week ahead at the Daytona 500

NASCAR Cup Series driver Michael McDowell speaks with the media prior to the NASCAR Champion's Banquet at Music City Center on Dec. 2, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
NASCAR Cup Series driver Michael McDowell speaks with the media prior to the NASCAR Champion’s Banquet at Music City Center on Dec. 2, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The clock is ticking down toward Speedweeks, culminating with the Daytona 500 on Feb. 20. That will end Michael McDowell’s reign as defending champion unless he scores career victory No. 2 in the Great American Race.

As defending champion, McDowell will be doing a lot of interviews in the coming week. However, that will not be the extent of his media presence. I Am Second, which bills itself as a global storytelling organization, will debut a film short on Feb. 15 about McDowell, his relationship with God, and the changes brought about by winning at Daytona a year ago.

“I remember being overwhelmed with emotion – to finally win a race and to do it at the Daytona 500,” he said. “I remember about 30 minutes after the win just this overwhelming gratefulness, and a very sobering realization that I didn’t do anything – God literally provided this opportunity and it started 14 years ago. God was walking with me through the valleys before we got to the mountaintop, molding and shaping me.”

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