What we learned from the Daytona 500

Profile Picture: Robert Criscola

February 15th, 2021

Another wild Daytona 500 is in the books. The 63rd installment of “The Great American Race” featured a lengthy rain delay, a couple of massive wrecks, and an improbable first-time winner in Michael McDowell.

A race like this doesn’t feel truly predictive of how the 2021 NASCAR season will pan out, but there are some things that we can take away from this year’s renewal of the Daytona 500.

Here are the three most important things we learned from Sunday’s season-opening race.

Anything can happen at Daytona

The Fords were in great position going into the final lap of the Daytona 500, with Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and McDowell lined up. A run by the Chevrolets had flamed out in short order at Lap 189, and only a minor bid was coming from Austin Dillon into the final turn.

But manufacturer and team loyalties go out the window once the Harley J. Earl Trophy is in sight. Logano was blocking Penske partner Keselowski on the final turn when McDowell collided with Keselowski’s bumper, turning both the No. 22 and the No. 2 cars around.

McDowell – who miraculously took no damage from the last-lap wreck – was an +8000 longshot who had never won a NASCAR Cup Series race in 357 prior starts.

“There’s been lots of years where I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it?” McDowell told reporters after the race. “I always knew if I just kept grinding that one day everything will line up and go right.”

Hamlin is still king of this course

Though Denny Hamlin didn’t secure his unprecedented third straight Daytona 500 score, it was fairly obvious that he had the best car on the track on Sunday.

Hamlin led 98 of 200 laps and won both Stages 1 and 2. Unfortunately for him and the Toyotas, the Fords and Chevys timed their final green flag pit stops better, and the Toyotas went from the front to the tail-end of the lead lap.

There was very little Hamlin could do from 12th place barring a last-minute caution, which came just a half-lap too late for him.

Playoff push will be that much tougher

A driver who had never qualified for the NASCAR playoffs in McDowell is now automatically in for 2021 thanks to his tremendous upset score in the Daytona 500.

This result will put the squeeze on fringe players like Kurt Busch and Matt DiBenedetto, who needed to maximize the points they grabbed throughout 2020 to squeak into the playoff field. They did not get off to a good start in this race, as Busch checked in 22nd while DiBenedetto finished 33rd.