‘It was like watching a door open’: Last-lap wins are now the norm at the Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The white flag is out. The leader of the race has the hammer down, but both eyes are glued to the rearview mirror. What he sees is a pack of angry, onrushing race cars that want to be where he is. Then suddenly, that leader is no longer the leader. The pack is no longer a pack. It is a scrapyard. Meanwhile, someone who wasn’t the leader is now the leader and not only that, they are also the newest champion of the biggest stock car race in the world.

Shortly after midnight on Monday, that’s exactly how it went down at the Daytona 500. That’s how Michael McDowell wound up driving his underfunded, likable loser, Pittsburgh Pirates of a Front Row Motorsports Ford into NASCAR’s most-hallowed Victory Lane. Not Joey Logano, the leader with half a lap remaining, only a mile from his second Daytona 500 victory. Not Brad Keselowski, the second place running former series champion whose only missing jewel is a win in the sport’s most prestigious event.

Nope. They both ended up in the fence, along with six other machines that were sliding, colliding, some exploding into flames while others flung mud and sod into the air. McDowell drag raced defending Cup champ Chase Elliott and 2018 Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon to the finish before the caution flag froze the field and ended the race.

Keselowski said: “I don’t feel like I made a mistake, but I can’t drive everybody else’s car. So frustrating.”

Logano said: “Pandemonium, I guess. Chaos struck.”

McDowell said: “I know a lot of people are mad. I know a lot of people are asking, ‘Who the heck is Michael McDowell and how is he wearing this Daytona 500 ring?’ Joey went one way, Brad went the other, and it was like watching a door open.”

When told that people (more specifically, internet people) were questioning how that door opened — as in, he’d used his front bumper to open it — the racer who’d just ended a career 0-for-357 winless streak smiled, shrugged and chuckled.

“This is the Daytona 500, man,” McDowell said. “If you were shocked or surprised at how that just happened, then you haven’t been watching this race, certainly not in recent years.”

The racer they call McDriver is McCorrect. Last-lap crashes and lead changes used to be the Daytona 500 exception. There’s a reason we grew up with constant replays of Richard Petty and David Pearson in the frontstretch grass in 1976 and “There’s a fight!” between Cale Yarborough and the Alabama Gang in 1979. They were very literally extraordinary moments. Back in the day, that kind of last-lap, no-idea-who’ll-win stuff never happened.

Now it happens every year. Chaos and pandemonium are the modus operandi. The Great American Race has become the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show.

To paraphrase the great philosopher Richard Flair, you can love it or you can hate it, but you’d better sit down and look at it, because this is what the Daytona 500 is today.

Over the first 57 editions of the 500, there was a lead change on the final lap nine times. Now it’s happened four times in six years. And that’s only the official lap leader stat, scored at the start-finish line. It doesn’t count an exchange such as one year ago, when Ryan Newman took the lead during the white flag lap and held down the point all the way into the tri-oval before getting turned into the wall his now-famous crash as winner Denny Hamlin streaked by.

Before 2017, no one had ever won the Daytona 500 by leading only the final lap of the race. Michael McDowell was the third driver to do it in the last five years.

So, what exactly does all this mean? Should we feel manipulated because these finishes might be the product of a system increasingly rigged to create parity? Should we be wrestling with our motorsports morality because today’s Great American Race is so much different than the ones won by the Greatest Generation? Have we sold our stock car souls in the name of better-than-CGI imagery of crashes and flames and banzai move finish-line heroics straight out of Mario Kart?

Is General Maximus about to throw his hands into the air and expose our lust for more by exclaiming, “Are you not entertained?!”

“I don’t know about all that,” Michael McDowell said in an empty Victory Lane early Monday morning, watching and rewatching the video of his move into the lead. It was the first time he’d seen it and his eyes grew large as the crash unfolded and the reporter’s smartphone screen became orange with the images of flames.

“As a sports fan, all you can ask for is not knowing what’s coming next, right? The big finish at the end,” he continued. “You never know what’s coming next in this race. Certainly not these days. So, it’s pretty entertaining and fun, I would think.”

McDowell paused, turned and pointed to the massive Harley J. Earl Trophy behind him. Track workers were already bolting on a silver plate freshly-engraved with his name, alongside the likes of Petty, Pearson, Earnhardt, and a lot former Daytona 500 winners whom he’d just outrun, including would-be winner Logano, who had come by moments earlier to congratulate McDowell in person.

“Entertaining and fun. I guess that’s easy for me to say, isn’t it?”

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