Michael McDowell, A NASCAR Hero for Non-Gearheads


By Lenn Robbins

We don’t have NASCAR racing in the five boroughs if you’re willing to discount most Uber drivers, about half the cabbies and the couple of thousand nimrods (not a car part) who “modify” their Toyota Corollas or Subaru Impreza with a broken muffler, tricked out rims and “Mean Machine,” decals.

New Jersey seems like a good state for a NASCAR event except left hand turns are prohibited on many roads and NASCAR drivers subtly turn left – at about 200 mph – with cars inches away.

Some find this exciting. I find it like driving on the narrow-laned Williamsburg Bridge, although not as fast.

The only good NASCAR race is:

  1. One in which no gets hurts, no less killed.
  2. One in which it turns into demolition derby.

Therefore, Sunday’s Daytona 500 was as good as it gets. Sixteen cars were knocked out of the race just 15 laps in when, I don’t know, someone forgot to signal?

And at the end, Michael McDowell, 36, who had never won in 358 NASCAR starts, found himself just behind stars Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano on the final lap.

Keselowski tried to dart around Logano by going right. Logano opted to block him by going left. Metal crunched metal. Fire licked the track. And I could have sworn I heard Jackie Stewart lamenting in his Scottish brogue, “Oh there’s a blue smoke coming out of his engine, what a shame,” but I might be getting my automobile races confused.

Anyway, suddenly, McNeverwon had open road ahead of him. Suddenly he had gone from being winless to winning the premier NASCAR event of the season.

3 – A NASCAR race in which a down-on-his-luck, unknown-to-the-masses-driver goes Days of Thunder on us.

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

Or in this case, left. NASCAR is one long left turn.

Regardless, here’s the good news for a not so serious gearhead like myself. NASCAR made the Daytona 500 its opening event of the season in 1982, a brilliant stroke of marketing.

It’s the one NASCAR race that those of us who own a MetroCard but not a car has heard of. The NASCAR champion is determined by a points system based mostly on wins throughout the season. It doesn’t matter if Daytona is held the first or last week of the season in terms of the standings but it sure as heck gets our attention after the Super Bowl and before March Madness.

Now we’ve got an entire NASCAR season to look forward. There’s a NASCAR event in New York state – the Go Bowling at The Glen race – at Watkins Glen International Speedway.

 Not sure what bowling and auto racing have in common. Maybe the sound of the pins getting crushed is similar to bumpers kissing at 200 MPH. Don’t know.

But now my army of New York Extra Gearheads has a favorite driver. Before winning Dayton, McDowell’s greatest achievement had been winning the 2004 Star Mazda Championship. His best finish at Daytona was fifth in 2019.

McDowell only led for one lap, but it’s the only one that counts.

“When I came across the [finish] line, I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, is this possible?’” McDowell said. “I mean, ‘It’s possible that we just won the race. I don’t know if it is.’ And then immediately, it sunk in that if we didn’t, I’m going to be so upset.”

McDowell won. No one was hurt or killed. And there were enough multi-car pileups to make an insurance claims adjuster grin. Watkins Glen, here I come.

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