By: Isaac Donsky, Staff Writer
Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
What just happened? That was my reaction early Monday morning following the conclusion of the 2021 Daytona 500. Yes, you heard that right. It finished in the wee hours of Monday. That alone gives you an idea of just how unusual this race was.
You might be asking yourself how a race that began at 2:30 p.m. ended at 12:35 a.m. Well, the almost six-hour rain delay might be to blame. A pounding thunderstorm blanketed the track throughout the afternoon and early evening, leaving many of us racing fans to wonder if the 500 would be postponed to Monday, but on Sunday evening, the call went out: drivers to your cars.
Once the racing resumed, things were pretty tame for a Daytona 500. Usually, races at Daytona see intense, two and three-wide racing throughout the event, but this race was mostly a single-file affair. It was almost as the drivers had been spooked by something to cause them to be so cautious. Now, what could scare 40 of the best stock-car drivers in the world from racing hard? The answer is what we in the business call “The Big One,” otherwise known as a multi-car crash familiar to Daytona.
On lap 14, just a few minutes before the thunderstorm hit, Christopher Bell gave Aric Almirola a bad shove down the backstretch. Almirola swung up the track into polesitter Alex Bowman, triggering a 16-car melee that eliminated many of the favorites. Big crashes like this aren’t rare in NASCAR, but they’re just frustrating.
With the majority of the field taken out in the opening laps, the remaining drivers opted to take it easy for the final 180 laps. Incredibly, this strategy worked as they nearly made it to the finish without any more chaos. On the final lap, teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano made contact while battling for the lead, causing both to crash. Keselowski took the worst of it as his car was t-boned by Kyle Busch and split in half, the fuel tank erupting in an explosion that collected more than five other cars.
Amid that chaotic finish came the victor, Michael McDowell, a driver you’d be forgiven for forgetting his existence. McDowell snaked his way through the carnage to claim the biggest prize in stock car racing. A humble and religious man from Arizona, McDowell has spent much of his career driving for underdog teams and start-and-park cars. All of that hard work and grinding finally paid off as McDowell took the checkered flag for one of the most memorable, and weird, Daytona 500’s I’ve ever seen.
The drama isn’t over just yet. Keselowski and Logano, the two teammates who sparked the violent fireball that ended the 500, have not spoken since the incident. This is just getting started folks.