NASCAR Barometer: McDowell Scores First Series Victory

NASCAR Barometer: McDowell Scores First Series Victory

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500, got off to a stuttered start Sunday with just 15 laps completed before a 16-car wreck brought out the caution. Shortly after, rain and lightning produced the red flag. Crews battled the weather the rest of the evening before the clouds parted and the track dried. Once racing resumed, it was Denny Hamlin who looked every bit the favorite to win his third consecutive February classic. Instead, a last-lap crash opened the door to a shock win from veteran Michael McDowell. It was the first series win for the sixth-year driver, and it came on the sport's biggest stage. McDowell only had three career top-five finishes before Sunday's triumph and now he finds himself looking ahead to his first championship playoff appearance, too. The win was the third for the Front Row Motorsports organization, their first since Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened race at Pocono in 2016. 

There is little time to celebrate, as the NASCAR schedule picks up again this week back at Daytona. This week's round will be the second regular-season race on the road course and the second race for NASCAR in a month after the annual Busch Clash exhibition race last week. Chase Elliott dominated last season's race and nearly won the Clash, too. However, contact with Ryan Blaney in the final turn opened the door for Kyle Busch to sneak through and make an early 2021 visit to Victory Lane.

UPGRADE

Michael McDowell – As we pointed out

NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500, got off to a stuttered start Sunday with just 15 laps completed before a 16-car wreck brought out the caution. Shortly after, rain and lightning produced the red flag. Crews battled the weather the rest of the evening before the clouds parted and the track dried. Once racing resumed, it was Denny Hamlin who looked every bit the favorite to win his third consecutive February classic. Instead, a last-lap crash opened the door to a shock win from veteran Michael McDowell. It was the first series win for the sixth-year driver, and it came on the sport's biggest stage. McDowell only had three career top-five finishes before Sunday's triumph and now he finds himself looking ahead to his first championship playoff appearance, too. The win was the third for the Front Row Motorsports organization, their first since Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened race at Pocono in 2016. 

There is little time to celebrate, as the NASCAR schedule picks up again this week back at Daytona. This week's round will be the second regular-season race on the road course and the second race for NASCAR in a month after the annual Busch Clash exhibition race last week. Chase Elliott dominated last season's race and nearly won the Clash, too. However, contact with Ryan Blaney in the final turn opened the door for Kyle Busch to sneak through and make an early 2021 visit to Victory Lane.

UPGRADE

Michael McDowell – As we pointed out in our DFS preview for the Daytona 500, Michael McDowell is a driver who can outperform on superspeedways. He did exactly that on NASCAR's biggest stage, avoiding the final lap carnage and winning his first career Cup Series race. That win also puts him in position for his first appearance in the playoffs. McDowell led just one lap all day, but it was the most important one. Successfully navigating the 500 miles to be in contention is sometimes all that is necessary, and McDowell has proven he could do that numerous times. He now heads to Daytona's road course where he started 30th and finished 10th last season. So, Sunday's win could just be the start of a hot streak.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin started his effort to score three consecutive Daytona 500 wins with victories in the first and second stages of Sunday's race. Last season he led the series in stage wins, and those playoff points will help as he tries to navigate the playoffs to secure another shot to win his first series championship this season. However, his quest for the Daytona three-peat fell a bit short with a fifth-place finish in Sunday's rain-delayed race. A top-five is a good finish, though, and Hamlin is an excellent racer on the road courses, too. He started on the front row at Daytona last season and went on to finish second behind Elliott. He led 16 total laps on the road course that day and 21 a week ago in the Busch Clash.

Chase Elliott – Elliott backed up his 2020 championship with a runner-up finish in Sunday's Daytona 500. The Hendrick Motorsports driver finished fourth in the second stage and then avoided the final lap carnage to be classified second as the caution flag waved. The finish was Elliott's third top-five of the week after finishing second in the Busch Clash and then fifth in his qualifying race. He nearly won the Clash on the road course, and he'll have the chance to do that again this week. He was the best driver on those circuits last season and led 34 of 65 laps on this course to win last year. Elliott is arguably the best road course racer in the field and is likely to enter this week's race as the favorite to win again. 

Austin Dillon - Like Elliott, Dillon avoided the crashes that eliminated many of the top drivers Sunday in the Daytona 500. The former Daytona champion ended last season with an impressive run of top-10 finishes as the playoffs began. That momentum wasn't enough to see him avoid elimination, but he may have gained some back this past week. He won his qualifying Duel on Thursday and finished in the top 10 in both stages before finishing the big race third. Dillon tested positive for Covid-19 last season, which forced him to sit out the only prior visit to the Daytona road course before last week's Clash. Dillon started that short exhibition race 19th but drove forward to finish 11th. His best road course finishes are a pair of 16th-place finishes at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.

DOWNGRADE

Ryan Blaney – A crash on lap 15 left Blaney with a destroyed race car and no chance of winning the 2021 Daytona 500. The Penske Racing driver has had two disappointments at Daytona in the past week. He was leading into the final turns of the Busch Clash when reigning series champion Elliott came into the final turn too hot and smashed Blaney out of the lead, then while trying to avoid the carnage ahead, the grass took out most of Blaney's front end Sunday in the Daytona 500. It is a long season, but there are high expectations on Blaney's shoulders. He'll need a top finish this week on the Daytona road course to put the past week firmly behind him. He only finished 31st there last season, but was within a breath of winning on the same track in the Clash this past week.

Aric Almirola – Prospects looked bright for Almirola heading into Sunday's Daytona 500. The racer had previously proven himself capable of winning on superspeedways, and he backed that up again earlier in the week by winning his qualifying race. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver was running as one of the leaders when a strong push from behind turned him into the wall, triggering a 16-car crash that paused the race before rain brought out the red flag. The Ford driver appeared to have one of his best chances to win the Daytona 500, but one strong push early in the running ruined those chances. He has another chance to score a Daytona win this week on the road course, though. Almirola started sixth and finished 24th there last season. 

William Byron – Byron's luck at Daytona ran out quickly after he qualified on the front row. The Hendrick Motorsports driver had a quick machine, but a crash in Thursday's Duels put him into a backup car and at the back of the field for Sunday's race. Being in the thick of the field early in the race got him caught up in the first accident of the day, too. He returned to action, but the damage to his car was heavy, which prevented him from having any chance of winning. The No. 24 continued to circle the track but finished nine laps behind in 26th position. It wasn't the start to the season for which Byron was hoping. He can turn things around this week on the road course, however. Byron started 13th and finished eighth on the circuit last season. 

Brad Keselowski – A win in the Daytona 500 escaped Keselowski once again late Sunday night on the final lap of the race. Contact with teammate Joey Logano triggered the accident that also claimed Austin Cindric among many others fighting for the victory. Keselowski entered the week at Daytona determined to not let a victory in the Daytona 500 elude him, but he'll have to wait another year to fulfill that dream. He was classified in the 13th finishing spot and will now focus on achieving back-to-back championship finale appearances. Up first is the Daytona road course where he finished 13th last season. Keselowski is not known as one of the best road course racers. His last top-five on that track style was at Charlotte's road course in 2019 where he finished fifth.

Daniel Suarez – Suarez's debut with new team Trackhouse Racing Team lasted a mere 15 laps before he was one of 16 cars caught up in the first major crash. The former Xfinity Series champion was another victim of the saturated grass infield when his damaged car spun off of the track and the front end was ripped off, similar to the circumstances that took out Blaney. Suarez has been working hard to prove he deserves a spot among these 40 full-time drivers, but he will have to wait another week to make that case with his new team. Last year on the Daytona road course, Suarez finished 27th after starting 31st. Time will tell if Suarez can earn consideration for fantasy rosters, but right now there is very little to go by, and fantasy managers would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach before relying on him.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Corey LajoieLajoie doesn't get a lot of fantasy attention, but that may change for next year's Daytona 500. He finished Sunday's race ninth, but also finished in the top 10 in last year's race. That was his only top-10 last season, but Sunday's repeat performance shows that it wasn't a fluke. Lajoie starts this season with a new team in Spire Racing after running the prior two seasons with Go Fas Racing. He said prior to the season that he was feeling as confident as ever heading into a new season on a new team and predicted the group would outperform expectations. So far he is proving those words true. Fantasy owners should take a wait-and-see approach this week, however. Lajoie's best road course finish was 27th at Charlotte, twice.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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