By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Michael McDowell achieved a lifelong dream last season by winning the 2021 Daytona 500, his first win in the NASCAR Cup Series.
A year later, he returns to the World Center of Racing proudly carrying the banner as the Daytona 500 champion, ready to defend his title in the first race of the Next Gen era.
“It is awesome. It really is,” McDowell said of making his return as the defending winner. “The last few weeks with getting ready for the 500 and all the media and all the preseason stuff, it is fun. It is fun being the Daytona 500 champion coming to Daytona. It has been a cool experience.
“I feel like there are times in the season last year where, not like you forget, but you just get back into the grind and things aren’t going all that great and you are kind of riding that season wave. Then in the off-season, and getting ready for this, it was a lot of fun because everyone wants to talk about winning the Daytona 500 and it brings back a lot of great memories.
“At the same time, we are focused on this year and trying to kick our season off right and go back-to-back if we can. It is a lot of fun. It has been a cool couple of weeks getting ready for this.”
McDowell added that after all the trials and tribulations he had to go through in his career before getting a chance to make it to Victory Lane, for the Daytona 500 to be that first win makes it even more special, given the significance that a win in Daytona brings.
“The significance of this race and the history of it. Like you said, it just has more meaning than just your average NASCAR race,” McDowell said. “They are all important and they all have significance, but if there is one you are going to win, this is the one. It is special. It is cool to know that regardless of what happens this weekend or what happens this year you always have that Daytona 500 victory and being a Daytona 500 champion is pretty special.”
While being more than elated that he was able to bring home the Daytona 500 win to Front Row Motorsports last season, McDowell couldn’t help but take notice in how different the atmosphere is for this year’s running. A sold-out crowd and packed infield will greet this year’s field, a drastic change from the toned-down version of the race in the midst of the pandemic in 2021.
McDowell noted that he wished that he could have won in front of such a crowd, but still relishes his 500 win and hopes to be able to add another to the trophy case this year or some other time down the road.
“For sure it’s different,” McDowell noted. “It’s awesome. I feel like this turnout here and the camping and as you drive out of the tunnel here it’s like it used to be. It’s like how it used to be, not just it’s bigger than it was four or five years ago, this is how it used to be 10 years ago when I first got into this sport, so it’s fun to see that. It does make me a little bummed and a little jealous.
“[Friday] night, Zane Smith was in victory lane and had all of the Love’s guests and all of our sponsors there and it’s awesome. I’m so happy for them. But I’m like, ‘Man, we won the biggest race and we had to stand six-feet apart and not touch each other.’
“I wish I could do it all over, but we get an opportunity to do that tomorrow and so we have everybody here and we win the race [Sunday] that would definitely be special to be able to celebrate that with not just the fans, but also too we’ve gone a year without having our sponsor here, or more, so it’s really important to see our sport get back to where we were and it’s been fun. The energy around here is incredible right now.
“I’m so thankful to have won the Daytona 500, but, man, it would have been so nice to have your friends, you family, your sponsors, fans to take it all in because it’s a special moment. Hopefully, it’s not a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but it is those types of moments that you wish you could capitalize on all that, but you can’t look at it too much. You can’t change the past. You just look towards the future and tomorrow we’ll have an opportunity to do it again.”