A surprise Daytona 500 winner; and a satisfied runner-up in Elliott

It required more than nine hours for the NASCAR hotshots to travel 500 miles Sunday, into Monday morning. That’s less than a 55-mph pace, which anyone in a 2001 Geo Metro crammed with a family of four and a spaniel with a bladder issue could better.

Perhaps that’s why Chase Elliott seemed so accepting of his oh-so-close second-place finish in the Daytona 500 – he was just happy to get to the end of such a long trail where the scenery never changed. This was as content as you’ll ever hear Elliott after not taking a checkered flag, given that he is far more prone to serving harsh penance on winless weekends.

“We did a really good job of executing today,” Elliott told Fox moments after the finish, sounding really very satisfied. “Staying out of trouble, that’s something I haven’t done a very good job of in this race. I’m glad we could finish this one.”

What began at 3 p.m. Sunday when Pitbull gave the start-engines order and a cobalt-blue-haired wrestler named Sasha Banks waved the green flag – welcome to your new NASCAR – ended well after midnight Monday. A more than five-hour rain delay will do that. Of course, it wrapped up in a hail of spark and fire and sheet metal, because the spectacular late-lap crash is to the Daytona 500 what rolling the credits is to every movie, just the normal conclusion. Only this time it was one of the sport’s ultimate bit players – Michael McDowell – emerging from the wreckage to edge Elliott at the end.

The siren at the Dawsonville Pool Room was primed to sound early Monday morning as it does every time Elliott, its hometown leadfoot, wins. But the good folk of North Georgia slept undisturbed as the 36-year-old McDowell won for the first time in 358 Cup series starts. The man had turned 72,979 laps in his life before winning a race on his 72,980th (it was the only lap he led at Daytona).

It seemed as if Elliott was a hair’s breadth away from winning this most coveted race, as he and McDowell burst forth from the surrounding automotive inferno like rock stars coming onstage. McDowell held the speedier high line, gained the slightest advantage, blocked Elliott and was barely a car’s length out front when the caution came out, signaling the end of the race. But perspective is skewed at these speeds. Might as well have been a mile, Elliott said. “I don’t think it was very close,” he said. “I got kinda next to him and saw the (caution) lights come on, I knew it was over right there.”

After one teammate, Joey Logano, a little too late and aggressively blocked off another, Brad Keselowski, the bumper cars were set in motion. There will be some explaining to do back at the Penske shop.

“Brad was turning right, Joey was turning left and I went right through the middle of it,” McDowell said afterward. “And I looked in my mirror and I saw Chase Elliott with a run, and I went up there and blocked him as fast as I could and we made a little bit of contact. I didn’t see anything else from that point. It’s just kind of a blur from there.”

Close represents a grand improvement for Elliott at the Daytona 500, perhaps another reason for his upbeat mood. His best previous finish was 14th in 2017. Since then he had gone 33rd, 17th and 17th. This is as good as he has felt at the start of any season, a promising omen for the defense of his Cup series championship.

And, honestly, how could Elliott begrudge McDowell’s victory? This was like “Rocky” with a pit crew and a slightly more upscale sponsor (Love’s as opposed to the fictional Shamrock Meats Inc.).

While displaying a knack on superspeedways, McDowell was otherwise pretty much filler in any field over much of his career. For the better part of four years in the early 2010s, he was a so-called “start-and-park” driver, running some laps then coming in at mid-race in order to collect whatever purse he could to keep the team in the black. They couldn’t afford to run an entire race or risk wrecking the car.

“Even when I was start-and-parking, I was like, man, one day I’m going to get a shot at it and I’ll be able to do it because of all this that I’ve put into it. I never lost hope of that,” McDowell said post-race.

“I think that’s an important part of it – just believing that it’s possible,” he said. “Just believing that it’s possible that it could happen – and it did.”

Said Elliott, “I don’t know Michael very well at all. He certainly has stuck around over the years and battled hard through the course of his career, and you can’t help but respect the fact that he’s still pushing and trying to have success at this level. Yeah, I respect it. I’m happy for him.”

All in all, second place has never looked better to a driver born to run up front.

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