McDowell dominates, clinches Cup Series playoff spot at Indy

Published 6:35 pm Sunday, August 13, 2023

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Michael McDowell knelt down at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s yard of bricks and delivered the sweetest kisses of his racing career Sunday.

The 38-year-old Arizona driver became a Brickyard champ — and a member of an elite club.

McDowell inherited the lead on Lap 53 and never trailed again as he drove the most dominant race of his career, beating Chase Elliott to the yard of bricks by 0.937 seconds for his second NASCAR crown jewel victory while securing a playoff spot. Pole-winner Daniel Suarez was third.

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McDowell’s only other win was the 2021 Daytona 500.

“That’s a big deal,” he said when asked about his second playoff appearance in three years. “When we won the Daytona 500, that was one of the coolest moments we ever had. We cherry pick the races, my family comes to the ones we think we can win, and we thought we could win this one.”

As a result, McDowell’s wife and children also celebrated by kissing the bricks after his 453rd career Cup start. They weren’t at Daytona for his first win.

While his first win came by navigating traffic following a crash at Daytona, there was no doubt Sunday. McDowell won the first stage, finished behind only Denny Hamlin in Stage 2 and closed it out by leading a career-high 54 laps to give Front Row Motorsports its fourth Cup win.

McDowell’s victory put him on the short list of Cup drivers to reach victory lane at Daytona and Indy, a list that includes names such as the late Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jarrett, who introduced the kissing tradition.

And on the annual crossover weekend with the IndyCar Series, McDowell also fittingly joined two of IndyCar’s greatest drivers on the list — Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, the only winners of the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500.

The significance struck McDowell almost immediately as he finished the 82-lap race on Indy’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.

“We did it, we won Indy,” he shouted into the radio. “We had the fastest car. I don’t know if it was dominant, but it felt dominant.”

Elliott, the 2020 series champion, spent the final 20 laps trying to chase down McDowell. He trimmed the deficit from nearly three seconds to less than one but couldn’t close enough to mount a charge.

So he settled for a runner-up finish that gave him some extra points — but not the playoff-clinching win. He’ll have two more chances as the regular season winds to a close. He missed the first eight races of the season because of a broken leg and another following a suspension for an on-track incident at Charlotte. He has yet to win this season and has no chance of qualifying for the playoffs based on points.

“I just lost too much ground in that mid-cycle,” Elliott said.

Suarez also spent most of the afternoon up front in a race that had only one yellow flag and 77 laps of green flag racing — including the last 76. Suarez finished 5.75 seconds behind McDowell, the byproduct of a hose getting caught underneath the car’s left front tire during a pit stop.

Defending champion Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, who also is fighting to make the playoffs, finished fourth and fifth.

Shane van Gisbergen finished 10th in his second career start, failing to become the first Cup driver to win his first two career starts. Van Gisbergen won in his NASCAR debut in the inaugural Chicago race last month but had a more challenging weekend running his first oval in Friday’s truck race and contending with a field of drivers who have years of data regarding Indy’s course.

“Oh, it’s aggressive,” the New Zealander said. “It was fine. I really enjoyed it. You make a move on someone and that gives you the room and then they expect it back, so really cool.”

McDowell felt the same way for a very different reason.

“After winning the Daytona 500, there aren’t many things that can top that but this was a close second,” he said. “To have it all come together, it’s super special.”

The series makes its annual stop at the road course at Watkins Glen next Sunday, the second-to-last regular-season race. The finale is Aug. 26 at Daytona, and the playoffs begin Sept. 3 with the Southern 500 at Darlington.

McDowell became the 14th driver to lock in a playoff spot by winning a race. The final two spots in the 16-driver playoff field will go to any new winners over the final two regular-season races, or the top two in the points standings who have not yet won.

Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski have commanding leads in the latter category, but one or both could be bumped if another new winner emerges at Watkins Glen or Daytona.