Dammmmmmn, Daniel! Suarez, McDowell fight during Phoenix qualifying

Just when you thought this NASCAR season was off to a tame start, Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell spent part of their afternoon fighting on pit road.

On a Friday! During qualifying!

Have you ever seen a fight during qualifying before?

“I did today!” Martin Truex Jr. said. “Awesome!”

Drivers stopped in their tracks and stared at the screens around ISM Raceway while the replay was shown again and again: The images of Suarez walking with purpose and stepping over the pit road wall, McDowell issuing the first strike, Suarez getting the upper hand and slamming McDowell to the ground, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer shoving Suarez onto the hood — hand on the driver’s neck — and Suarez giving him a choke right back as McDowell pulled on his foe’s leg.


“At some point I’ve always wanted to bodyslam somebody,” Kevin Harvick said. “I don’t know what the circumstances were, but it sounded exciting.”

So what happened? Well, it all started with the No. 90 Xfinity Series car driven by Ronnie Bassett Jr.

Bassett’s engine blew at the end of Xfinity practice — which immediately preceded qualifying — and the clean-up job left all sorts of residue on the track.

“One of the ARCA cars blew up at the end of practice and oiled it all down, so nobody wanted to get on the track too soon,” Brad Keselowski said.

That meant most of the cars waited until the very end to roll out — which in turn caused there to be far too much traffic at once on a 1-mile track and prevented some drivers from getting a clean lap.

“When you have a bunch of knucklehead drivers sit out there and wait with four minutes left and 30 cars still haven’t run, that’s what you have,” David Ragan said.

McDowell and Suarez rolled off at the same time, and Suarez strongly felt McDowell impeded his laps — not just once, but twice. So on their way back to pit road, Suarez got in McDowell’s way as retaliation. (McDowell accused Suarez of trying to wreck him, which Suarez didn’t deny.)

“When you mess up somebody’s lap, I understand they’re frustrated,” McDowell said. “But when you try to hurt somebody and damage hundreds of thousands of dollars of race cars, that’s taking it to a whole other level.”

Suarez said he was mad about McDowell costing him a good starting spot, but even more upset about losing pit stall selection on a difficult pit road (stalls are chosen in order of how cars qualified).

He called the situation a lack of respect and said he wouldn’t stand for it.

“I’m the kind of driver that I’m going to give a lot of respect to you, always, if you give me respect back,” Suarez said. “If you don’t give me respect, I’m going to go kick your ass.”

Asked about his takedown of a taller driver (McDowell is listed as having five inches on Suarez), the ultra-athletic Suarez said, “I don’t care how big he is.”

He added: “I’m a very nice guy. I get along well with anyone. But if you play that way, I’m going to react that way.”

McDowell, for his part, said the entire thing was a one-off confrontation in the heat of the moment and had nothing to do with history or bad blood between them.

Both men were upset with the other, and they simply dealt with it.

“Don’t read too much into it,” McDowell said. “It’s emotions, man. It’s just the way it is.”

UPDATE (Saturday morning): McDowell and Suarez met with NASCAR in the series hauler on Saturday morning before practice, where they reassured officials they won’t set out to wreck each other in Sunday’s race.

Suarez said it was easy for him to make that pledge because it’s not his style to crash other drivers.

“I’m not the kind of guy who is going to wreck someone like that,” Suarez said. “I’m not going to use my car as a weapon. If someone has a problem with me, I prefer to do it in person. That’s exactly what I did (Friday).”

But McDowell’s entire reason for being upset was the “dangerous” move Suarez made to interfere with the No. 34 car’s lap as retaliation. McDowell said he expected Suarez to mess up the lap — it’s “protocol” to do so if the other driver does it first, McDowell said — but “what he did was pretty risky for both of us.”

A video shown on FS1 Saturday morning had McDowell’s car coming at full speed while Suarez makes a move back up the track at slow speed, which caused McDowell to jump on the brakes and go high, nearly hitting the wall.

McDowell said the drivers also spoke privately in the NASCAR hauler following their meeting with officials.

I just wanted to have a real conversation with him without all the people around to understand where we’re coming from,” McDowell said. “You’re in this sport a long time and you’re surrounded by people, and you have the opportunity to have good and bad relationships. You can determine that by how you handle conflict. So I just wanted to see where he was at.”

12 Questions with David Ragan and Michael McDowell (2018)

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with a double edition: Front Row Motorsports teammates David Ragan and Michael McDowell are both included in this one. Given the format, it’s highly recommended to listen as a podcast — but it’s also transcribed below for those who prefer to read.

1. How often do you have dreams about racing?

DR: I have dreams every night in general, but I don’t really remember them. Sometimes about racing, sometimes about other things. But when I do dream about racing, it’s never really about the competition and trying to race and win, it’s always about trying to get to the racetrack or the cars being on the track on the pace laps and I can’t find my helmet or I’m stuck in the (hauler) lounge and I can’t get out or something weird like that. Or I’m late or I can’t get my window net up. It’s always things I’m worried about that.

MM: It’s very funny he said that. I have dreams about seeing the cars start the race, too, and you’re not in it. And you see your car and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, what happened?” That’s crazy. But I would say maybe once or twice a month. Like David said, it’s hard to remember. I do remember last night’s dream. It was turkey hunting, not racing.

DR: You should write them down and see if you see a correlation to certain things that are going on in your life.

2. If you get into someone during a race — intentional or not — does it matter if you apologize? I didn’t mean for this to be awkward right after you guys got into each other. (Note: This was recorded the week after the two crashed at Las Vegas.)

DR: It’s perfect timing. (Laughs)

MM: I don’t know if you picked up the audio, but my crew chief, Derrick Finley, was walking through David’s hauler and he just snickered as you asked that question. (Laughs)

DR: I’ll go first, being as I wrecked Michael last week and myself. I do think it’s important. Whether you wreck someone intentionally or whether it’s an accident, I think you should bring it up. If you wreck someone intentionally, you need to let them know you don’t like what they did and why you wrecked them. If you do it unintentionally, I think it’s important say, “Look, man, I’m sorry. I hated I did that.” Just to clear the air. Communication is important. We race with each other 38 times a year and the last thing we need are grudges on the racetrack that bring both teams down. Certainly that’s important with teammates, but even other people in the garage. I try to make it a point to reach out to someone if I wreck them.

MM: Yeah, I think it’s super important. Having been on both sides of it, the intentional part is hard, right? Because if you truly did it intentionally, there were things that built up to it. It doesn’t just happen. But a lot of times, those are the ones that are left undone. Like Ross Chastain and (Kevin) Harvick (in the Darlington Xfinity race). I mean, Ross hooked him. There’s no question and nobody can say anything otherwise. Harvick knows he hooked him. So then not having that conversation, that will be an issue down the road in their careers for both of them. So just being able to bring it up (is important). I had it happen with (Marcos) Ambrose— I intentionally crashed Ambrose at Martinsville. And he waited for me after the race. He came up to me — I’ll never forget it, because it was like the most awkward conversation ever — and he was like, “Well what happened?” I said, “Well, you chopped me two or three times and then I crashed you.” And his face, his jaw dropped. Because he’s like, “You’re saying you did that on purpose?” I said, “Well, I don’t want to lie to you. You chopped me off two or three times, so I crashed you.” And I think he said something like, “I should kill you” — it was something very angry and violent, which I get, because I get ramped up. But I remember the next week he’s like, “Most people would have lied to me. Most people would have said, ‘Hey man, I got in too deep, I locked up my tires and I ran into you.’ I didn’t know how to respond when you actually said you did it on purpose.” But just talking through it, what he said made a lot of sense. He said, “I figured you weren’t going to run the whole race.” Because at the time, I was start-and-parking, but Martinsville was always one of the places we ran because we could be competitive. So he said, “I chopped you because I figured in 10 laps you were going to come in, and if anybody could cut me a break, you could.” Well then all the sudden it made sense to me and I was like, “Maybe I overreacted a little bit because that’s fairly logical.” So what I’m saying is even though sometimes it intentionally happens, walking through it is an important step.

3. What is the biggest compliment someone could give you?

DR: Just saying I’m a good dad and a good husband is the most. The racing thing is my career right now, but it’s not going be my career one day. It would be flattering if somebody told me I was a great race car driver or really fast, but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. So I think the biggest compliment someone could give me is I’m a good son or a good husband or a good dad.

MM: I don’t really care. To me, compliments…it is what it is. Racing in particular, you’re only as good as your last race. So when you get done with your career, nobody is really going to care. So for me, it’s the areas that matter. It’s my faith and family. Those are the areas I want to do well in. But honestly, whether someone thinks you’re doing well in those areas or not really doesn’t matter.

4. NASCAR comes to you and says they’re bringing a celebrity to the track and they want you to host them. Who is a celebrity you’d be excited to host?

MM: I actually got to do it. One of the authors and pastors and guys who have been really influential for me who I hadn’t met was Francis Chan. He was a guest of ours at California, which was really cool. I love racing and there’s lots of people I would like to host, like ex-Formula One drivers and things like that. But you can only talk about so much for so long. It’s cool to get somebody outside our circle who is doing other things aside from going around in circles.

DR: I’m at the racetrack to race. I would love to meet some different people outside the racetrack if we were going to sit around the campfire and tell a couple stories. But a lot of time, I feel like celebrities are kind of fake in whatever field they’re in, and I don’t care to hang out with anybody like that. I would say so no, I don’t have any interest in entertaining anyone at the racetrack, as long as I’m working. I don’t really care. I’m not big on celebrities.

I happened to know that.

DR: That’s why I don’t like being a “celebrity.” I don’t even like that. I want real people. I want the poorest person in the grandstands who had to borrow money to go buy their ticket. That’s who I want to hang out with.

MM: Yeah. And I think the reason some of us are like that is we know what it’s like to be in that role of celebrity. When you go to a dinner and you’re the person and all that, you feel this pressure to entertain. You feel like you’ve got to turn it on, like you’ve got to tell good stories and have good jokes. When David and I hang around, you can just be normal and have normal conversations. It’s hard when you got to a setting where people think you’re the celebrity. So you don’t get the authentic person — even myself — because you’re like, “OK, they invited me as the guest — as the race car driver — so you’ve got to tell race car stories and you’ve got to be funny and charismatic and all of these things,” and it’s like…eh. It’s not worth the pressure.

DR: Yeah.

5. In an effort to show this is a health-conscious sport, NASCAR decides to offer the pole for an upcoming race to the first driver willing to go vegan for one month. Would you do it?

MM: I haven’t really studied the vegan diet. But I’m on the Keto diet. And I don’t know if there could be a greater separation between vegan and Keto. I only eat fat and meat. So no. You can give me the No. 1 stall, but I’m sticking with Keto.

DR: I would go vegan for a month. I do eat a little steak and chicken and fish. It would be kind of a pain in the butt to do that, but if I had a chef that would help, I’d be OK with it. I wouldn’t want to do all the work — that would be a lot of effort. But as far as eating, I love vegetables and fruits. I could do it, and I would. I want it for Martinsville.

Real quick, for Michael: Does the Keto diet really give you more energy, as is billed?

MM: This would be a whole other 12 Questions, but it’s the best thing I’ve done in my life for my health. I’ve lost 35 pounds since doing it, and I’m stronger and better in the race car than I’ve ever been. I’m sure there’s lots of science behind both ends of it, but for me, I did it because I didn’t feel great after Sonoma. I was constantly fighting headaches and feeling depleted. I tried something different and it’s been amazing for me. It’s really been something that has changed my overall performance in the race car.

6. It’s time for the Random Race Challenge. I’ve picked a random race from both of your careers and you have to tell me where you finished. In the spirit of this interview, I went back and found a race where you guys finished back to back. This was the Kansas race last fall. Any idea where you finished?

DR: I know exactly where I finished.

MM: I don’t exactly where I finished, but I know real close.

DR: It was 16th and 17th. I was 17th, you were 16th.

MM: I was going to say 18th for me.

It was actually 17th and 18th.

DR: Who was 18th?

David was 17th, Michael was 18th.

MM: Oh, there we go!

DR: I remembered I was 17th, but I thought you finished in front of me!

MM: That’s funny! You know, I don’t forget top-20s the last few years because you only have a handful of them. So you remember them for sure.

7. I know I’ll get a great answer here because you guys seem like huge rap fans. Who is the best rapper alive?

MM: Well, I am a lyrical gangster. Not a lot of people know that. Eminem is by far the best rapper to walk this planet.

DR: I know rappers, but I don’t know who the best one is. I guess whoever has still got a job and has got the new CD that is out. I have no idea.

MM: I think Eminem is unchallenged, though.

8. Who has the most punchable face in NASCAR?

MM: Joey Logano. He’s just goofy. He’s just silly.

It’s just his face? You don’t actually want to punch him?

MM: No, I love Joey Logano. He’s one of the nicest, realest guys in the garage. But he definitely has a punchable face.

DR: I think whoever is winning a lot. Back in the mid-2000s it was Jimmie Johnson, just being so perfect and winning all the time. Now it’s probably Kyle Busch. He just wins everything.

MM: Fans ask me all the time to punch him in the face. Fans are weird, they’re like, “Hey man, just do me a favor. Just crash Kyle Busch this weekend.” I’m like, “OK, yeah. That’s exactly it. I’ll do that. Thank you for the advice.”

DR: Kyle is a friend of mine. I think he’s one of the best drivers this sport has ever seen. I like Kyle. So I’m not trying to punch anybody. Well, I don’t want to punch anybody first. But yeah…Kyle. (Laughs)

9. NASCAR enlists three famous Americans to be involved with your team for one race as part of a publicity push: Taylor Swift, LeBron James and Tom Hanks.  Pick one to be your crew chief, one to be your spotter and one to be your motorhome driver.

MM: Tom Hanks would be the coach driver because I think he would actually be a cool guy to hang out with. He seems like an interesting guy. LeBron James would be a good spotter. He’s got a lot of energy. And Taylor Swift could be the crew chief.

DR: Well, we’re going to outrun Michael that race. (Laughs) I’d probably put LeBron on the pit box because he’s probably a good leader and a good coach. Taylor has been living in the motorhome on tours for the last 15 years, so I’d probably let her drive the motorhome. And then Tom, I’d let him spot.

10. What is the key to finding the best pre-race bathroom?

DR: Good experience.

MM: You’ve got to have it scoped out before it actually starts. If you’re waiting until you get off the truck and you go, “Where’s the bathroom?” — you’re done.

DR: I usually look when we’re walking out to qualifying. Less crowded, a little more time. I’m pretty religious about going to the bathroom right before qualifying or the race. So you’ve got to know.

11. NASCAR decides they would like the highlight reel value brought by the former Carl Edwards backflips and want their own version. How much money would they have to offer for you to backflip off your car following your next win?

MM: Just whatever it would take to get proper training. I’ve always wanted to be able to break dance and do some flips. I don’t really have the physique for it, but if they’d train me, I’d do it.

DR: Yeah, if we could be trained, that would be awesome. I think a signature deal like that is really cool. If you get to win often during the year, it would be neat. I’d like to be able to do it if they provided a trampoline out by my car.

MM: Or a mat. Just a mat. My biggest fear would be if your toes hook the roof. Then it’s going to look real bad and feel real bad, too. That’s a lot of momentum.

DR: I’ll just do a cartwheel.

MM: I think David could probably do (a backflip).

DR: On a trampoline. I wouldn’t want to do it in front of everyone for the first time and fail, though. That wouldn’t be fun.

12. Each week, I ask a driver to give me a question for the next interview. Last week was Timmy Hill, and he wanted to know: If you play fantasy sports, what is the name of your fantasy football team?

DR: I do play one league of fantasy football. With all the shenanigans in the NFL, I tried to back out of it this year, but I’m with a group of my friends so I stayed on board. I’m a pretty boring guy, so my team name is “Team Ragan.”

MM: Mine is worse than that. I don’t play at all. I did when I was at (Leavine Family Racing). One of the guys got fired and I took over his fantasy football team. I’ve never watched it. But that was actually really fascinating for me, because once I downloaded the app, I started to watch. Because I was like, “Ooh, I’ve got a guy running tonight.” So it made me realize how important that is for our sport. Because even if you’re not a David Ragan or a Michael McDowell fan, if you have us in your fantasy lineup for the day, you still want us to run top 15 and if you see us passing cars, it’s exciting. So it’s a cool element.

Do you have a question I can ask the next interview? It’s with Ryan Blaney.

DR: You want to ask a question the fans would enjoy. His dad and uncle are big sprint car guys. What’s the reason (he doesn’t) go back and run some sprint cars and dirt cars or something like that?

Previous 12 Questions interviews with David Ragan and Michael McDowell:


April 28, 2010

March 3, 2011

Aug. 1, 2012

June 5, 2013

Oct. 20, 2015

June 9, 2016

July 26, 2017


Feb. 24, 2010

April 7, 2011

Oct. 15, 2013

June 3, 2015

Oct. 26, 2016

June 24, 2017


How I Got Here with Bob Decker

Bob Decker monitors qualifying on pit road at Watkins Glen. Once the hauler is at the track, Decker has various other duties with the team. (Photo: Shari Spiewak)

Each week, I ask a member of the racing community to shed some light on their career path. Up this week: Bob Decker, hauler driver for Front Row Motorsports’ No. 34 team.

Can you tell us what your job entails?

The easy part is driving the hauler. Once you get to the racetrack, you set up according to points and you park the truck. It’s usually a day early before the team gets here. We usually park the trucks at night, so we have to unload the tool boxes, unload the truck and get everything squared away for the next day when the guys get here.

What do you do once cars are on track?

I pretty much maintain the trailer, take care of everything that needs to be done on the trailer, set everything up — like the observation deck. Then when the race practice starts, I’m in the garage. I help change tires, I run the cool-down unit, I run fuel, weigh the fuel for each practice, get the ice. Pretty much a little bit of everything — keep it organized.

How did this all get started for you? Did you grow up as a race fan?

When I was 5, my next-door neighbor was the manager of Orange County (Fair) Speedway in Middletown, New York. He used to throw me in the car and sit me in the grandstands. From then on, that’s where it all started.

Did you think you wanted to have a career in racing? Did you just enjoy it?

I was always a car nut. I was pretty lucky — once I got of age where I could afford to do this myself, I had my own dirt race team in New York for 14 years. I ran a Big Block Modified there. Did pretty well. Won a couple races, got Rookie of the Year. After that, I got married and had a kid and started a trucking company. I worked for Horseless Carriage running my own truck from coast to coast.

Being a race fan, I traveled with the Outlaws and helped Joey Saldana out. It was pretty much an easy truck driving job because I got to make my own schedule, where I wanted to go. So I picked the races and followed them around quite a bit.

After that, a friend of mine called me in North Carolina — he was with the Outlaws — and asked if I wanted to get a job in NASCAR. My daughter was moving to North Carolina to go to college, so he said, “You want to go to work for Roush, driving a hauler?” I said, “Hmm…NASCAR?” Racing is in my blood, so that’s pretty much the top of the line racing series, so I jumped at the chance.

What hauler did you start driving?

I started with Carl Edwards on the 99. I was with him for five years and we won 16 races together. Had a good time. It was pretty awesome.

And then did you go from there to Front Row?

When the Petty/Roush merger deal went together, they wanted me to go over with Kasey Kahne on the Petty side. Unfortunately, Kasey only stayed one year. But I was with the Petty deal, so I was with Marcos Ambrose for four years. So that was pretty fun.

You’ve gotten to work with some fun drivers.

It’s a good opportunity I’ve had so far in racing. I couldn’t be any luckier. There are a lot of guys in the business who have never won a race. I won my first year here. It was pretty cool.

If we can back up to your own racing career for a moment, you said you owned the team for 14 years. Did you drive that entire time?

Yes. There were three owners and I was the driver and part-owner.

You said you won some races. Why did you give it up?

Basically got married and couldn’t afford it anymore. (Laughs) That’s pretty much what happens to everybody.

Do you miss it?

I still drive. We’re pretty lucky — we’ve got guys who are ex-racers and we go to different tracks, and they give us their cars and we go out and race them. It’s pretty awesome.

(Motor Racing Outreach) used to put on a race at Black Rock (near Watkins Glen) before they changed the schedule to a two-day show. And all the Cup guys would go over and race. They happened to need a driver one time because a driver didn’t show up and they knew I drove a car. So they said, “Do you want to race?” I said, “Sure, I’ll take a shot at it.” I hadn’t sat in a seat in 12 years. And I went out and won the race. So that was pretty cool.

Bob Decker is responsible for keeping the coolers filled during race weekends. (Photo: Shari Spiewak)

Is it true you also did some military service at one point in your life?

Yeah, I was in the Army. I was only in for three years. My dad owned a tree business, and once I did my time in the military, I was stationed in Fort Ord, California. I got out and basically got back to work with my dad.

Why did you want to be in the military during that time?

Believe it or not, I went in when I was 17. You know, I was a child with no father. My father was a boss. (Pauses, tears up.) So basically, I went in (to the military) to take care of my mom.

Was that hard for you to leave home during that time?

Yeah, it was pretty hard. My mom was a single mom. (Continues to fight off tears.) I’m sorry. But it was a good experience. I’m glad I did it. Served my country, got out and basically went back to work again.

Were you able to do any racing when you were in the Army?

I was too young. Like I said, I was only 17 when I went in. I had a motorcycle and raced motocross. But that was pretty much it with my racing.

I didn’t start real racing until I was 27, because I didn’t have the money. We basically scrounged everything together and got a couple guys and threw a car together and from then on, we got pretty good.

We got a couple sponsors — I was sponsored by Wendy’s, so that was pretty good. A couple other big sponsors. A friend of mine hit the lotto for $7 million, so he helped me out quite a bit and kept us going. So we did pretty good for what we had.

If you hadn’t gotten the call to come do NASCAR, what direction do you think your life would have gone?

I’d be in racing somewhere. It’s in my blood. When I’m 80, I’ll still be at a dirt track. I’m a dirt racer. I never raced on asphalt. I’m a true dirt racer. I love NASCAR and everything, but my heart and soul is in dirt racing.

I’ve had people ask me how to become a hauler driver. If someone out there was reading this and wanted to drive a hauler in NASCAR, what advice would you give them?

First of all, you have to have a good record and a good license. Nowadays, they’re trying to get the younger crowd in here. It’s pretty much luck of the draw. If you know somebody, it’s a plus. Keep trying, keep your resumes out there. Show up. Show your face, because nobody knows a piece of paper. That’s with any job. Carl Edwards used to hand cards out and say, “You need to hire me.” And he was right — look what happened to him.

Any final thoughts on what it’s like to be you?

It’s pretty good. I’ve been so lucky in my career. I’ve always had a good job. I’ve got a great family. Beautiful home. (Gets choked up.) I came into NASCAR and they used to have a truck driver challenge. They had the Pilot challenge and the Freightliner challenge. You drive your truck through chicanes and stuff. And I’m the only one so far to win both of them in the same year.

Whoa, what’s up with Michael McDowell at Las Vegas?

Here’s a list of drivers who had a slower single-lap speed than Michael McDowell in Saturday morning’s practice session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway: Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin…

That’s what happens when a driver has top-10 speed in practice, which was the case with McDowell. He had the ninth-fastest lap in the first of two Saturday practices, following up on his 15th-place qualifying effort Friday.

What’s going on here? A few things, McDowell said. Ford Performance is giving the team more help, the technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing is paying off and McDowell has chemistry with his new team.

Where it’s coming from is I feel like I’ve got a group of guys who believe in me and have given me all the tools to do what I think I can do,” McDowell said. “That’s a big part of it.”

McDowell said his teammates — not just Front Row’s David Ragan, but Roush’s Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — are all working well together. But even the No. 34 team didn’t expect to be quite this high up on the speed charts heading into Vegas.

We were hopeful we could be close to the Roush cars and we could be lingering in those teens to 20,” he said. “Definitely we have a little more speed this weekend than we anticipated to have, but it’s a long year.

You’ve got to ride it when it’s good, because we know it’s not always going to be like this. It’s a dogfight out here, but it’s fun when you’ve got fast cars.”

Of course, single-lap speed doesn’t mean McDowell is going to have a top-10 finish in the race. Of the 19 drivers who ran at least 10 consecutive laps in the Saturday’s first practice, McDowell was 16th.

But this weekend is feeling good so far for a driver who was not long ago facing the driver unemployment line. McDowell was let go from Leavine Family Racing last fall with no prospects for 2018.

“Performance makes things better, but if you put your happiness in performance, you’re very miserable in this sport because only one guy wins every week,” he said. “I’m thankful to have a job and I’m thankful to be in the garage. There was definitely a time last year when I didn’t think I was going to be here.”

The Top Five: Breaking down the Daytona 500

Five thoughts after Sunday’s 60th running of the Daytona 500…

1. That’s racing

I’m sort of baffled by the outrage over Austin Dillon driving through Aric Almirola — after Almirola admitted he saw Dillon coming and threw a last-ditch block. There’s no sound reason behind the anger here, other than fans can’t stand Dillon and his perceived silver spoon background — while Almirola would have been a likable winner and feel-good story after last year’s broken back and transition to Stewart-Haas Racing.

I get that Dillon irritates fans (he doesn’t care, by the way; Dillon believes in the “as long as they’re making noise” philosophy), but geez. Seriously, folks? Take the emotion out of it for a second.

Dillon had a huge shot of momentum from a Bubba Wallace push when the Almirola block happened, and it was on the last lap of the freaking Daytona 500. So what was Dillon supposed to do, let off the gas and cut Almirola a break?

“I guess I could have lifted and gave it to him, and not had this Daytona 500 ring that I’m wearing,” Dillon said.

But even if he did lift, Dillon probably would have gotten turned by Wallace behind him.

After all, that’s what seemed to happen when Ryan Blaney blocked Chase Elliott in the first Big One (Elliott lost momentum, got loose and spun off Brad Keselowski, starting a pileup). And when Denny Hamlin blocked Kurt Busch in the last Big One, Busch lost his momentum and got turned by the air off Blaney’s nose.

As we saw throughout Speedweeks, superspeedway racing has evolved into a risky, ballsy game of chicken when it comes to blocking. Almirola had no choice but to throw that block — in hopes Dillon would somehow blink — and Dillon had no choice but to drive through him.

Unless he wanted to lose, of course.

“I had such a run,” Dillon said, “and I had to use it.”

2. A star is born

NASCAR got stuck in some political debates last year, which prompted outsiders to once again bring up stereotypes about the sport’s fans.

But the majority of race fans aren’t racist. How do I know? Because Bubba Wallace is quickly becoming one of the most popular drivers in NASCAR.

Fans at Daytona gave Wallace a loud cheer before the 500, and his high profile in the media this week (including a feature on ESPN, a six-part docu-series on Facebook and then some air time in front of the largest audience NASCAR has all year) allowed fans to take a closer look at whether they like him or not.

It certainly seems like they do. And it has everything to do with his personality, which is refreshing, energetic, fun, raw and real.

I mean, what other driver shows emotions like this?

If Wallace can do anything in the 43 car and is even halfway competitive, it will be massive for NASCAR. His profile only grow if that’s the case.

But Richard Petty Motorsports has a lot of work to do judging by last year’s results, and if Wallace doesn’t run in the top 10, he risks becoming another Clint Bowyer.

Fun guy, hilarious, great personality, people love him, but…

At the tweetup on Sunday, fans emphasized they seek the perfect combination of personality and results. A driver needs both to truly be a superstar.

Those who deliver in both ways are the types of drivers NASCAR needs to succeed. Wallace certainly has the personality; now we’ll see whether he can produce on the track.

3. For Blaney, wait til next year

This really seemed to be the Ryan Blaney 500, especially after so many other contenders wrecked out. It looked like Blaney had the strongest car and could do anything with it. He led 118 laps in playing the typical Keselowski role, a dominating performance on a day when no one else led more than 22 laps.

Blaney was leading a single-file line with 10 laps to go when William Byron spun in his damaged car, which brought out a caution that ultimately cost him the race after the ensuing restart.

“That stunk,” Blaney said of the caution. “That grouped everyone back together. I tried to block as best I could, but it’s just so hard when they’re coming so much faster than you.”

Still, a green-flag finish wouldn’t have guaranteed a Blaney win. He had the best car of those remaining, though that doesn’t mean everyone would have stayed in line. But he’ll always wonder.

“It definitely was going to get tough there, and it was starting to brew up to where people were going to start to go,” he said. “With five to go, it was probably crunch time — and we were five laps away from that.

“But I thought we could control the lead pretty good, and it just didn’t play out that way.”

Ryan Blaney collects himself after climbing from his car following a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500. (Photo: Jeff Gluck)


4. Logic doesn’t prevail

I don’t know if this will go down as one of the best Daytona 500s ever, but it was certainly one of the most entertaining.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have been.

With drivers knowing their cars were less stable than in previous years thanks to the new rules package, it seemed running single-file (like in the Clash) would be the smart way to go.

It certainly would have been very boring, but logic dictates that’s what the drivers should have done in order to still be racing at the finish.

Instead, the drivers got all crazy over the end of Stage 1 and took out a bunch of great cars. Then more wild moves finally bit them just after the halfway point.

“It looked like everybody thought that was the finish of the Daytona 500 and it was really only lap 59 coming to 60,” Jimmie Johnson said of the first incident. “… I’m not sure everybody was thinking big picture and really using their head through that.”

I’m sure they weren’t. But I can’t really figure out why. Drivers had privately predicted a single-file race, perhaps even with several groups of six-to-12 car lines spread across the track. Then they would all go hard for the win at the end.

Instead, it seemed like the opposite happened in the first two stages. It was weird. Super entertaining, but weird.

Perhaps the start of a new season left everyone too antsy to use the patience required to make it to the finish, or maybe racers just can’t help themselves from racing hard — even when it’s not necessary at the time.

5. Underdogs shine

Speaking of those who patiently bided their time and made it to the finish, there were some surprise names who had solid results after others wrecked out.

Chris Buescher previously had only one top-10 finish at a restrictor-plate track in nine starts, but he finished fifth on Sunday.

Michael McDowell finished ninth to record his sixth career top-10 finish — five of which have come at Daytona.

Justin Marks had a surprising run in his first career Cup race at Daytona and finished 12th despite being one lap down.

Also, David Gilliland made his first Cup Series start since 2016 — and recorded a 14th-place finish, his first top-15 since the 2015 Daytona 500.

And finally, despite all the drama and questions about whether it could even get the car on the track, BK Racing got a 20th-place finish with Gray Gaulding. Not a bad day for a team that just filed for bankruptcy protection.

12 Questions with Michael McDowell

The 12 Questions series of interviews continues this week with Leavine Family Racing’s Michael McDowell. I spoke with McDowell at Dover International Speedway. This interview is available both in podcast and written form.

1. How much of your success is based on natural ability and how much has come from working at it?

That’s hard question. For me I would say 60/40 — 60 (percent) being working at it, 40 (percent) being natural ability. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been competitive and been able to run at a high level, but I feel like the biggest separation in my later years in my career is just working hard at it.

2. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and now Dale Earnhardt Jr. have all either retired in the last couple years or will retire soon. What’s your pitch for fans of theirs to become fans of yours?

It’s funny, because I think that your fans are your fans because they like you and because they can relate to you. You hear people say, “Well I was a Tony fan and now I’m trying to figure out who to be a fan of.” Normally they’ll migrate to someone similar personality-wise, driving style-wise, something like that.

So I don’t really have a pitch. I like to think that my fans are my fans because they relate to me and because they want to be fans of Michael McDowell.

3. What is the hardest part of your job away from the racetrack?

This job’s not very hard. We get paid to drive around in circles. But there’s a lot to it. I think the hardest part is just balancing your work life and your family life. That’s probably the hardest thing just because racing requires everything you have. Even when you’re not doing it, you’re still thinking about it.

When you’re home, you’re still thinking about the next week, I’m watching video and I’m looking at data. Even when I’m not doing those things, I’m still thinking about it. The hard part is just being able to switch it off and switch it on. It’s ingrained in you, racing, so you just live and breathe it.

You sort of never get away from it in some ways.

Exactly. It feels like you never get away from it.

4. A fan spots you eating dinner in a nice restaurant. Should they come over for an autograph or no?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t have any issues with that. It doesn’t happen all the time, so for me it probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I feel like there’s always a time and place to do it, so timing is very critical. But for fans, they don’t know what that looks like. It’s what we signed up for, so I always just have a little extra grace knowing that they’re just excited and it’s not that big of a deal, whatever it is you’re doing.

5. What’s a story in NASCAR that doesn’t get enough coverage?

There’s lots of stories. From 15th back doesn’t get enough coverage for anybody. We’re a sport of 40 drivers compared to other sports that have hundreds and thousands of athletes, and yet we still only focus on 10 guys. So I think just telling the other stories and telling who those people are and their teams, there’s just more to it than the 10 guys that are all retiring.

6. Who is the last driver you texted?

Hold on. Let me get my phone.

Pulling it up on your nice red-orange phone case. I don’t know if that’s red or orange. Some combo of the two.

Yeah it’s bright, because I leave it everywhere, so this helps me.

The last driver — Cole Whitt. David Ragan. Those were my last two.

You have them in a group chat or something?

No. I asked David Ragan about Pocono, taking the kids to the waterpark. That’s the intense conversations you have with drivers.

7. Do you consider race car drivers to be entertainers?

Some of them are. There’s a lot of personalities in the sport. I don’t consider this to be an entertainment sport from the standpoint of us as characters. On the racetrack, I think it’s an entertainment sport. But there’s a lot of characters in our sport. There’s a lot of people who are quite entertaining that don’t always show it.

8. What is your middle finger policy on the racetrack?

I’m not a big fan of it. Over the years, I’ve kind of changed a little bit. It used to be if somebody gave me the finger, I would do everything I could to get to their bumper and hit them. Most of the time if they gave you the finger it was because you’re holding them up and they’re faster than you so usually you can’t catch them to hit them.

I know that everybody has their own thing about it, but what I’ve learned is that most of the time when I do something of retaliation, I get myself in trouble, too. So it’s usually not worth it.

Did you ever successfully catch somebody and hit them after they gave you the finger?

Yeah lots of people, and that makes them really mad. But that’s the whole idea, you know what I mean?

9. Some drivers keep a payback list in their minds. I remember you kept a payback list on the inside of your uniform at one point. Do you also have a list for drivers who have done you a favor on the track?

The races, they go in these momentums and they go in the ebbs and flows. Yes, you do remember when someone cuts you a break. And cutting somebody a break could be when you’re catching them really quickly and they just don’t hold you up. Or it could be just merging off of pit road and letting you not get pinned down on the bottom, whatever it is. So you do remember that.

As far as retaliation lists, same thing. I used to really enforce it and now it’s not that I’ve gotten soft, but it just doesn’t help anybody. If anything, it just hurts you.

AJ (Allmendinger) and I were at it at the beginning of the year, and we were just hurting ourselves, just costing ourselves spots because we were both in that red mist mindset and we weren’t going anywhere. So I was able to sit down with him after a couple of races like that and say, “Alright man, we gotta figure this out, even if it means we gotta cut each other a little bit of breaks for the next couple weeks just to get over the hump.” Because when you start losing points and you start tearing up bodies, it makes a lot of work for the guys for no reason. So heat of the moment, things happen and that’s part of it, but separating the track and off-track is important too.

10. Who is the most famous person you’ve had dinner with?

I don’t know. Famous is relative to who you think would be famous and who I think would be famous. It’d be different right?

That’s true. It could be to you, so somebody you were fascinated by.

So probably Mario Andretti. When Marco (Andretti) was really young, I did some driver coaching with him at Sebring. Just being around the Andrettis, the family, was pretty cool because I grew up an Andretti fan and a Mario fan in particular. So that was probably pretty cool.

11. What’s something about yourself you’d like to improve?

A lot. On the racetrack?

You can answer it however you want.

I don’t know how you are, but I’m constantly trying to improve, whether that’s parenting my kids or trying to be a good husband or trying to make the most of my opportunity here. So I’m constantly taking inventory of, “Alright, these are the areas that are good,” and you highlight those and, “These are the areas you still gotta work on.” I feel like probably more than anything, it’s just patience and just being slow to speak. Sometimes I get myself in trouble.

12. Typically at this point I ask a question that the last driver has given me, but I screwed up the last interview which was supposed to be with Paul Menard, so there is no question from Paul Menard. So would you like to ask yourself a question here and answer it, or would you just like to skip this part?

No, I want to ask you a question.

Oh, you want to ask me a question?

So with your job description change, how is it being an independent versus working for the big brother?

Well, it’s a lot more fun, first of all. I feel like I can do a lot more of what I want. But what I was worried about was not people like you — because you’ve always been nice to me — but some people that have more difficult PR people might not give me as many interviews and access. But for the most part people have said, “Yes,” all year, so that’s really nice. Does that surprise you?

No, it doesn’t surprise me, because this sport is still relational and you’ve spent years building those relationships. So I don’t think it matters who your work for or who you drive for, who your sponsors are. When you build good relationships, I think people care more about you than who you work for.

That’s nice of you to say. Thank you. So there will be a next interview, hopefully, but I don’t know who it’s going to be with. Do you have a question I could ask the next driver?

What are the reasons for retirement? What are the things that would cause to you say, “You know what, that’s it. I’m good.”

So when they know it’s time, what’s gonna be driving that decision?

Yeah, for sure.

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Do NASCAR tracks really have four turns?

It’s been 13 years since I covered my first NASCAR race, but there’s something I’ve never understood about the sport.

Why does everyone say there are four turns at most tracks when there really seem to be two?

I get it at Indianapolis — there are four distinct turns separated by straightaways. But at Daytona? It seems like there are two giant turns (maybe three if you count the trioval).

And if that seems like a stretch, can you really say Martinsville has four turns? It’s two drag strips connected by a pair of turns.

Anyway, Daytona 500 Media Day seemed like a good time to try and get to the bottom of this. I’m not sure I did, but I hope you enjoy the video below: