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.
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 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 to as the regular season winds to a close.
“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. He 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.”
Kyle Larson’s late-night arrival after winning the Knoxville Nationals sprint car race Saturday in Iowa, didn’t make any difference to the 2021 series champ. He still made it to a scheduled news conference before noon to unveil Arrow McLaren’s No. 17 car for next May’s Indianapolis 500.
Larson is scheduled to attempt the double and the two cars will feature familiar colors — the traditional blue-and-white paint scheme with a touch of papaya for the 600-mile Charlotte race and papaya, blue and white for the McLaren team.
“Obviously, I’m extremely excited, but at the same time, I’m so busy racing and trying to take care of my family that I haven’t — like it hasn’t really set in yet that it’s truly a reality,” Larson said. “When you have days like today and you unveil the car, all those little steps, it definitely makes it seem more real. But I’m sure once things slow down in the offseason and I have a lot of time to sit around and think about the upcoming season is when it’s really going to hit.”
Larson finished eighth.
William Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet started from the back of the field Sunday after failing inspection three times Friday. Then he was forced to do a drive-thru penalty at the end of his first lap.
But the series’ only four-time winner this season snaked his way back through the field to finish 14th. It wasn’t enough to help him in the standings as Byron slid one spot to third, behind Denny Hamlin.
Martin Truex Jr. finished seventh to maintain his lead.
The series makes its annual stop at the road course at Watkins Glen next Sunday, the second-to-last regular-season race.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing