BY AARON BURNS
I picked Kyle Larson to win last week’s race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. You may recall this.
For a while, Larson made me feel pretty smart. Then, reality came tumbling down as he dropped from first to second to fourth in the closing stages. Larson will win soon. I remain confident in it.
Until then, in the words of the great philosopher Bill Belichick, “We’re on to next week.”
There’s plenty to discuss. Michael McDowell -- the guy who had 12 top-10 finishes in his first 357 NASCAR Cup Series starts -- is fourth in points, sixth in the Playoff grid and first in the hearts of many. The 14-year veteran won the Daytona 500 for little Front Row Motorsports and backed it up with finishes of eighth and sixth the following weeks.
Who could’ve imagined a year ago that the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills could quickly go from perennial afterthoughts to legitimate threats? NASCAR needed a Hornets or a Bills: a super-likable, exciting underdog.
McDowell -- I have to say it -- fits the bill. There’s a buzz around him -- OK, last one, I promise -- and he’s got a smile befitting the most unlikely top-five man in points in years. Maybe even decades.
Sure, we’re only entering Week 4 of a long season. But we needed this. McDowell needed this. The guy toiled for years with Michael Waltrip Racing, Phil Parsons Racing, and Leavine Family Racing with only a spectacular crash in 2008 and a one-off substitution for Kyle Busch in 2011 as his most memorable moments.
The 36-year-old Phoenix, Arizona, native admitted he’s questioned why he spent his weekends, months and years chasing a dream that appeared impossible.
Since he bagged stock car racing’s biggest event, however, McDowell is energized.
“I think that this is a really big thing for us,” McDowell said. “The Daytona 500 is huge. You’re not going to replace that. But the fact that we’re legitimately running in the top 10, not just (Homestead) but at the (Daytona) road course last week, too, we overcame a lot of issues last week and really raced our way back into the top 10.
Michael, what would you tell someone if they picked you to finish eighth or better in the season’s first three races?
“That they’re crazy,” he said. “To make a big jump like we did, I wouldn’t say that it’s a complete, like, unbelievable shock, but it’s pretty close to it.”
Maybe McDowell’s days of winning have only begun.
With Las Vegas in the windshield and Homestead-Miami in the mirror, McDowell no longer has to hope for light at the end of the tunnel.
Now, he is the light.