As excitement builds for a new NASCAR season and Sunday’s Daytona 500, the most prestigious race each year on the NASCAR calendar, unlikely 2021 Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell released a short film Tuesday with the global faith-based storytelling organization I Am Second.
The film, “Never Lose Focus,” details McDowell’s sheer elation after winning his first ever Cup Series race under the brightest lights in the sport. He also reveals his humbling post-race realization about God’s staggering grace, love and providence through the trials of his life and career.
“I remember about 30 minutes after the win just this overwhelming gratefulness, and a very sobering realization that I didn’t do anything,” McDowell said in the film. “God literally provided this opportunity and it started 14 years ago. God was walking with me through the valleys before we got to the mountaintop, molding and shaping me.”
The 37-year-old McDowell, who has raced in the Cup Series since 2008, never experienced a finish better than fourth place until his breakthrough at Daytona last year. Prior to the win, McDowell was perhaps best known for a terrifying high-speed crash while qualifying for his second-ever start in 2008. He walked away from the fiery wreckage essentially unharmed and raced later that week.
Yet later that year, McDowell found himself without a job, struggling to make ends meet and a baby on the way (now the oldest of four) with his wife, Jami.
“There was just so much happening during that period of time and so many trials,” McDowell said in the short film. “It was really hard to wrap my head around what God was doing. I remember just opening up my Bible, just praying like, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ And I just closed my eyes and opened up my Bible and I landed on James 1.”
James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
McDowell continued later: “These hard times that I’m facing, it’s for a reason. It’s doing something in me and through me and it’s teaching me about what it means to persevere and what it means to lean in and trust in God. And that perspective really changed what my next 10 years looked like in the sport.”
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After years of building a career with a small racing team, gaining experience in virtual anonymity and seeking to stay faithful to God, McDowell broke through in a big way a year ago. Now, he has the opportunity to become just the third repeat champion in the history of the Daytona 500 (Denny Hamlin in 2019-20 and Sterling Marlin in 1994-95). But it won’t be easy.
Hamlin is the favorite in 2022, followed by Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. Meanwhile, McDowell has only the 24th-best odds. But he has learned from 14 years filled with crushing lows and unexpected highs to trust in God’s ultimate goodness, regardless of the outcome.
“God always has a plan,” McDowell said in the film, “and it doesn’t always look how I want it to or how I expected it to, but God is faithful.”
The Daytona 500 will take place at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday in Daytona Beach, Florida.
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