DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (WGHP) — Winning the Daytona 500 can change your life. It is the biggest race in NASCAR. And last year, it was won by a guy driving for one of the smaller teams in the sport.

Michael McDowell only has a few more days to be the defending Daytona 500 champion unless he wins it again. He spent years hanging around trying to win a NASCAR Cup Series race.

His dream became a reality last year. Racing is the only thing he’s ever wanted to do

“I dropped out of school after the eighth grade to pursue my driving dream,” he said. “I moved out at 16 years old and traveled to Europe to race. All I’ve ever done is race, so I’ll be a 40-year-old with no job experience, no education, trying to provide for my family, so racing was the best bet for me a lot of those years.

McDowell’s bet on himself finally paid off in winning the 2021 Daytona 500

“The very first moment was when they said 34 to victory lane ‘cause I was sitting there waiting trying to figure out ‘did I win, did I not win?’ I thought I won, but with the caution coming out, you just don’t know until they tell you officially. It was so much emotion at once. I’ve never felt anything like that,” McDowell said.

Until that moment, he was best known for a crash during qualifying at the Texas motor speedway.

“That Texas crash is for sure a part of my history in the sport because it was such a big one…it just doesn’t go away, but that’s not what you want to be known for,” he said. “What bothered me more than anything was to be in this sport for 15 years and to race 350 some odd races and not get a win.”

Now McDowell has two major career highlights, and he’s looking to make some more starting at Daytona this Sunday.