INDIANAPOLIS — Michael McDowell knelt down at Indianapolis Motor Speedway's yard of bricks Sunday afternoon and delivered the sweetest kisses of his racing career.
The 38-year-old driver is now a Brickyard champ, as well as the member of an elite club.
McDowell took the lead in his Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford during the 53rd lap on the road course at IMS and never trailed again as he drove the most dominant race of his career. He beat Chase Elliott's Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to the yard of bricks start-finish line by less than a second (0.937) for his second NASCAR crown jewel victory, securing a spot in the 16-driver field for the Cup Series playoffs in the process, and Trackhouse Racing's Daniel Suarez was third in another Chevy after starting in pole position.
McDowell's only other Cup Series win was the 2021 Daytona 500, where he snapped an 0-for-357 skid after leading at the end of a crash-marred final lap.
"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 start on NASCAR's top circuit. They weren't at Daytona for his first win.
While he didn't lead until the very end in that race, there was no doubt Sunday. McDowell won the first stage, finished behind only Denny Hamlin in the second stage and closed it out by leading a career-high 54 laps to give Front Row its fourth Cup Series win.
McDowell's victory put him on the short list of Cup Series drivers to reach victory lane in the Daytona 500 and at Indy, a group that includes such legends as the late Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jarrett, who introduced the kissing tradition in 1996, NASCAR's third year with an event at the track better known for open-wheel racing.
And on the annual crossover weekend with the IndyCar Series, which raced Saturday afternoon, McDowell also fittingly joined two of that circuit's greatest drivers on the list: Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, the only winners of the Daytona 500 and the 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 Cup 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 do that as the regular season winds to a close.
"I just lost too much ground in that midcycle" of the race, said Elliott, who missed six races early in the regular season after breaking his left leg while snowboarding and was suspended for another race by NASCAR after intentionally wrecking Hamlin.
Suarez was also near the front most of the afternoon in a race that had only one yellow flag and 77 laps under green. 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.
Tyler Reddick, last year's Brickyard winner, was fourth for 23XI Racing in the best finish for a Toyota driver Sunday. Hendrick's Alex Bowman was fifth and Stewart-Haas Racing's Chase Briscoe was sixth, with both still fighting to make the playoffs, followed by points leader Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell.
Shane van Gisbergen finished 10th in his second NASCAR race, failing to become the first Cup Series driver to win his first two starts on the circuit. Van Gisbergen won in his debut in the inaugural Chicago street course race last month but had a more challenging weekend running his first NASCAR oval in Friday's Truck Series 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."
William Byron's No. 24 Chevy started from the back of the field Sunday after failing inspection three times Friday, and then he was forced to do a drive-thru penalty at the end of his first lap.
Still, the only four-time winner this season snaked his way back through the field to finish 14th. It wasn't enough to help the Hendrick driver in the standings as Byron slid one spot to third, behind Hamlin.
Next Sunday's race is on another road course, Watkins Glen International in New York's Upstate region, with the regular-season finale a Saturday night race on Aug. 26 at Daytona International Speedway.