William Byron, right, takes the checkered flag just ahead of...

William Byron, right, takes the checkered flag just ahead of Alex Bowman to win the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Credit: AP/David Graham

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Alex Bowman never saw how “the big one” started. He just knew he was involved.

He was surprised to learn he triggered it.

Bowman sparked the crash that involved nearly two dozen cars and knocked six former NASCAR champions out of contention in the Daytona 500 on Monday night.

Bowman was bump-drafting Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron on the backstretch with nine laps to go when Byron lost control, turned into Brad Keselowski and pretty much wrecked the field.

“I can’t even see far enough (ahead) to see that Byron hitting Keselowski is what started it,” Bowman said. “I knew I had William in a spot that I didn’t want to have him in. But we’re all just sort of sandwiched up there.

“I was lifting to try to get off him once he was aimed the wrong place. But we’re all just shoving each other. That’s what speedway racing has kind of become. If it my fault, I didn’t mean to crash anybody by any means.”

Byron and Bowman were the biggest beneficiaries of the melee. They escaped with little damage to their cars and went on to give Hendrick a 1-2 finish in “The Great American Race.”

Multiple cars crash in turn 3 during the final laps...

Multiple cars crash in turn 3 during the final laps of the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Credit: AP/Mike Troxell

The damage was epic for everyone else, even for a race that is known for spectacular crashes and mangled cars in every direction.

“Some of those situations where you get to be that ping-pong guy between two cars, you’re a little bit along for the ride,” Bowman said.

Bowman’s ride was hardly as detrimental as it was for at least 20 others. Defending Cup Series champion Ryan Blaney was knocked out along with fellow former champs Chase Elliott, Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.

Three-time Daytona 500 champ Denny Hamlin as well as the past two winners of NASCAR’s season opener, Austin Cindric and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., also were involved.

Alex Bowman prepares for a practice session for the NASCAR...

Alex Bowman prepares for a practice session for the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway, Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Credit: AP/John Raoux

“Speedway racing again,” Logano said. “It’s a lot of fun until this happens. It was pretty interesting with a lot of pushing and shoving there at the end. … The pushes are stupid the whole time. The whole thing, everybody just gets more and more intense.

“You know it’s going to happen. Anyone can see it happening. You just know it. It happens every year. With 10 to go. there’s going to be a caution. You just hope you’re not in it and you can’t ride around. … It’s usually the people that start the wreck that stay alive. That’s the frustrating part.”

The race was mostly a green-flag affair until drivers started bumping, banging and making moves down the stretch. Bowman was trying to be a good teammate and work with Byron to get to the front. They eventually did, just not the way anyone else wanted.

“Once you get that few laps left in the race, it’s gridlock, so you’re pretty much doing your best to push,” Cindric said.

And everyone lives with the results, which is what Bowman will do. He had a chance to pass Byron on the last lap before another wreck brought out a final caution. NASCAR froze the field and declared Byron the winner by a few feet.

“I’d rather be second than crash,” Bowman said. “I would have liked to just race for it. … It’s awesome to see us get a 1-2 finish, but being this close to winning the Daytona 500, it certainly hurts. But 30th probably hurts worse.”

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