With former open-wheel stars Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier, Sam Hornish Jr. and Jacques Villeneuve leading the 2008 Sprint Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year class, there is one other open wheel and sports car regular who seems to go unnoticed – Michael McDowell. A former Star Mazda Series champion, Rolex Sports Car Series race winner and the fifth youngest driver to ever compete in the Champ Car series, McDowell has quite a list of accomplishments for a guy who’s only 23.
On Wednesday, the youngster officially added another bullet point to that glowing resume, as he was officially announced as the heir apparent for the No. 00 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota. Taking over the seat March 30 at Martinsville, McDowell will replace rising sophomore David Reutimann, who will jump to the No. 44 UPS Toyota in place of the retiring Dale Jarrett.
The move completes a jump for McDowell from Grand-Am to the ARCA Series full-time one year ago, when he shot into the stock car ranks by winning four races, nine poles, and giving eight-time ARCA champion Frank Kimmel a serious run at the series title.
But before he starts his biggest racing assignment to date, this month McDowell returns to the series where he competed in 2005 and 2006, participating in the Rolex 24 at Daytona for the No. 09 Spirit of Daytona Racing Porsche FABCAR. As he prepares for his fourth grueling 24-hour event and his upcoming rookie season for MWR, McDowell took some time out at the Spirit of Daytona race shop to talk with Frontstretch, discussing why he made the transition from sports cars to stock cars and what his goals are for 2008.
Mike Lovecchio, Frontstretch: I guess you can say you’re officially a stock car driver now – so, what brings you back to Grand-Am and the Rolex 24 for these guys at the Spirit of Daytona?
Michael McDowell: This all really came together because of (co-driver) Guy Cosmo. I’ve raced with Guy at Finlay Motorsports a few times in the past, and I called him up to see what he was doing and there was a seat available here. I started talking to Troy (Flis, team owner) and it all just worked out and kinda flowed together.
Lovecchio: Last year was a big year for your career. What led to your decision to make the drastic switch from the open wheel and sports cars ranks that you competed in your entire career to stock cars?
McDowell: We basically looked at our options of what was going to make the most sense over the long-term. I love racing over in Grand-Am, but right now it’s tough to find sponsorship in any series. In stock car racing, you can race every weekend, and it seems to be mainstream for where sponsors want to be. As a driver you want to drive and you want to be able to do that for a long time, so it felt like NASCAR was the way to go. It just worked out that we had a good year in ARCA, and that led us into the opportunity at Michael Waltrip Racing.
Lovecchio: How difficult has the transition been for you?
McDowell: It’s completely different than anything I’ve ever done before, but the feel is still the same whether it’s a Grand-Am car, a Champ car or a Formula car. Your feel is you go off of what your butt tells you and just learning what the car needs. The biggest thing is the racing. You’re so close all the time and you’re always side-by-side. Whether you’re first or 30th, you’re still racing somebody.
I feel like there’s great drivers in all different forms of racing, and some just don’t always get the best opportunities when they do try to make a transition. I was [just] very fortunate to get hooked up [in ARCA] with a great team in Eddie Sharp Racing that had a great program. When you jump into good equipment, you’re gonna run well.
Lovecchio: What kind of expectations do you have for your rookie season in Cup?
McDowell: My expectations aren’t really that set yet. Michael Waltrip Racing has worked hard in the offseason, and so has Toyota; they’ve done a fantastic job making competitive cars that I think are going to be capable of running in the top 10, top five, and potentially winning races. That’s the goal for the team… but my goal is simply to get up to speed as quickly as I can and try to learn the cars, learn how tough it’s going to be in NASCAR at the Cup level, and try to get to that level as fast as I can.
Lovecchio: A lot has been said of the open-wheel invasion in Sprint Cup. You had a year to adjust to stock cars with your time in ARCA, but what do you think of these guys that are jumping straight into Cup with little to no experience driving stock cars?
McDowell: It’s hard to say. Guys like Villeneuve and Franchitti are world champions, they’re Indy 500 champions. They’ve been doing this for a long time, so I think they’re going to get adjusted quickly. For me, there was no question; ARCA was the best way for me to get accustomed to the cars, go to the track and not have the spotlight on you the whole time where if you make a mistake, everyone can see it.
Guys like Franchitti and Villeneuve and Carpentier are jumping into the deep end… they’re gonna be fine, but when they do make a little mistake as they’re learning, people are going to be critical. That’s just a part of what they’re getting themselves into.
A lot of people are questioning whether I should jump straight from ARCA to Cup, and my response to that is that we’ll see in six months how I’m doing and we’ll know then whether it was a good move or not. I’m definitely not underestimating the challenge, though, because this is the best racing series in the world with the best drivers. I know it’s going to be difficult.
Lovecchio: You’ve got the Rolex 24 this weekend and then, you’re jumping into the No. 00 until March. What are your plans between now and then?
McDowell: For sure, I’m going to be running the Nationwide race at Daytona, and I hope to do some more of those beforehand. I’ll be doing a lot of CoT testing; I’ve been doing that over the offseason and all the way up until this week. I’ll be at Las Vegas the week after the 24, and then at Fontana for the official test. That should be a good gauge for where we’re at as a team and where I’m at as a driver. I’ve got great teammates, so we’ll see how I shake out in comparison to the other guys out there.
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