Race Weekend Central

Michael McDowell Rejoicing in Opportunity with Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing

Moments before the green flag waves on any given Sprint Cup race weekend, Michael McDowell patiently sits in the pre-race prayer service with approximately two to three dozen of his fellow competitors, crew chiefs and team owners.

His head bowed down, he focuses all of his attention on prayer, listening intently to a chaplain telling Bible stories in front of a group of men about to risk their lives for the next three or so hours. Evidently, after years of strongly believing, his prayers were answered.

McDowell, 31, says he’s as comfortable as ever in NASCAR since he originally joined Michael Waltrip Racing as a Sprint Cup Series rookie in 2008. After losing his ride at MWR, he bounced around from team-to-team, seeking a break he almost believed would never come.

From 2009 to 2013, his often decal-less racecars were seen at the first stall of the garage area during 24 out of the 127 races he ran.

No longer is the former Sports Car racer taking jobs as a start-and-parker. Instead, he’s racing the majority of the year in NASCAR’s premier division, on pace to defeat his career-bests in most categories on the racetrack.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs,” McDowell said in the midst of his trailer at Pocono Raceway. “I feel very fortunate I was able to hang on and that I was able to make a lot of races in the Cup Series to keep me around. I put myself in a position to get me in a competitive ride like the one I’m in now, and hopefully, we can continue to grow this program to the point where I can put myself in a really competitive seat.”

Compared to the end of the 2013 season, a lot has changed in McDowell’s life. Finally, he says, he has the chance to be competitive.

McDowell has a fresh look this year, walking through the Sprint Cup garage with a new sense of acceptance. His cars have a plethora of logos, with backing from Thrivent Financial, WRL General Contractors, long-time sponsor K-LOVE and a new partner in MalwareBytes.

“I feel very fortunate I was able to hang on and that I was able to make a lot of races in the Cup Series to keep me around,” McDowell said, taking a deep breath. “I put myself in a position to get me in a competitive ride like the one I’m in now, and hopefully, we can continue to grow this program to the point where I can put myself in a really competitive seat.”

McDowell signed with Leavine Family Racing in 2014, attempting to carry the team on his shoulders as his first big opportunity since he left MWR. But right off the bat, he was seen walking away from Daytona International Speedway, missing the sport’s biggest race in his first attempt with his new squad.

Evidently, McDowell was able to be an essential part of Leavine Family Racing, helping grow the team to what it has become today — a consistent contender for top 25s. Instead of playing catch-up, falling one-lap down early in the race, he is now relieved to finish on the lead lap, something he’s done seven times this year.

Instead of seeing the No. 95 car sporadically show up at the racetrack, it’s seen on a weekly basis in the Sprint Cup garage, taking advantage of a merger with Joe Falk’s Circle Sport Racing. Now called Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing, the team is locked into each race, fielding a car for McDowell, along with Ty Dillon in an alliance between CSLFR and Richard Childress Racing.

“The biggest difference is just going from part-time to full-time,” McDowell said.”Our first schedule was around 20 races, and then obviously being full-time this year. It’s been a steady increase. It takes a lot to go from 20 to 36 races. We had a lot of personnel changes, a lot of infrastructure and there have been a lot great things that have changed over the years.”

The alliance between CSLFR and Richard Childress Racing has been one that is extremely beneficial to the small team, McDowell says. Crew chief Dave Winston and he have been picking the brains of RCR, which has opened up its notebooks for the No. 95 crew.

Making the swap from Ford to Chevrolet in 2016, McDowell’s results have improved, jumping from a 30.7 average finish last year to 25.5 in 2016. As the season has gone on, the performance for the No. 95 team has seen an upgrade, according to Winston and McDowell.

“Our team has improved tremendously throughout the season,” Winston said.”It seems like we get better each week, and it’s a complete team effort.  We are working together as a team more and more each week. I’ve really enjoyed working with Michael (McDowell) this year.  We’re starting to learn each other’s style and it’s been a good combination.”
The culmination of the team’s hard work was seen at Richmond International Raceway for the final race of the regular season.
It began as an average weekend for McDowell, who started 27th at the 3/4-mile track. However, as the evening went on, his No. 95 car methodically worked through the field. Staying out of trouble throughout the 16-caution race, he was able to cross the finish line in the 12th position — the team’s best finish ever on a non-restrictor plate track.
“To be able to lean on them [RCR] is a huge help for sure, especially for a small one-car team,” McDowell said.”Access to that information is really important. Applying all of it and being able to do all of it is a challenge for us. We’re trying to stay up to date with cars and bodies. As technology changes and as they update parts and cars, we need to stay on the same page. We need to continue to work at not falling too far behind.”
And part of not falling behind has to do with the team’s marketing department, which has revamped its efforts to attract new partners after the merger.
In June, Winston’s data on the company’s computers were held for ransom. If the team lost all of its data, which included set-ups, simulations and car part lists, it would have taken approximately 1,500 hours to reinstall all the lost information.

“Like most companies, we felt we had solid security in place on our digital intelligence with our software and firewalls, but this is a very new threat,” Jeremy Lange, Vice President of CSLFR. “It’s an area of coverage that you don’t realize you need until it happens to you. We’re lucky that it all worked out and now having this partnership with Malwarebytes, we hope to inform NASCAR fans and the industry of this threat and the solution.”

Evidently, CSLFR’s data was saved and a new partnership was created.

“With any partner, the more authentic the relationship and organic it is, usually, they are the more beneficial ones,” McDowell said. “We weren’t really prepared for that. We didn’t even know that was a possibility. After going through that process, realizing there is protection out there that MalwareBytes has with ransom ware.

“Obviously, we started getting protection with them and allied with them. It led to a cool story that they’re intrigued about. Our marketing team worked really hard to put this program together, and we’re going to do a great job for them.”

As McDowell looks to improve the No. 95 team, he recognizes the work is just getting started now that the crew has proved it is capable of running well.

“You always question it,” McDowell said about his self-worth.”I question it every November. Every year, it feels like it’s year-to-year, so you just don’t take it for granted. I feel like this year, I’ve put myself in a better position going into next year just by having solid runs.”

About the author

Joseph started with Fronstretch in Aug. 2014 and worked his way up to become an editor in less than a year. A native of Whitestone, New York, Joseph writes for NASCAR Pole Position magazine as a weekly contributor, along with being a former intern at Newsday and the Times Beacon Record Newspapers, each on Long Island. With a focus on NASCAR, he runs our social media pages and writes the NASCAR Mailbox column, along with other features for the site.

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