If you mentioned the name Michael McDowell to a NASCAR fan today, thoughts will likely flash to last year’s Daytona 500, where McDowell quite literally went through the fire to earn his first Cup Series triumph.
The win locked McDowell into the playoffs for the first time in his career, and he saw career highs in several statistical categories throughout the rest of the season. However, the 2022 season is where you need to keep an eye on McDowell.
In the past nine races, he has only one finish outside the top 20 to go along with five top 10s. At Sonoma Raceway on June 12, McDowell finished third and was a contender for the win for the majority of the race. Through 17 races, McDowell has recorded a career-high six top 10s, which is tied for 12th in the series, and is averaging a 17.1 average finish, three spots higher than his career best.
McDowell caught up with Frontstretch prior to the Nashville Superspeedway race to discuss his recent surge, a potential playoff bid, improvements and communication at Front Row Motorsports, how faith helps his racing approach and much more.
Luken Glover, Frontstretch: You were in contention for the win at Sonoma and held off Kevin Harvick to finish in third. How big is it to compete for the win and be in contention for your group?
Michael McDowell: It was big in the total performance we’ve had at Front Row from start to finish of a weekend. Qualifying well in the top five, and then staying there all the race and having speed and really being in the top three most of the race, even at the beginning there.
So it’s definitely a big boost for us, but it’s also not an overnight success. I feel like we’ve been building all year and putting together some good results on the ovals and really everywhere. The last four or five weeks, we’ve really strung together some great results and finishes, and our cars have speed in them. I looked at Sonoma as, if you’re running 25th every weekend on an oval, going to a road course and winning it is a little bit out of reach. But when we’re running 10th every weekend, going to a road course and having a shot at winning isn’t out of reach. We sort of knew going into Sonoma that we’d have that shot, and just proud that we executed.
We needed a bit more to be able to be where we wanted to be, but you talked about Harvick — seeing that No. 4 behind me, that guy’s results at Sonoma are incredible. … What Harvick is good at is not making mistakes, making his tires live and just not slipping up. I had him breathing down my neck that last third of the race, and I’m just thinking, ‘Man, if I slip the tires or spin out one time, he’s going to have me for lunch.’ It’s fun to be in that position and fun to have fast racecars.
I feel like the Next Gen really helped us as a program, where I’ve always known at Front Row that we have great people but now we have, for the most part, equal equipment and the same parts and pieces. We just have to put them in the right place. I felt like there would be potential for us to run how we were running.
Hopefully, we will keep building and seeing how much speed Trackhouse [Racing Team] has and how they are running, that is where we want to be. And we think that we can […] It’s going to take a little bit more time where we can challenge for wins and not just at superspeedways or just at road courses. Looking at Gateway [World Wide Technology Raceway], Charlotte, Darlington and places where we ran top 10 as well, I think we’re getting close.
Glover: If you look at the last eight races, you guys have had five top 10s, only one finish outside the top 20 and were one of the best Fords at Gateway. What do you think the source is behind that and the momentum you’ve had the past two months?
McDowell: I think it’s a total team effort. [No. 34 crew chief] Blake Harris has done a great job leading our group in just getting the most out of our racecars and finding speed. Everybody is still learning, right? So guys are able to hit on stuff, and I think we’ve hit on a few things that’s given us speed, but that ebbs and flows throughout the year. You always see the best teams rise to the top. You look at Team Penske and four or five weeks ago they were okay but weren’t super strong, and then they went four or five weeks where they were the best cars and were winning races and running up front. This Next Gen car ebbs and flows a little bit more than in the past, and right now I think we’re hitting on things.
We’ve got a good group, a good team. Then we’re not making too many mistakes, not throwing it away. When you’re having a car that will run top 10 and we finish eighth, that’s what we have to do. […] As you get closer to the front, it gets harder. At Sonoma, we were just close enough to have a shot at the win that you definitely want to take more chances and give yourselves the best opportunity to win, but the opportunity didn’t present itself on any of those restarts. I needed the (Nos.) 17 and 99 to race a little bit harder and have a bit bigger battle, but at the same time it’s been a fun year. We’ve had the most top 10s [in my career], and more than anything being more consistent up front.
Glover: With Watkins Glen, Road America, the Indianapolis road course and of course Daytona coming up, how good do you feel about the opportunity to win your way into the playoffs once again?
McDowell: I think we’ve got a legitimate chance. I don’t think it’s a small chance, it’s a legitimate chance. I think this is the first year that I’ve actually felt that way.
If you show up on Sunday, you have a shot. But winning a race running 10th is nowadays virtually impossible. Everyone is so good with strategy, fuel mileage and not making mistakes. It’s not like the old days where you’ve just got to get to the end and it might work out. You really have to be in those top two or three to have a shot at winning.
In order to do that, you have to have speed, and we’re just now getting to the place where we have enough to do that. I look at Road America as a good opportunity for us, it’s my best track. […] Watkins Glen is one of my best tracks as well.
I don’t want to be waiting until Daytona. That’s a desperate race, there are so many guys trying to get in, and it’s usually wild. But if we have to, we’re going to put ourselves in the best position to do it. Making the playoffs means so much in this sport, and there’s so much value on making the playoffs — that is why you see the racing that you see.
I lived it last year [as] if there were going to be more than 16 [winners] — you can definitely see there are some really good cars that haven’t won yet. When you look at those really good cars that haven’t won yet, you can get to 17 or 18 pretty easy, but we’ll see what happens.
Glover: Racing etiquette has been talked about a lot this season. If it comes to the point where you’re in second with one lap to go in any regular season race, what’s the strategy?
McDowell: I try not to think about it too much because you’ve got to go with what your gut tells you. I’ll tell you straight up, I am not somebody who’s gonna run into someone from behind and move them out of the way. I want to at least be alongside or inside, and I don’t mind making a dive-bomb move going into turn 7 or 11 at Sonoma for the win on the last lap. But lining them up straight in the rear bumper and moving them, to me that’s not racing.
Glover: How has that growth been in your first season with Blake Harris as crew chief?
McDowell: It’s going good, I’ve really enjoyed working with Blake. I knew he was going to be an asset. He has a great pedigree in racing, he’s been with a great program and has won a lot of races and a championship as a car chief [2017 with Furniture Row Racing]. I knew he had all the right stuff, but chemistry and communication is hard. It just takes time.
The last four or five weeks, we’ve gotten to where he’s figuring me out and I’m figuring him out, and that just takes time. I don’t know anybody that just hits it off and when I say I am a number two loose on entry, they know the right adjustment for it. It just takes time to understand each other’s levels. We have done a good job of communicating. That’s one thing he and I have been on the same page.
We’re both wired this way, super high intensity. It’s like, ‘Man, you’re not going to hurt my feelings.’ What hurts my feelings is running bad. […] If there is something that we can be doing to help us run better, just say it and don’t be afraid to say it. We’ve had a very open dialogue with that, and that’s been good. I think we’re getting through what we need to have the right chemistry and communication to make it count. Now that we’re running better, we’re going to have an opportunity to make it count.
Glover: At Sonoma, track position was really important with dirty air. Is there still a struggle with aerodynamics in dirty air?
McDowell: I don’t think that’s the issue. I think the issue is that the competition is closer to each other. When I had Kyle Busch coming to my bumper at Sonoma [in the past], he was a second a lap faster, so when he got there, it was pretty easy for him to pass. Now, if he’s better, he’s only a tenth or two better, and that’s hard to pass.
I think that’s probably what the Next Gen car has done more of. It’s brought more parity, and anytime you have more parity in racing it becomes more challenging. It’s more challenging because you don’t have guys so much faster than the field. It also makes execution and other things super important. I didn’t feel much of a difference at Sonoma. I don’t know if other guys were talking about it, but I didn’t feel like dirty air at Sonoma was an issue at all. I felt it was harder to out-brake somebody who has the same brakes.
Glover: You are ahead of Denny Hamlin in the points [McDowell is no longer ahead of Hamlin after Nashville]. You have more top 10s than him, William Byron and Chase Briscoe. How big is that when you hear those numbers?
McDowell: I think it’s cool, it’s rewarding to everybody here that has worked really hard. It’s fun for me. I’m not a young whippersnapper, I’ve been at this for a long time, and this is the first time I feel I’m getting an opportunity to show my ability behind the wheel. That’s been fun to see it actually come to fruition.
I hope that we can keep it rolling and do it all year long. The goal is to always run better than you did the year before, and for us to do that, we’re going to have to win a race because we won one last year. … If we can get it done on a non-superspeedway, it would mean a lot to this team and to all of us. We’re not there yet, but we’re much closer than we’ve ever been and will keep fighting.
Glover: The last four years you have had a rookie teammate, now with Todd Gilliland. What’s it like having that mentor presence to Gilliland, and what has the communication been like among you two?
McDowell: It’s been good. I’ve had a lot of rookie teammates like you said, and I keep getting better with them as I’ve gone. With Todd, it’s been a little bit easier because his dad [David Gilliland] was such an influential part of this race team, and he’s a friend of mine. I’ve known Todd since he was a kid, so it’s been pretty neat to be in that mentor role.
Todd’s done a great job, he’s very coachable and he’s got a great personality. The [No. 34] has overshadowed how well he’s done because we’re having the best season we’ve ever had and we’re having really good runs. At Charlotte and all these places, he’s been right where I’ve been. He may not have gotten the same finish, but he’s finishing 14th, 15th, 17th in his first time at these places in Cup.
I think he’s done an amazing job. […] He’s not tore up a lot of stuff, which is important for our race team.I’m not going to mention names, but I’ve had fast teammates and all the inventory was gone, and that hurts us. That hurts the No. 34 team, not just the No. 38 team. […] He’s done a good job of not tearing up a lot of stuff, getting good finishes, and their program is growing and getting better.
Glover: When you look back at the end of the year, what do you want to look back at and say, ‘We really accomplished what we set out to do?’
McDowell: The first goal to win a race. The second goal would be to not taper off.
Last year, we won the [Daytona] 500 and the first five races were top 10s and it was rolling well. But then we got right around this time and we started to fall off, and we fell back into 20th and 25th. So to keep this level of performance up would be a huge accomplishment.
You’re always going to have dips, I mean everyone does. But consistently staying where we’re at speed-wise, being up in the top 10 and having good results would be huge and not have these big dips throughout the season.
Then, we always look at making the playoffs, and winning a race is important. But where we’re at this point of the year and how many points we scored as an organization, we’ll keep improving that number.
Glover: Looking at your career and where you began, one thing that stands out about you is faith. When you approach racing, being at the track with so many people, how do you approach it with that faith?
McDowell: I think that I don’t try to separate the two. Being a follower of Christ is an everyday thing, not a Sunday thing, not an at-the-racetrack thing. It influences every part of who I am.
I just try to live that out as authentically as I can, whether I’m at the track or I’m at home, and try not to change how I approach it. From the competition side, I think sometimes people are like, ‘Ah man, you’re a Christian, so why did you run that guy over and take him out?’
Well, I also look at it as a sport. If I play football, I’m going to hit you as hard as I can, that’s part of the game. In racing, racing is a sport. I’m trying to win a race, and if you’re preventing me from winning the race, it’s a sport. I try not to take that too seriously as far as how people perceive that.
But more than anything, just handle things well off the track. What that looks like is different for everybody. To me, I feel like I have a great opportunity to do something I love to do and I want to make it count. I want to make it count for my family, for people who follow me and my fans. And that’s me trying to be me, living out my faith organically and not taking yourself too seriously, and then just trying to use a platform for good to make an impact that counts.
About the author
Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.