Top Dog: Michael McDowell
Following an impressive third-place run at Sonoma Raceway, I spoke with Michael McDowell about his past two months, which have produced a string of strong results.
When asked about his chances to win a race before the playoffs, McDowell immediately pointed to Road America as one of the prime tracks for him to cash in. After all, he won an Xfinity race there in 2016.
At the Kwik Trip 250 at the Elkhart Lake, Wisc. track (July 3), McDowell nearly broke through for that elusive win on the 2022 campaign. It started out with a strong qualifying session, which featured McDowell in sixth at the end of the session.
McDowell quickly cracked the top five and remained there for most of stage one before getting passed by Austin Cindric. In a strategy to gain track position for stage two, crew chief Blake Harris called the No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford to the pits, resulting in McDowell finishing 16th in the stage.
Stage two was fairly deja vu for McDowell, with the luminescent yellow and red machine running laps inside the top five once again before pitting before the pits closed at the end of the stage.
The final stage was more of the same for the 37-year-old. He was solidly inside the top 10 running as high as sixth, but just wasn’t quite as quick as the leading contenders. Once the final green flag stops cycled through, McDowell fought his way from outside the top 10 to earn an eighth-place finish. The result continues to stretch out McDowell’s career-high in top 10s. Additionally, McDowell’s seven top 10s this year are tied for 10th in the series. Not bad for a guy who struggled to find a full-time ride just a few short years ago.
In the interview with McDowell, he mentioned how winning was so important, and despite the surge of momentum, he practically needs to win to have a shot at the playoffs. Eighteen races into the season which has already featured 13 winners, McDowell sits 21st in points, 115 points behind Christopher Bell for the last playoff spot.
Win or no win, Front Row Motorsports is beginning to develop into one of the top Ford teams. McDowell has consistently run with or outpaced the Stewart-Haas Racing cars, a team that has two titles to its name since its inception in 2009.
The possibilities of a McDowell victory are not far out in the ocean either. The series’ next stop is Atlanta Motor Speedway, a track whose most recent visit displayed superspeedway-style racing. It just so happens that McDowell’s lone Cup win was on a superspeedway. Plus, the series has two more road course visits and concludes the regular season at Daytona International Speedway. If you ask me, there is more than enough evidence that McDowell can pull a rabbit out of the hat.
It may not be pretty, it may not be flashy and it sure isn’t pretty most of the time, but somehow AJ Allmendinger continues to grind out strong results in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet. It was an uphill battle for Allmendinger and crew, though.
His race started out in an eventful way. After pitting before the end of the stage, Allmendinger pitted a second time to double check on the possibility of a loose wheel. The stop relegated him to 34th at the stage end.
By the commencement of the final stage, Allmendinger finally got enough track position to flex his muscles, starting from the 15th spot. Late in the race, the Los Gatos, Calif. driver reported that he had ‘zero tire left.’ However, he was not alone and that allowed him to pick off drivers one by one. In the end, he crossed the line in the ninth position. In nine starts in Kaulig’s rotating No. 16, Allmendinger has picked up two top 10s, and his ninth-place showing was his fourth consecutive top 20.
The first two road races of the season were not pretty for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. As a driver who has adapted well to concrete, dirt and fast tracks, the lefts and rights of NASCAR often leave the JTG Daugherty Racing driver feeling twisted. In two road course races this year, Stenhouse has finished 37th and 25th. For the first two stages, it appeared it was going to be a similar result for the No. 47 bunch.
However, strategy helped them gain track position, and Stenhouse wheeled his Chevrolet inside the top 20 for the remainder of the event. When the checkered flag flew, he was scored in 19th, giving him his best road result since an 11th-place run at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course event.
Both Petty GMS Motorsports cars played the strategy card in the event. At the end of stage two, Ty Dillon earned eight stage points in third, with teammate Erik Jones just behind him in fifth. Their last stage went in two different directions, however. A penalty for a crew member over the wall too soon cost Jones valuable track position, and he could only recover to 26th. Dillon was able to muscle his way past a few cars in the latter stages, scoring a Dillonesque top 20 showing in 20th. Despite only having one top 10 to show for, Dillon boasts 10 top 20s in 18 races so far.
Joey Hand opened a lot of eyes during the weekend. The No. 15 Rick Ware Racing Ford showed speed in practice, qualifying and the race. During the broadcast, it was noted how Hand was a road ringer who likes the independent rear suspension that he is accustomed to with over road racing disciplines.
That could very well open the door for several other drivers to make their way in, as seen with Kimi Raikkonen making his Cup debut with Trackhouse Racing at Watkins Glen. Hand qualified in the top 10, which immediately impressed. He was not done there, however. Hand wheeled his car inside the top 15 for a good segment of the race. Some strategy even allowed Hand to finish the second stage in the runner-up position. The 43-year-old rookie faded in the late stages to finish 21st, but he certainly landed on people’s radars and proved his worth on road courses with a small team like RWR.
Another 1-2 Stage finish for @FordPerformance as @Blaney / @Team_Penske takes the Stage Win and @JoeyHandRacing / @RickWareRacing take 2nd. #NASCAR | #KwikTrip250 | @roadamerica pic.twitter.com/TTE0aHCLkn
— Roush Yates Engines (@roushyates) July 3, 2022
Underdogs Sound Off
Michael McDowell (eighth): “It was a solid effort but not what we hoped for. We seemed to lose the rear tires a bit too much as the run went on and as we tried to dial rear grip into it we just lost a little bit of turn and then it kind of compounded. We didn’t quite have the speed we needed to run up in the top-five and challenge and kind of slid back a little bit. All in all it was a solid day and we executed well.
“It is nice to be disappointed with an 8th place finish but our expectations have gone up and we want to challenge for wins. We just needed a bit more. I probably need to be a bit more aggressive in practice of trying things but with that limited practice I am so afraid of dialing us out. We just have a little more to gain and I think we will be in the right direction for the Glen and we have been fast on the ovals too. It should be a good month for us coming up. We will take a top-10 and build on it but ultimately it is not what we hoped for.”
Small Team Scheme of the Race
It is fitting that the Independence Day weekend race has taken place at a track with the name ‘America’ in it the past two seasons. Corey LaJoie’s No. 7 Built Bar Chevrolet screamed Fourth of July with stars, the red, white and blue, and an eagle on it. Unfortunately, the eagle’s cry was short-lived as a broken steering rack left LaJoie five laps down at the finish. Still, it was a fitting scheme for the weekend, and I wish everyone a Happy Fourth of July!
— Spire Motorsports (@SpireMotorsport) June 28, 2022
What They’re Saying
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) July 3, 2022
It was a weirdly tame race at @roadamerica today…zero cautions outside of the stage breaks.@AJDinger earned his second top-10 in this last three cup races and @Justin_Haley_ earned points in both stages today!
— Kaulig Racing (@KauligRacing) July 3, 2022
Surprisingly, pretty unscathed 👌
Thanks for everything, Elkhart Lake. Your enthusiasm for racing is immense! pic.twitter.com/OgolFm7UMW
— Petty GMS (@PettyGMS) July 4, 2022
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.
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