Can Michael McDowell win a road course in the Next Gen car?
Most underdog teams have to rely on Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Speedway as their tickets to the playoffs. Last year’s Daytona 500 was Michael McDowell’s golden ticket into the playoffs, and Daytona this Saturday will be his last chance to make the 2022 playoff grid.
But with the Next Gen car, McDowell now has more than double the viable winning opportunities with his performance at road courses.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that McDowell is good at them; he came from a road racing background, and he recorded three top-10 finishes at road courses between 2020 and 2021.
That being said, McDowell hasn’t just become a contender for the occasional top 10: he has become a legitimate winning threat at them. Circuit of the Americas has been the one misstep this season for McDowell, as he only spent 26% of the laps inside the top 15. Nevertheless, he was still able to finish strong with a solid 13th-place result.
In the last four road course races, McDowell has been automatic. He has recorded finishes of third, eighth, eighth and sixth at Sonoma Raceway, Road America, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen International, respectively. Even more impressive than his finishes is the fact that he had an average running position inside the top 10 in all four of them.
McDowell is now coming off one of, if not the, best race of his career. He began the weekend at Watkins Glen by qualifying third, his best career starting position that was rewarded by time trials. He then led 14 laps and had an average running position of fourth before he ended up sixth at the finish. In just one weekend, McDowell had his best qualifying effort, his highest average running position in a race and his highest percentage of laps led in a single race. The argument could be made that he was the second-fastest car of the weekend, only behind two-time Watkins Glen winner Chase Elliott.
If McDowell continues to crank out these performances on road courses, one of them will turn into a win at some point. His chances of winning will only go up if a race is run in the rain; McDowell dominated first 15 laps of Sunday that were run in wet conditions, but he was still a top-five car after the track dried up.
If Front Row Motorsports continues to churn out fast road-course cars, McDowell has a chance at recording a second Cup win on one.
How much is too much rain?
Rain tires are there for a reason, but NASCAR appeared hesitant to begin the race in wet conditions after the lightning had moved out of the storm system that hit Watkins Glen. When the storm had transitioned to just heavy rain, NASCAR took the field out on pace laps before deciding that the conditions were too severe for racing. The race later began in wet conditions, but the wet conditions had all but dissipated by lap 10.
Unfortunately, the rain that hit Watkins Glen was not the kind that was suitable for racing. The most suitable weather for rain racing is days that have a drizzle or moderate rain that lasts throughout the afternoon. Upstate New York received the opposite of that last weekend, as a heavy thunderstorm system immediately moved into the area and then immediately out of it, with no rain showers to follow once the front had left.
With the amount of rain that came pouring down, surface water had begun collecting in the low-lying sections of the racetrack. Standing water in a major hazard to both the cars and visibility for drivers, just as the Cup Series learned last year in its inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas.
That race was run in a monsoon, and from laps 15 to 25, there were two dangerous multi-car accidents that were sparked after drivers were physically unable to see anything in the rainy conditions. NASCAR then made the decision to red flag the race in order to improve visibility, and the race resumed once conditions had improved. But later in the afternoon, the rain had picked up enough to where the race was ended after 54 of the 68 scheduled laps were completed.
For further concerns with visibility, one needs to look no further than another race the same day. As the Cup Series was competing at Watkins Glen, the ARCA Menards Series was doing battle at the Springfield Mile, a 1-mile dirt track in the Illinois State Fairgrounds. As the leaders were rounding turn 4 of lap 74, Bryce Haugeberg had a mechanical failure and slowed down on the frontstretch. Second-place Buddy Kofoid was unable to see Haugeberg because of the dust trail behind leader Jesse Love, and he plowed into Haugeberg’s car at full speed. Haugeberg’s car was launched into the air and came to rest on its side.
Both Buddy Kofoid and Bryce Haugeberg walked away from this massive crash to end the Atlas 100 at the Springfield Mile
— ARCA Menards Series (@ARCA_Racing) August 21, 2022
A race during which drivers have no visibility is asking for disaster, and with the standing water and pouring rain at Watkins Glen, the field would have encountered 2021 COTA-style crashes had NASCAR gone ahead with starting the race.
Racing in the rain is a unique treat that rarely happens in NASCAR, but last weekend, it just wasn’t in the cards.
Is Sammy Smith the next driver up for Joe Gibbs Racing?
With every passing week, the odds of Kyle Busch not returning to Joe Gibbs Racing appear to go up. And if Busch ultimately departs from the team that he has called for the last 15 seasons, Ty Gibbs is likely to be is successor.
But if Gibbs makes the jump up to the Cup Series in 2023, someone will have to replace him in the Xfinity Series.
JGR certainly has viable candidates through Kyle Busch Motorsports. Chandler Smith has had a breakout year in the Truck Series, as he finished second in the regular-season championship and has scored three wins this season. John Hunter Nemechek would also be a solid choice, as he made the Championship 4 in 2021 and has won six Truck races in his 1.5 seasons at KBM.
But the answer may lie in one of its newcomers: Sammy Smith.
Smith has been the successor to Gibbs in every step of the NASCAR ladder. When Gibbs left the ARCA Menards Series East after a runner-up point finish in 2020, Smith took over his ride in 2021 and won the championship. And as things currently stand, he looks poised to repeat in 2022.
When Gibbs left the ARCA Menards Series after winning the championship in 2021, Smith took over in 2022 once he was old enough to run the full schedule and has recorded two wins and top-five finishes in nine of his 10 starts.
Now in the last month, Smith has had his first taste of action in the Xfinity Series at just 18 years old. After DNFs in his first two starts at Road America and Pocono Raceway, Smith was one of the fastest cars at Michigan International Speedway; he ran in the top five all day and was on pace to finish there until a speeding penalty in the final round of pit stops relegated him to 12th. And in his fourth start at Watkins Glen last weekend, Smith outdueled AJ Allmendinger for a stage win and finished third in the race, just within striking distance of the lead duo as the checkered flag waved.
Not everyone can be Gibbs and win in their Xfinity debut, but Smith has had an outstanding start for his age and relative lack of experience. Smith was originally scheduled to run eight Xfinity races this season, but next weekend’s race at Daytona has since been added to bring his total to nine.
If Smith continues to impress in his final five Xfinity starts, it would be wise for JGR to give him a full-time shot in 2023. What is also in Smith’s favor is sponsorship; almost all of his ARCA and NASCAR starts this season have been sponsored by Pilot Flying J and TMC Transportation. If Smith is putting up these results and brings sponsorship to boot, he will be a hot commodity for teams in the future.
How successful was Project91’s outing with Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen?
The short answer: very.
Sure, the race ended in a disappointing result. Kimi Raikkonen slowly made his way through the field and was at one point running in the top 10 before he wound up 37th after being caught up in a chain-reaction crash just past the halfway mark.
But Raikkonen’s debut was as much about exposure as it was performance. And on that end, it delivered.
On Instagram, Raikkonen thanked Trackhouse Racing Team and said that he hoped to be back in NASCAR. For a driver that has been known for being quiet in his career, it was high praise from the 2007 Formula 1 champion.
On Twitter, other drivers took notice. Among the drivers that stated their interest in running the No. 91 next season were ex-F1 driver and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson and as 2009 F1 champion Jenson Button.
Rock Paper Scissors for the seat?!!! https://t.co/KNkqV34q9X
— Jenson Button (@JensonButton) August 21, 2022
That’s only those who expressed public interest. Behind closed doors, more than 20 drivers have expressed interest in taking the No. 91 for a spin in the future.
More than 20 drivers across series like @F1, @IndyCar and @FIAWEC have inquired in recent days about doing a one-off @NASCAR appearance with Trackhouse's Project91, per @JustinMarksTH. pic.twitter.com/XN0icNae5R
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) August 24, 2022
If Justin Marks‘ goal was to bring international attention to NASCAR with Project91, it has already been a smashing success.
The question now turns to what drivers would be willing to give NASCAR a try in the future. Project91 will not make its return until 2023, as Watkins Glen was the only race on the schedule for the No. 91 car this season. At the moment, Trackhouse plans to run the No. 91 for six to eight races in 2023. But if drivers are already lining up to compete after a single race, the team may need to adjust that estimate.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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