Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Michael McDowell Earns Career-Best Phoenix Finish of 13th in Return Home

Top Dog: Michael McDowell

Everyone likes to play at home. Whether it is basketball, baseball, football and of course, NASCAR.

A home race is always special for drivers. Just look at guys like Denny Hamlin at Richmond Raceway, Jimmie Johnson at Auto Club Speedway or Tony Stewart at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

For Valley of the Sun native Michael McDowell, Phoenix Raceway has been special to him; but his record at the 1-mile track has left something to be desired.

At the conclusion of Sunday’s (March 12) United Rentals Work United 500, McDowell left with a career-best Phoenix result of 13th.

McDowell and the Front Row Motorsports team were racing with heavy hearts, as Tom Love, the founder of longtime sponsor Love’s Travel Stops, passed away at the age of 85.

With Love’s name on the decklid of the No. 34, McDowell opened up the week flexing his muscles by qualifying seventh for the race, his first top-10 start at the 1-miler.

Free on exit, McDowell moderately slid down the order but held strong inside the top 15 to finish stage one in 13th.

He then held steady inside the top 15 during stage two, but he was bitten with a speeding penalty midway through, pushing him outside the top 20. However, he would take the wave around during a caution to get back on the lead lap, wrapping up stage two in 21st.

The 38-year-old slowly but surely moved up through the field during the final stage, using short pitting to gain some spots during a green flag cycle. The No. 34 got up to 13th when a caution flew with 10 laps remaining.

McDowell took four tires on the final stop of the day, setting him for the short sprint to the finish. Initially, he was stranded in 17th on the restart, but another caution gave him new life for an overtime restart. He didn’t pass on that opportunity, gaining four spots to cross the line in 13th.

In 24 previous starts in the desert, McDowell had earned a pair of 16th-place results, his only top 20s at the track.

The top 15 was a welcome sight for a team who was coming off their best season in 2022. In three starts this season, McDowell had an average finish of 23.7, with no finish higher than 18th.

Putting together a solid weekend at his home track may be what McDowell needs moving forward.

See also
William Byron Wins At Phoenix For 2nd Straight Cup Victory

Who Impressed

After a trying day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a week ago, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. landed back inside the top 20 this weekend. Stenhouse struggled for most of the race, getting mired outside of the top 20 and being stuck a lap down. Long runs and difficulties with dirty air hampered how much the No. 47 could do, keeping him below the surface.

When the caution flew with 10 laps left, Stenhouse finally got a break, waving back onto the lead lap. The next caution allowed him to get four fresh tires, setting him up for a 19th-place finish. It is Stenhouse’s second top 20 at Phoenix since joining JTG-Daugherty Racing in 2020.

AJ Allmendinger also was able to land inside the top 20 despite a wild ending to his race. The Los Gatos, Calif. native hovered around 20th for most of the race despite drawing a speeding penalty in stage two.

After the lap 302 caution, Allmendinger brought out the final caution when he went for a spin with three laps remaining.

Fortunately, he did not suffer any damage. The No. 16 car came down pit road, got fresh tires, and escaped Phoenix with a solid 20th-place finish after the incident.

Who’s in the Dog House

The ‘Who Impressed’ list was pretty short this week, as a lack of passing and long green flag runs trapped most of the underdogs a lap down.

Noah Gragson’s rookie blues continued as he finished 29th at the end of 317 laps. Gragson reported struggling with the nose of his car sliding too much while lacking the balance he needed most of the race. He was involved in the final crash, as Allmendinger’s spin ended with Gragson getting pinned into the outside wall. Gragson has opened up the season with four finishes of 22nd or worse, though much of that has been a result of unfortunate luck.

Zane Smith made his second start of the season with FRM, wheeling the No. 38 Ford for the first time this season. But while teammate McDowell found speed, the reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion struggled to find his pace throughout the event. He would finish in 30th, two laps down.

Harrison Burton‘s seesaw opening to 2023 took a hit late in the race, as he was the cause for the lap 302 caution. Burton was exiting turn 4 when he lost control and spun, with a blown tire leaving debris in the dogleg section of the track. The incident would relegate Burton to 35th.

BJ McLeod suffered a tough break 50 laps into the race. The Live Fast Motorsports co-owner suffered an issue with the fuel pump, forcing him to the garage and eventually out of the race in 36th.

Underdogs Who Built the Sport

As the series will head home from Phoenix, the track itself marked the beginning of one of NASCAR’s favorite underdogs.

In the first race at Phoenix in 1988, a young driver named Alan Kulwicki took the win. Kulwicki had a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and he fielded his cars as an owner-driver. The 1986 Rookie of the Year showed up with an open trailer and had to recruit a few guys for his pit crew. Starting in 21st, the No. 7 drove up through the field. Ricky Rudd dominated the race but lost an engine late, allowing Kulwicki to slip by.

He led 41 laps on the day, including the last one, to earn his first career victory in his 85th start. In celebration, he debuted the Polish Victory Lap, driving around the track backward in recognition of the fans.

Two additional wins and four years later, Kulwicki was involved in one of the greatest championship battles ever. Entering the final six races of 1992 278 points out of the lead, Kulwicki went on a tear in his No. 7 “Underbird.”

Locked in a battle with Bill Elliott and Davey Allison for the title, Kulwicki would make history. Allison needed to finish fifth or better to clinch the title but was involved in a crash late in the race while running sixth. Elliott and Kulwicki ensued in a classic battle of strategy while trying to lead laps in order to pick up five bonus points.

See also
That's History Profile: Alan Kulwicki

Despite the uncertainty of how much fuel was in his tank following the final stop, Kulwicki stretched it to the end to finish second. Elliott would win the race, but Kulwicki would take home the championship by 10 points, in what was then the closest title race in history.

Unfortunately, how much Kulwicki would achieve was never realized. He died in a plane crash on April 1, 1993.

Known for rejecting offers from owners in favor of running his own car, Kulwicki was beloved by fans. He earned five wins, 38 top fives, 75 top 10s and 24 poles in 207 starts. He was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2019.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Ty Dillon debuted a new scheme on his Spire Motorsports No. 77 this week with MUTOH America coming on board. The scheme featured a splash of color on the sides with a white nose transferring into the blue to create a strong look. Dillon would finish in 30th.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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CHIEF

Wow, headline news – a Ford driver finishes 13th in a hendricknascar race ! They should check him for some kind of rules infraction or Something – we can’t have this.

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