Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Is Illinois the Spark Michael McDowell Needed?

Top Dog: Michael McDowell

NASCAR’s second Cup visit to World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (June 4) was not lacking action, despite lightning delays that lasted for over an hour and a half.

With the heat beating down for most of the weekend on the 1.25-mile track, drivers felt it both physically and from their racecars.

For Michael McDowell, his race paralleled what happened to him in the second stage: a 180-degree turn.

After finishing stage one in 19th, McDowell got spun by a driver with history in this race: Ross Chastain. Despite sliding into the outside wall, the No. 34 only suffered cosmetic damage, and McDowell was able to continue.

McDowell rebounded to finish 24th in the stage.

The No. 34 team opted for two tires to begin the final leg, pushing McDowell back up to 14th. Just under 40 laps into the stage, the team played another strategy card after another caution flew, taking fuel only to propel McDowell to fifth.

With passing serving as a challenge up front, the call worked masterfully for McDowell, who kept himself in the top 10 until a red flag came for Noah Gragson with 42 laps remaining.

Several cautions in the closing laps saw the 38-year-old bounce around the top 10, including a brief drive up inside the top five. In the end, he slid backwards on the penultimate restart, but McDowell was able to fend off strong cars such as the ones driven by Kevin Harvick and Christopher Bell to finish ninth.

After experiencing a career year last season, McDowell has faced several obstacles this season, recording just one top 10 in the first 14 races.

However, it was this race a year ago where McDowell led 34 laps and, despite finishing in 18th, it helped spark him toward a strong summer stretch.

With Sonoma Raceway next up on the agenda, a road racing ace like McDowell will be licking his chops. In 2022, he scored three consecutive top 10s on road courses, including a season-high finish of third at Sonoma.

What’s the lesson here? Watch out for the Front Row Motorsports driver next weekend.

Who Impressed?

AJ Allmendinger needed to have a solid, complete race from start to finish, and that is what he got with a 14th-place run. The Kaulig Racing driver cracked the top 10 in stage two after finishing stage one in 12th, and he would later jump to third thanks to a two-tire stop. However, he was unable to hold off those with four tires, sliding to 21st at the end of stage two.

In the final stage, Allmendinger took tires after a caution with 42 laps remaining, restarting 25th. Through a flurry of yellow flags, the 41-year-old was able to drive up and earn his third finish of 14th in the past four races.

Behind Allmendinger in 15th was Todd Gilliland, who returned to Front Row’s No. 38 after competing in the No. 51 for Rick Ware Racing at the Coca-Cola 600. After recording stage finishes of 25th and 29th, Gilliland got mired in traffic due to not playing the strategy card like several other drivers. However, that wasn’t enough to keep him buried deep in the pack, as Gilliland cracked the top 20 midway through the final stage to eventually earn a top-15 finish. It was Gilliland’s seventh top 15 of 2023 as opposed to just four during his rookie year.

Like many teams this season, Allmendinger was followed closely by his Kaulig teammate, Justin Haley. Haley didn’t play the strategy game much throughout the race and found himself mired outside the top 20 for much of the event, fighting tight-handling conditions at times. However, the driver of the No. 31 made a late charge by slicing and dicing through the field on the final few restarts to earn a 16th-place finish. It’s the Indiana native’s fourth consecutive run of 18th or better.

Erik Jones rounded out the top 20 presence for the underdogs in 18th. This track was the good life for Jones a year ago, as he ran inside the top 10 all day long en route to a seventh-place run. However, the 2023 struggles continued for Legacy Motor Club, as Jones found himself fighting from behind for much of the race. Jones had to start from the rear due to unapproved adjustments, only cracking the top 20 in stage two. The driver of the No. 43 then had a nightmare situation unfold, front tire changer Thomas Hatcher getting hit on a stop, injured enough to force an ambulance to make its way to pit road.

Hatcher left on a stretcher but was awake and alert upon transport to a local hospital. The latest update Sunday night was positive and hope remains Hatcher (whose incident was not shown on camera) avoided a concussion or any serious injury.

Who’s in the Dog House?

Streaks were made to be broken, and that was the case for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Coming into the race riding seven consecutive top-15 results, the Olive Branch, Miss. native ran inside the top 10 for much of tis event. But just as it appeared like he would extend his streak, it came to a screeching halt with about 20 laps remaining.

See also
Austin Dillon Irate With Austin Cindric After Gateway: 'He Better Be Suspended Next Week'

Austin Cindric turned into Austin Dillon, causing Dillon to lose control and slam into Stenhouse, putting him out of the race with a disappointing 32nd-place showing.

Noah Gragson‘s challenging rookie season continued despite some optimism in the final stage. With 42 laps to go, Gragson’s No. 42 blew a brake rotor, causing him to back into the outside wall with a scary crash that spurred a red flag. Fortunately, Gragson would be OK after the hit, but his 33rd-place finish left him with his ninth consecutive result outside the top 20.

How about Carson Hocevar? He very easily could have been mentioned in the section above. On paper, Hocevar finished in last place (36th). However, it was an impressive run in his short-notice debut.

Driving the No. 7 for Spire Motorsports after Corey LaJoie filled in driving the Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9 for a suspended Chase Elliott, Hocevar outran the No. 7 regular in his Cup debut. But on lap 46, his brakes failed, sending him into the outside wall and ending his day. It was still an impressive run for a driver who has turned heads in his limited Cup and NASCAR Xfinity Series starts.

What They’re Saying

Jones (18th): “Just an up-and-down day for the No. 43 Bommarito.com Chevy team. Didn’t end up how we wanted it to go, but we’ll go to work and get the car a bit better. I thought we had good speed, just didn’t have things go our way. We’ll work on it and hopefully go to Sonoma (Raceway) and have a solid day.”

Stenhouse (32nd):

Gragson (33rd):

Hocevar (36th):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

In Rick Ware Racing’s No. 15 at WWT Raceway was Gray Gaulding, making his season debut. A familiar sight on Gaulding’s cars no matter the series has been his sponsor, Panini. Get me a pack of cards with this scheme on it, because it has to be valuable! Featuring a blend of many bright colors, the scheme absolutely sparkled in St. Louis!

Gaulding would wind up finishing 29th after suffering mechanical issues late in the race.

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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