Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Cinderella in the Making


it’s where the best stories are written. Sports lift us up. They bring us down. They swing us all around. Sports make joy overflow from our hearts while simultaneously make tears stream down our cheeks.

Sports show us that anything is possible. Just ask the 1980 United States men’s hockey team. Ask Tom Brady how a sixth-round draft pick ends up as the greatest athlete of our generation. How does Appalachian State, UMBC or Loyola Chicago dethrone their goliaths of their respective sports? Or how does a man go from intentionally quitting races so he can put food on his family’s table wind up winning the biggest event in stock car racing?

Michael McDowell’s unbelievable story has been told before: a hotshot rookie who suffered one of the most violent crashes in history before being shown the door. It relegated him into a position as a start-and-park driver, a competitor who intentionally parks their racecar at the start of a race because their team has no money to complete it. McDowell somehow piecemealed together a career bouncing from ride to ride before finally winning the greatest race of them all: the Daytona 500.

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Two-plus years since his Daytona 500 triumph, McDowell is fighting tooth and nail for something even more improbable. It would even make Cinderella proud. All that stands between McDowell and a trip to the postseason is four races and a few points.

The Arizona native has had a stellar year. No, he hasn’t won. Most weeks, he’s not even been top 10 competitive. But McDowell has been wickedly consistent. And it is why he currently holds the final playoff spot with four races to go.

The 38-year-old holds an 18-point buffer heading into a stretch of some of his best racetracks, and if he hangs on, McDowell’s 2023 will become the most impressive and improbable season in over 30 years.

Yes, McDowell had made the playoffs before by virtue of his Daytona 500 crown. Other improbable drivers, too, like Aric Almirola in 2014, Chris Buescher in 2016 and even Ricky Stenhouse Jr. this year have had very similar stories to McDowell. But with the way the points system works, improbable winners get a free to the playoffs. Improbable point-getters are not so lucky.

What McDowell is on the verge of doing is likely the greatest feat in the 10-year history of the playoff era. McDowell could walk into the playoffs on points, not wins. No other driver in history has made the playoffs in second-tier equipment with a subpar team like McDowell’s Front Row Motorsports.

At the same time McDowell was starting and parking, McDowell’s current ride, FRM’s No. 34, was struggling to even qualify for races. To see how far FRM and McDowell have come has been nothing short of historic.

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No, McDowell likely will not win the championship like Alan Kulwicki did in 1992 (unless an act of God happens). And no, McDowell’s story will not become NASCAR’s greatest underdog tale, because Kulwicki already has it. But their stories parallel: two journeyman drivers who go up against the goliaths of the sport and finally reach the mountaintop, the championship for Kulwicki and Daytona for McDowell. And yet, McDowell is about to do it again.

Sure, there have been moments that have been lucky. Take for instance the injuries to Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman that have propelled him up the standings, or the fuel gamble at Atlanta Motor Speedway that netted him a fantastic finish. But there have been moments of lucky in every underdog moment: Davey Allison crashing in the season finale, a injury-ridden Virginia team and home ice advantage that prompted a miracle.

For McDowell to complete this impressive feat, he likely needs to outrun Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Suarez and Elliott every week while simultaneously hoping every driver below them does not win. It’s a tall task, yet no one had McDowell sitting inside the playoffs with four races to go on their 2023 bingo card.

So sit back, relax, and watch what is turning out to be the greatest playoff feat ever.

About the author

Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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Anybody can win at Daytona. Half the field are mediocre drivers in case you haven’t noticed.

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