Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: The Uncharted Road to the Playoffs for Michael McDowell

For Michael McDowell, the remainder of the NASCAR Cup Series regular season is a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that McDowell is going to be in a tough fight to make the playoffs over the next few weeks. McDowell entered Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) as the playoff bubble driver, holding on to the last postseason spot by 18 points. His race got off to a bad start when his No. 34 Ford sustained front end damage. The Front Row Motorsports crew had to spend extra time in the pits taping up the front splitter, sacrificing valuable track position in the process.

NASCAR had to pause the race after 74 laps due to rain, but it looks likely that McDowell could lose the last playoff spot to Ty Gibbs. It would not be a shock to see that happen, because Michigan has never been a good track for McDowell. In fact, the two-mile speedway in the Irish Hills may be his worst. In 16 previous starts at Michigan, McDowell’s best finish is 20th. A strong result this weekend would buck a long trend of lousy finishes at MIS.  

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The good news is that the remainder of the regular season schedule favors McDowell. That is particularly important because he and his team still have the option to reach the playoffs on points. All that’s left are two road courses – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen International – along with the regular season finale at Daytona.

Road courses and superspeedways have been McDowell’s best tracks in his time with Front Row Motorsports. He and the No. 34 team should have a high degree of confidence going forward that they can out-point their competition. If they do, McDowell would do something that neither he nor FRM has ever done — qualify for the postseason solely on points.  

There have only been two instances of an FRM driver reaching the playoffs. Chris Buescher was the first, qualifying thanks to a win at Pocono Raceway in 2016. Buescher and the No. 34 team won on a strategy gamble and were out front when the race was called due to inclement weather. The organization’s other playoff appearance was with McDowell in 2021 after winning the Daytona 500.

Both of those wins and playoff appearances were great accomplishments for FRM, but they were not indicative of season-long strength. Even after the Pocono win, Buescher still nearly missed the playoffs by dropping out of the top 30 in overall points. McDowell’s 2021 season was better, but he too would have failed to reach the postseason without his win.

Once the playoffs began, the FRM drivers, in both instances, looked completely outmatched. Buescher was eliminated in the first round, never scored a top 15 finish in the postseason races, and ultimately finished 16th in points. McDowell crashed 30 laps into his first playoff race and never came close to recovering the points deficit in the next two. Like Buescher, he did not earn a top-15 finish in the playoffs and wound up 16th in points. The No. 34 car in 2016 and 2021 was a playoff team in name only and had no real chance of even getting out of round one.

This season could be different. Even though McDowell does not have a win, he has performed better week-to-week than he did in 2021, or Buescher did in 2016. Through the first 22 races, McDowell has already equaled the amount of top 10s he had in all of 2021, and he only has one less top five.

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He also has a good chance to add to those totals over the next few weeks. McDowell finished eighth at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last year and had a good run going in 2021 before getting caught in a late accident. His best result at Watkins Glen is a sixth-place finish he scored last year.

As for Daytona, McDowell is certainly not immune to the chaos that infuses restrictor plate racing, but he has finished in the top 15 in seven of his 11 Daytona starts with FRM. Chances are good that he can avoid a bad day there, and that may be all that McDowell needs to do to secure a playoff berth.

If McDowell can get to the postseason, it could have a major impact on his future in NASCAR. It might convince him to renew his contract with FRM, which typically does only one-year deals with its drivers. On the other hand, the accomplishment of getting an FRM car to the playoffs on points could make McDowell more attractive to another team. He is already rumored to be a potential replacement for Aric Almirola at Stewart-Haas Racing if Almirola decides to retire. Without Almirola and the departing Kevin Harvick, SHR would have a very young and inexperienced driver lineup in 2024 unless they hired a veteran like McDowell.

Yet from McDowell’s perspective, a move to SHR has pros and cons. He’s outrun all of their drivers this year, except Harvick, while competing with a traditionally weaker team. If McDowell gets to the playoffs this year, he may not want to bother with starting over at a new organization, knowing that his current team is capable of going the distance.

On the other hand, SHR is a larger team with more resources and a better track record of success than FRM. Even though SHR is in a down year right now, you would think that McDowell has a better chance of running well with them than with FRM. McDowell turns 39 in December, and any offer that he gets from a larger team could be his last. Would he take that offer if given the chance?

For the moment, McDowell is weighing his options. He has indicated that while he has options, the decision is not entirely up to him, and his primary focus is on getting to the playoffs. It feels like there are a lot of people watching how the race to the postseason will play out for McDowell and FRM. Both the driver and team are in uncharted territory as they try to make the playoffs on points. Their success or failure could have a major ripple effect on NASCAR well after the checkered flag falls at Daytona.  

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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