Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Welcome to the Playoffs, Michael McDowell

Top Dog: Michael McDowell

“The days of road ringers are of old.”

That sentiment was leaning more toward being factual with each passing season over the past decade. Drivers similar to the likes of Robby Gordon, Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya were fading away.

Until Aug. 13, when the Verizon 200 at The Brickyard opened a new door.

Entering the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Michael McDowell sat three points out of the playoff picture. When cars unloaded for practice and qualifying, McDowell’s speed and qualifying effort positioned him to grab those points. But for the No. 34, the target was no longer points-racing after his practice run. Instead, it was to win.

And that is exactly what McDowell did. Not only that, he walloped the field.

“I thought we could point our way in, but after the car we had yesterday at practice, I thought, ‘Man, we’ve got a good shot at winning if we can just get track position and maintain it,'” McDowell told NBC Sports following the race.

After starting fourth, McDowell grabbed the lead from Daniel Suarez on lap 6, holding him off to earn both his and FRM’s first ever stage win. Suarez fought back, though, capturing the lead back during a pit cycle shortly after the stage.

McDowell managed his equipment and stalked Suarez before taking advantage of a traffic jam for the lead to get back by him, eventually cycling to the lead after stage two ended.

From there, it was all about McDowell and execution. Both McDowell and his crew took care of business, while Suarez suffered a pit road miscue during his final stop, all but taking him out of contention. With the victory in his sight, McDowell had to hold off just one driver to clinch a playoff spot. Of course, that driver was none other than seven-time road course winner Chase Elliott.

See also
Monday Morning Pit Box: A Tale of Two Pit Stops for Daniel Suarez at Indy

Lap after lap, Elliott drove desperately to catch McDowell. But despite a brave charge, McDowell would hold him off to earn his second career win and take the weight of the playoff bubble off his shoulders.

Just days after FRM announced that McDowell would return in 2024, the Phoenix, Ariz. native rewarded them by leading a career-high 54 laps and locking in their third postseason berth as an organization.

It is an absolute feel-good story for the 38-year-old. After years of wading in the waters of underfunded, part-time rides, McDowell is showing just what we were all missing for a decade. A long-term vision by FRM owner Bob Jenkins is being realized with McDowell, who has elevated the team into a playoff contender.

And as far as being a road ringer, McDowell backed that up too, earning his seventh top 10 on the track type in the Next Gen car.

When the playoffs kick off at Darlington Raceway next month, this team will be no easy out. Week after week, McDowell and the No. 34 team are building something special.

Who’s in the Dog House

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has earned some of his best road course results this season, including career-best seventh at Circuit of the Americas. Indianapolis wasn’t one of them.

Stenhouse had multiple run-ins with the international drivers during the race, most notably Jenson Button. The two made contact on lap 57 before Stenhouse spun Button. A few laps later, Button overdrove a corner, knocking Stenhouse out of his path. On lap 67, the JTG-Daugherty Racing driver overshot turn 1, sending Kamui Kobayashi for a spin. Stenhouse would finish 25th, one lap down.

While there was only one caution, several underdogs experienced isolated issues. AJ Allmendinger was expected to be a favorite for the victory given his win at the track in 2021 and his road course prowess. However, the Kaulig Racing driver was a non-factor.

Attempting to rally from his 26th starting position, Allmendinger went for a spin on lap 30 after receiving contact from Ryan Blaney, to which Allmendinger promised revenge if possible. With five to go, his day got worse when he drove off the track in turn 4. Entering as a playoff bubble driver, a 26th-place result plus the win by McDowell puts Allmendinger in must-win territory for the next two races.

Erik Jones‘ momentum was halted in Indy thanks to a mechanical issue. While exiting pit road during stage two, Jones reported his car lost first gear completely and stalled. The issue left Jones with a disappointing 35th-place result, only his second result outside the top 20 in the past eight races.

Todd Gilliland‘s celebration of a contract extension did not go quite as well as McDowell’s. He nearly brought out the feared yellow for McDowell on lap 59 when he lost control through turn 11. Gilliland’s car snapped sideways before over-correcting and making heavy contact with the wall. Gilliland was relegated to 37th.

After nearly winning the Chicago street course race, confidence was riding high for Justin Haley. Unfortunately, that was all dashed briskly. On just the second lap, Haley was side-by-side with Joey Logano going through turn 5, a risky turn to be alongside another car. Haley got the worst of it, as Logano slid up into his No. 31, sending Haley off course and smashing into the tire barrier. The Winamac, Ind. native could only limp home in 38th.

International Underdog Flare

Seven countries were represented in the race, with an intriguing mix of returns and series debuts. While a couple of drivers are not included here, a couple were able to highlight underdog performances.

Mike Rockenfeller got the call to drive the No. 42 for Legacy Motor Club, who released a joint statement with Noah Gragson that the rookie had requested his release. In his place, Rockenfeller put together a respectable showing in just his third Cup start, finishing 24th. It is his first top 25 in Cup.

See also
Noah Gragson Requests Release From Legacy Motor Club

Button’s tangle with Stenhouse cost him overall, but he also showed speed at times. The UK driver finished 28th.

After long anticipation, Kobayashi finally made his Cup debut with 23XI Racing. The Japanese native got turned by Andy Lally early in the race before the incident with Stenhouse occurred later. Kobayashi crossed the line in 33rd.

What They’re Saying

McDowell (first): “It’s special. There’s not a cooler moment than winning the Daytona 500. But to do it and not have my family there, it was tough. So I always cherry pick the races they come to. They can’t come to all of them, but they come to the ones that we think we can win. Today, we did it.”

Allmendinger (26th): “I’m proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing for the improvement we made after qualifying yesterday. Our Dyno-Gro Seed Chevy had speed, but we got caught up in an unfortunate incident and never had the chance to get back into it with the race running green. We’re disappointed in our finish, it’s not a representation of the car we had today.”

Kobayashi (33rd):

Haley (38th): “It was a disappointing start to the day that continued to be an uphill battle. I thought I had position on the No. 22, but he jumped the curb and sent me into the tire barrier. Unfortunately, our No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevy just lacked speed from the heavy damage, and we never could get back on the lead lap. Hopefully we can turn our luck around next week at Watkins Glen, another road course I really enjoy.”

Small Team Scheme of the Week

Once again, this choice was not easy, with many underdog teams sporting brilliant looks. Overall, it was Button’s scheme taking the prize. Mobil 1 was back on the car for the 2009 F1 champion and Rick Ware Racing’s No. 15. The iconic red, white and blue colors flashed, with the famous Mobil “Pegasus” finishing it off.

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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