Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: The Rise of Chris Buescher & Michael McDowell

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, Aug. 13 had a lot of unique oddities that most races haven’t seen.

Those oddities included a near-completely green flag race, a strategy-filled race and a win – or should I say, a good old-fashioned butt-whooping – by one Michael McDowell.

See also
Stat Sheet: A Nearly Caution-Free Race and a Monumental Win at Indy

McDowell led the most laps of the race and his career (54). He also won his first career stage and collected 59 of the maximum 60 points possible. It was quite an upset story by an underdog.

But can McDowell really be labeled an underdog anymore?

Yes, the Indy win is just the second of McDowell’s career and fourth for Front Row Motorsports, but his first one came just two years ago at the 2021 Daytona 500. Since that race, McDowell and Front Row Motorsports have found uncanny momentum for a smaller team.

In the Arizonian’s first three seasons with FRM from 2018-2020, McDowell had just seven top-10 finishes. In between his two career wins, he has gained 21 top-10s in two and a half seasons.

Similarly, Chris Buescher is another driver we might need to debate whether or not is an underdog anymore. After his surprise upset at Pocono Raceway in 2016 (in the same No. 34 that McDowell occupies today), he went cold with FRM and JTG Daugherty Racing. When he returned to Roush Fenway Racing (eventually RFK Racing), it took him a while to get his feet off the ground.

Then came Bristol Motor Speedway last fall, where much like McDowell and FRM at Indy, Buescher and RFK put on an absolute clinic en route to Buescher scoring his second career win. Then in the two weeks before McDowell’s win, Buescher went back-to-back at Richmond Raceway and Michigan International Speedway. And neither win was a lucky one – Buescher had the car to beat both times.

Compared to other drivers such as Todd Gilliland, Harrison Burton and even Ryan Preece, can you really call Buescher or McDowell an underdog anymore? With another road course in Watkins Glen International coming up, as well as the ever-chaotic Daytona International Speedway, McDowell and Buescher will remain threats at the front entering the playoffs.

RFK and FRM are still far from being top-tier teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. But much like 23XI Racing and its drivers Tyler Reddick and Bubba Wallace, both teams are more than capable of competing on a weekly basis, taking advantage of bigger teams’ misfortunes to earn great finishes and earn playoff berths.

In the same vein, how (if at all) should international drivers and road course ringers receive the underdog classification for one-off races?

Jenson Button has run all of his NASCAR races with Rick Ware Racing, so it’d be very fair to call Button an underdog. But Shane van Gisbergen and Brodie Kostecki both competed with teams that are proven winners in the Cup Series. Sure they hadn’t made starts in the Cup Series prior to van Gisbergen’s debut at the Chicago street course in July, but both Trackhouse Racing and Richard Childress Racing have enjoyed multi-win seasons in the past two years.

My colleague Luken Glover does a masterful job writing the weekly column The Underdog House, never failing to capture the great days of underdog teams. But even he was wondering if the international drivers should have a spot in the column for one-off races – most international drivers are legends in their own right in motorsports outside of NASCAR, but the lack of experience in NASCAR raises the underdog question.

See also
The Underdog House: Welcome to the Playoffs, Michael McDowell

While he was pondering that thought this week, I wondered the same thing for McDowell as he has continued to elevate FRM’s competitive spirit. FRM has noticed it too, as the week prior to McDowell’s Indy triumph the team announced that it would be extending both McDowell and Gilliland into 2024, signaling that FRM likes where it’s headed with its current lineup.

And while Zane Smith has arguably boosted the competition at FRM with his NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series success, McDowell and Gilliland have risen to the pressure.

FRM already has a Truck Series championship, and surprisingly, it could be a step or two away from being legitimate contenders for a Cup championship in the future. It has always been “the little team that could,” but it seems with McDowell, the team might need a new nickname, such as “the little team turned big team that did.”

Okay, I’m not the best with nicknames, but you get the point.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. He is a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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Make no mistake about it, 23XI is a Gibbs team .

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