Fun fact: Michael McDowell is a Hall of Famer.
Yes, you read that right.
He earned the spot a lifetime ago when he won the 2004 championship in the Indy Pro 2000 series.
His inclusion on that list — a glimpse into “what could have been” for McDowell’s racing career — probably wouldn’t have been brought up had the events of Sunday (Aug. 13) not happened.
“Growing up, I was an open wheel guy,” McDowell told NBC not long after his dominant win in the NASCAR Cup Series race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
“I only got to do a handful IndyCar races, but never here [at Indianapolis],” said McDowell, who competed in two Champ Car races in 2005 as a fresh-faced 20-year-old before he took a detour into sports cars for two years.
Then stock cars came calling in 2007.
That path led to him eventually to making his first Indianapolis start in the 2008 Brickyard 400 with Michael Waltrip Racing. It came only months after the terrifying qualifying wreck at Texas Motor Speedway that would define McDowell’s career until 2021.
“I remember my first Brickyard here thinking, ‘Well, this wasn’t the plan. This is not what I thought I would be,'” McDowell said.
That race, along with Sunday’s win, were special moments for the 38-year-old Arizona native who remembers family vacations to Speedway, Indiana.
“We would come on a summer vacation and ride the white vans around here and tour the museum,” McDowell recalled. “It’s such a special place. So to win here is amazing. And, man, it’s humbling.”
While humbling, there’s nothing “Cinderella” about the second win of McDowell’s NASCAR Cup Series career — at least in the opinion of McDowell, who led a career-best 54 laps and beat Chase Elliott for the opportunity to kiss the bricks.
“Absolutely not,” McDowell said Sunday when asked if the fairy-tale term should be applied to his victory. “I think we’ve been the fastest road course car since this Next Gen car (era began) over the average of it, and I think statistically it’ll show that.
“I think if you just look at the average finish and you look at average running position, we’ve been a top-five car every single road course race since this Next Gen car has come in.”
Since the start of 2022, McDowell has had an average finish of 9.2 on road courses.
That includes having a car capable of winning at Sonoma Raceway two years in a row, only for the 2023 effort to come undone by a pit stop fluke.
Last weekend was the first real complete performance of McDowell’s NASCAR Cup career, which is 16 years and 453 races strong.
The same goes for Front Row Motorsports, which earned its fourth Cup win in 1,273 total starts, but the first that wasn’t on a superspeedway or shortened by fog.
McDowell had the fastest car in practice, qualified fourth and, on Sunday, got around Daniel Suarez on the race’s only restart. He controlled the event, only ceding the lead on pit stops before cycling back to the front.
“Is it a Cinderella story from a lot of different aspects? Maybe,” McDowell said. “But off of pure performance, I feel like we’ve been nailing it and having a shot at it [on road courses].
“But I also look at it as like, we’re going up against some really big teams with a lot of resources, and to do what we did today is pretty awesome.”
McDowell emphasized this point on Monday (Aug. 14) as a guest on Denny Hamlin‘s podcast, Actions Detrimental.
While Front Row Motorsports is given simulator time by Ford, it’s very late in the week. FRM’s scheduled time is on Thursday, long after his car was in Indianapolis.
“It was in the Indy (hauler) parade when I was finishing up,” McDowell told Hamlin.
Anything learned in the simulator can’t really be applied to the car’s setup.
“There’s only so much you can do at the track,” McDowell said. “Building your model happens several weeks before, and that’s hard for us to do because we’re just trying to keep our head above water.”
Then there’s the Hawkeye.
That’s the system of cameras and projectors NASCAR uses to inspect cars at the track prior to a race.
Some NASCAR Cup teams have their own Hawkeye at their shops.
Front Row Motorsports isn’t one of them.
“If I do my job well, we’ll have a Hawkeye by the end of the year,” McDowell said. “That’s the plan, that’s the goal.”
Until then, they have to rely on the system owned by RFK Racing — who they’re in a technical alliance with — or the one offered by NASCAR.
The catch, McDowell said, is FRM doesn’t get the chance to run their cars through those systems multiple times to fine-tune them.
“Our guys are doing a great job,” McDowell said. “But if they had two days [of access to a Hawkeye] … we’d be able to maximize it so much more, and we’d probably pass tech the first time instead of having to go through two or three times.”
That FRM and McDowell have accomplished what they have the last two years — including McDowell earning a career-best 12 top 10s in 2022 — without that timely access to recourses makes Sunday’s win even more impressive.
However, the Next Gen era has given the two-car team a boost.
“The way they’ve consolidated the practice time, I just think it gives a chance with that middle-tier budget … to do the right things, have the right engine program, hire the good people, have a good pit crew, to have days like this on the racetrack,” team general manager Jerry Freeze said. “It’s hard to sustain it across a 36-race season, and that’s what we’re just trying to get better at.
“We’ve just got to keep on investing in those areas to try and improve our team and become a more constant top-10 threat, and when making the playoffs isn’t such a big story, it’s maybe expected.”
2023 is Daniel McFadin’s 10th year covering NASCAR, with six years spent at NBC Sports. This is his third year writing columns for Frontstretch. His columns won third place in the National Motorsports Press Association awards for 2021. His work can be found at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and SpeedSport.com.
The podcast version of “Dropping the Hammer” is presented by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
About the author
Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.
You can email him at email@example.com.
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