WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Front Row Motorsports racer Michael McDowell meandered his way into the Watkins Glen International garage area shortly after his car was pushed behind the pit road wall on Sunday (Aug. 20) afternoon.
His NASCAR Cup Series race was over, and any other driver may have had a telltale sourpuss look that would shoo away anybody that wanted to talk to them as a result.
But not McDowell. He was smiling.
“It wasn’t a great day for us execution-wise,” McDowell said in the garage. “But I’m proud of the effort.”
Indeed, his race was over after an electrical failure had caused him a last-place result for the first time since Darlington Raceway in September 2021. But that wasn’t the whole story of the day for McDowell.
The rest of the tale is that it had more ups and downs than the esses curves he had been racing on all day.
One week after coming off of his second career Cup Series win, he carried his momentum from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway around 600 miles Northeast to Watkins Glen. On Saturday, he qualified the No. 34 Ford third on the starting lineup.
It wasn’t much different on Sunday, either.
The No. 34 took off like a rocket as the field piled into turn 1. By the end of the first lap, he was already knocking on the door of race leader and polesitter Denny Hamlin.
By lap 4, he took the lead and ran away with it to claim his second career stage victory one week after he had earned his first.
“We had a really fast Love’s Ford Mustang,” McDowell said. “To take the lead early, win that first stage. We kind of picked up right where we left off at Indy.”
Then came the tone shift.
One lap after his stage win, McDowell brought the No. 34 to pit lane along with the rest of the frontrunners that decided to stay out for stage points.
While he came out ahead of race rival Hamlin, it wasn’t long after that he received the news that he had driven through too many boxes on pit entry. It resulted in a pass-through penalty.
“I’ll have to go back and watch what happened,” McDowell said. “We had [pit wall] openings coming in, and I guess I went through one of the openings I couldn’t go through, so that’s unfortunate.”
But it wasn’t over for the FRM driver. In fact, after the penalty had dropped the No. 34 to 17th, the FRM driver rebounded up to 12th before stage two ended. He had speed, and he was using it.
Then he went to pit road again to meet the service of his crew members.
Too many of them, in fact.
Shortly after, McDowell was met with another penalty for too many crew members over the wall. For a few minutes, what appeared to be a developing story of how the No. 34 was still going to recover to win was ruined, as surely another penalty would mean near-certain doom for his chances of winning.
But then some luck.
As he was serving his penalty, the race’s one and only caution flag waved. Miraculously, the FRM team had already been cleared by NASCAR officials when it did. He only lost a few positions and rebounded back to ninth place shortly after the race had resumed.
With full steam ahead, McDowell had put down some of the fastest lap times of the day and was in position to, if not win, at least finish in the top five.
“We were still going to salvage a good day,” McDowell said. “It just shows you the strength of our racecar.”
But with 14 laps to go, his luck ran out again, this time for good.
McDowell’s day had finally ended after 181 miles of a rollercoaster day.
However, while it was a day that ended with the No. 34 in the garage, it also was one that displayed speed for the now-playoff bound FRM team.
“We’re in a good spot,” McDowell, who is the 13th playoff seed heading into Daytona International Speedway next week said. “We have strong cars, a great team. It wasn’t our best day, but I still am very proud of the speed that we brought.”
So much so, that McDowell has more confidence in his championship chances than he ever has had in his racing career.
And if you saw his smile in the garage on Sunday, you know that not even a DNF has changed that.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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