Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Michael McDowell Closes 2023 With a Phoenix Top 10

Well everyone, this season has come and gone in the blink of an eye. Through the mountains and valleys of the 2023 NASCAR season, the 75th trip was one to remember.

It’s fitting that one of the top underdogs of the season stood above his small team peers to close 2023. Michael McDowell wrapped up a milestone year with a top 10 in the NASCAR Cup Series finale at Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 5).

McDowell started 19th, falling to 21st at the end of the first stage. By the end of stage two, he had rallied back to 16th in a fairly quiet first two stages.

McDowell’s race could relate to his season in some ways. It didn’t start out on the best note, improved slightly as it went along and closed in a strong way. The 38-year-old progressed through the field in the final stage, capping it off in ninth on the final run of the race.

What a year it was for the No. 34 team at Front Row Motorsports. In the first 14 races, McDowell only had one top 10. But once the series hit World Wide Technology Raceway, the team turned a corner. McDowell grabbed four top 10s in five races from Gateway to the Chicago Street Course, injecting himself into the playoff battle … on points.

After four weeks outside the top 10 to follow that run, McDowell unloaded off the truck at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course as fast as greased lightning. He followed it up with an outstanding performance, nabbing his second career win and second career playoff berth. A strong run at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Round of 16 was not enough to climb out of the hole, but 2023 should be looked at as another positive step forward for this whole program.

In his seventh full-time season, McDowell notched two top fives, eight top 10s and career highs in laps led (97) and points finish (15th). That points finish is the best for FRM in a tenure that spans nearly two decades.

With the same driver lineup returning in 2024, expect McDowell to continue what has been the trend of bringing FRM to being perennial playoff contenders.

Who Impressed

Legacy Motor Club closed the book on its time with the Chevrolet bowtie on its noses with a pair of top 20s. Carson Hocevar overcame a disappointing (and controversial) NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series championship race to finish 19th. Hocevar ran inside the top 20 most of the race, hanging on to clinch his fifth top 20 in nine starts, a solid keepsake to carry to Spire Motorsports next season.

However, it was Erik Jones who continued to shine the beacon brighter as Legacy heads into a new chapter at Toyota. The Byron, Mich. native ran inside the top 10 for much of the race after qualifying seventh, finishing both stages in the top 10. Jones said it was the best car he had with the low downforce package, as he had several laps that matched those of the championship contenders.

A caution with 38 laps remaining spurred all drivers coming to pit road, but the No. 43 showed a different hand. They took two tires only, coming out second. Unfortunately, it had the same results as Daniel Hemric‘s similar attempt in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race, as well as Denny Hamlin‘s, who also took two tires. Jones slipped back to 20th, relinquishing what could have been a top-20 run. Still, it was a promising run for the team moving forward.

Who’s in the Dog House

A season full of highlights and career moments for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. did not end on the highest of notes. Stenhouse’s pace matched that of the past few weeks as he struggled to crack the top 20, finishing 23rd.

After getting eliminated in the Round of 16 of the playoffs, the reigning Daytona 500 champion finished the year with five consecutive finishes of 19th or worse. However, that should not overshadow somewhat of a resurgence for Stenhouse and the No. 47 team, with Stenhouse making his first playoff appearance since 2017 and JTG-Daugherty having their first berth since 2014.

For the second consecutive week, Kaulig Racing was out to lunch between both cars, with Justin Haley finishing his Kaulig tenure in 29th and AJ Allmendinger wrapping up the season in 31st. The low downforce package has been a struggle for Kaulig, as Haley finished two laps down and Allmendinger scored four circuits behind.

Kaulig also had their share of success this season, with Allmendinger grabbing his third career win and Kaulig’s second Cup trophy at the Charlotte ROVAL. Haley nearly won the inaugural Chicago street course race, finishing third, one of his career-high six top 10s.

Looking Ahead

“Some things old, some things new. Some things borrowed, some things blue.” 2024 will have familiar looks while also featuring its share of new ones.

As mentioned, both McDowell and Todd Gilliland will return to FRM next season, valuable consistency the team can use to continue its ascension. Gilliland had an improved sophomore season, recording four top 10s and 15 top 20s.

Stenhouse’s career year featured the Daytona 500 triumph, two top fives, nine top 10s (matching his career high) and an average finish of 17.8, all bests since 2017. The nine top 10s also matched the highest by a JTG-Daugherty Racing driver since 2016. Optimism should be high for this team when it rolls into the LA Coliseum.

Harrison Burton will get another year to grow at Wood Brothers Racing, matching his top 10 total from his rookie season with two this season.

There are still unknowns concerning Kaulig’s 2024 Cup plans. While Hemric will drive the No. 31 after four seasons in the NASCAR Xfinity Series following his rookie Cup campaign in 2019, the No. 16 is still a question mark. Allmendinger will return with Kaulig, but there is a belief that he will return to Xfinity. Ty Dillon, who will be leaving Spire Motorsports, has been linked to the team.

Spire’s future has the potential to be full of success, with the team adding a third car next season. In addition to Corey LaJoie, who had a career year, 2022 Truck Series champion Zane Smith and Hocevar will join the roster on a team who will attract many eyes next year.

Legacy’s future also looks bright between Jones and John Hunter Nemechek, who had seven wins at the Xfinity level en route to making the Championship 4. With TRD power, the full focus of Maury Gallagher and former Cup champions Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth in their corner, this team could be making a lot of noise soon.

Rick Ware Racing finally has some stability with Haley moving over, as its second car’s seat has yet to be announced. With a young driver in Haley to build around and an increased alliance with RFK Racing, RWR may be in the best shape it’s ever been in at the Cup level.

What They’re Saying

Jones (20th):

Burton (26th):

Allmendinger (32nd):

Small Team Scheme of the Week

For a team that knocked it out of the park in the paint scheme department all year, it is fitting that JTG-Daugherty wraps up 2023 on top. Once again, the No. 47 carried the logo of a familiar brand, as Cheez-It had its red and orange colors on the car this weekend. The scheme looked fit for the desert and perhaps made a few fans run to grab a snack during the race.

To all those who root for the underdog, thank you so much for your support of this column. You are all a big part of what makes me want to do this week after week and it was truly a season to remember. Here’s to 75 more!

About the author

Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.

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