Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: Front Row Forcing Ford To Take Notice

Did You Notice? … Front Row Motorsports led more laps Sunday (Feb. 25) at Atlanta Motor Speedway than any race in their history?

Michael McDowell and Todd Gilliland combined for 85 laps led in the Ambetter Health 400; that’s more than any full season for FRM in the NASCAR Cup Series with the exception of last year.

Now in its 20th year of running at the sport’s top level, it feels like FRM is on the verge of a breakthrough. We’ve seen flashes of it over the past couple years, from McDowell’s upset victory in the 2021 Daytona 500 to him beating one of the sport’s best road racers, Chase Elliott, mano a mano at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last August.

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McDowell went on to struggle in the postseason but still ended up a career-best 15th in the final standings, posting a career-high 97 laps led. He was the sixth-best Ford driver overall, a pretty impressive feat when you consider the strong seasons both Team Penske and RFK Racing put together ahead of them.

For 2024, FRM invested in its success, re-signing both McDowell and Gilliland while aligning with Penske’s championship operation from 2023. The technical alliance also elevates the team into a Tier 1 program, an important step in their evolution that provides access to top-level equipment and resources.

Could anyone have imagined this moment for an organization that posted just three lead-lap finishes during its first four years competing in the sport? Who for years put all their efforts into superspeedway racing knowing that was the only place they could win. It’s been a slow, steady build into where they are today, armed with a youthful veteran in McDowell (who turns 40 years old this year) and one of the sport’s hot young talents in Gilliland (just 23).

“A racer’s mindset isn’t suited to be patient. We all want results immediately,” Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports said when the Penske partnership got announced. “But the way [owner] Bob Jenkins and [General Manager] Jerry Freeze have built Front Row Motorsports through the years is a model for how it should be done.”

The keys to their success: never getting themselves in too deep a financial hole they couldn’t get out of, focusing their resources on where they could compete and finding a driver in McDowell who was cast aside elsewhere and hungry to prove himself. Keeping him for the 2024 season wasn’t easy; McDowell was courted by other organizations (Stewart-Haas Racing in particular), and FRM had another hot young talent ready to make a splash at the Cup level in Zane Smith.

It feels McDowell has come out swinging, eager to prove his recent success and commitment to FRM is not some fluke. A guy who had two career front row starts in his first 16 years in Cup now has two in the first two races, including his first pole position at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In both races, he had excellent chances to win, only for some circumstances to come back and bite.

Indeed, closing races is the next step in the process for FRM. McDowell had electrical issues outside his control at Daytona International Speedway. But an accident with William Byron at Atlanta, when both jockeyed for position on the backstretch, was preventable. Both drivers were getting aggressive, trying to time their entrance to Atlanta’s tricky pit road for a green-flag stop. McDowell did recover somewhat after that, finishing the race in eighth, but the damage suffered prevented a real opportunity to go for the win.

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Gilliland, too, suffered irreparable damage late in the race, a broken toe link that broke down what would have been a tremendous upset opportunity. Still, 74 laps led to start the year after going a full season without leading even one bodes well for a driver who found himself bounced around a bit last year. FRM recommitting to him driving the No. 38 in 2024 — instead of giving a few sponsored races away to a young driver like Smith — provides the type of stability needed for better performance.

You look at the landscape at Ford, and there’s opportunity here for FRM. Penske’s alliance with Wood Brothers Racing has never lived up to its full potential, and Stewart-Haas Racing is in for a rebuilding year with Kevin Harvick’s retirement. If the two-car team plays its cards right, FRM could move to high as third in the pecking order, neck-and-neck with the RFK Racing team whose alliance they left behind.

What a turnaround for a team ending their second decade, especially when you take one last look at their first: 150 laps led, only four top-five finishes and one win during their first 10 years in the sport (2005-14).

Turns out good things do come to those who wait.

Did You Notice? … Some quick hits before taking off …

  • Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks made clear in Daniel Suarez’s post-race press conference his driver was never in jeopardy of losing a ride. Even so, it’s hard to argue the win doesn’t make Marks’ decision to stand by him during expansion that much easier: Suarez hadn’t posted a top-five finish since a third at Indianapolis back in August. Here’s where it gets interesting though. Marks truly believes four cars is too much, but he’s now got four drivers, including Shane van Gisbergen, in theory Cup-ready by 2025. So does he evolve on that? Will he consider Spire Motorsports a farm system forever and increase the alliance? Amazing what 0.003 of a second will do.
  • Austin Hill now has posted six of his eight career NASCAR Xfinity Series wins on superspeedways (Daytona and Atlanta). His NASCAR breakthrough came in a Craftsman Truck Series Daytona win with Shigeaki Hattori’s team in 2019. He was always one of the best racers on that track type no one was talking about; this Daytona-Atlanta double finally made people notice what most insiders in the sport have known for years. Can he propel this into a championship run (and the likely Cup promotion that would follow) at Richard Childress Racing?
  • It’s really a shame to see the penalties assessed to Ryan Preece and Noah Gragson for the roof deflectors at Atlanta (-35 points to each). Both have shown flashes the first two weeks, and Gragson looks incredibly comfortable in his new home at the No. 10. Now, both of them face what’s already a steep playoff hole; Gragson finds himself with negative points (and -53 on 16th) just two races into the year.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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