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Did You Notice?: How Dreadful of a Slump It’s Been for Michael McDowell

The 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season has the perfect makings for Front Row Motorsports’ best season yet — at least, that’s what I thought in February.

It was announced during Speedweeks that FRM was upgraded to a Tier 1 alliance with Ford and formed a technical alliance with Team Penske. The news was immediately followed with a front-row start for Michael McDowell in the Daytona 500 and his first-ever Cup pole in his 467th start the following week at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Everything was looking up to start 2024, and FRM was fresh off of McDowell’s dominant victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last July. The win locked him into the playoffs, and he wasn’t far from clinching a playoff spot on points alone. He scored eight top-10 finishes in 2023 — second only to the 12 top 10s he had in 2022 — and led a career-high 97 laps last season.

But nearly a third of the 2024 season is complete, and it’s been a rough start for McDowell in particular.

The Daytona 500? He was out of the running after a mechanical problem early in the race caused him to finish 36th, 24 laps off the pace. He rebounded to finish eighth at Atlanta, leading 27 laps after winning the pole. An uneventful 25th at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was followed by another eighth-place finish at Phoenix Raceway — the only top 10 for FRM this season on a non-drafting track.

After an 11th-place finish in the heavy tire-wear battle at Bristol Motor Speedway, McDowell sat 17th in points after five races. Not a bad start by any means, so why are we here?

Because in the last month and a half, it’s been a brutal, ugly stretch for McDowell and the No. 34 team. He’s had a mind-boggling average finish of 31.7 in his last six races, and he’s currently riding of streak of three consecutive DNFs.

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Circuit of the Americas? Steering issues leave McDowell with a 38th-place finish after he had worked his way inside the top 15. Unremarkable 26th- and 21st-place finishes at Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway, respectively, are then followed by a 36th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, where he crashed out from second place on a restart.

The race at Talladega Superspeedway on April 21 — a race where he won the pole and led a race-high 36 laps — saw McDowell with the lead out of turn 4 on the final lap, only to finish 31st after a poorly timed block on Brad Keselowski led to a big crash. The most recent race at Dover Motor Speedway last Sunday (April 28) saw McDowell qualify eighth, only to finish in 36th after a hub failure.

McDowell is now 29th in points, behind his FRM teammate Todd Gilliland and only ahead of five drivers who have started every race this season. He currently has an average finish of 25.0 this season, his lowest since 2015. He and Christopher Bell (who has an average finish of 31.0 in his last four starts) lead the series in DNFs this year with four and three, respectively. But while Bell has a win at Phoenix Raceway to fall back on, McDowell is now 107 points below the cut line with almost half of the regular season in the books.

That final lap at Talladega is looking more and more like the perfect missed opportunity. Any driver would’ve done what McDowell did at the finish, and his current deficit to the cut line only furthers the point for why he was as aggressive as he was in blocking at the Talladega finish.

With his rough start to the year, finishing second at Talladega wasn’t going to be the ‘good points day’ that it would’ve been last year. Had he crossed the line in second at Talladega, he would still be 78 points below the cut after Dover — a daunting deficit for any driver or team to make up. Talladega was McDowell’s best shot of locking in a playoff spot and putting all of his early struggles aside until September. His block to keep Keselowski at bay heading into the tri-oval was an all-or-nothing gamble that backfired.

McDowell’s championship hopes are far from over given the win-and-you’re-in-format, but there is only one superspeedway (Daytona International Speedway in August) and two road/street courses (Chicago and Sonoma Raceway) left before the field resets after Labor Day. Those three are perfect chances for McDowell to shine — just as he did last year — and there’s always the opportunity for Ford to figure something out and find speed later this season.

But it’s been a brutal start for Ford in 2024, and Penske has had struggles of its own. The Blue Ovals haven’t won a single checkered flag in 25 combined races in NASCAR’s top three series this season, and 2024 is the longest Ford has started a season without a Cup win since 2010.

The year has been dominated by Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, as those teams have combined to win nine of the 11 races this season and all eight races on non-superspeedways. More than half of the wins this season have come from William Byron and Denny Hamlin alone.

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FRM has brought some of the fastest superspeedway cars to the grid this season, so Daytona will always be in the No. 34 team’s back pocket. And while the team may be hit or miss in finding speed, much like all of Ford this season, McDowell has had his moments toward the front of the field, even in his latest skid.

But with finishes of 38th, 26th, 21st, 35th, 31st and 36th in their last six races, McDowell and the No. 34 team need something — anything — to stop the bleeding.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Bill B

The fact that you have identified Daytona and the road courses as their last hope is all you need to know to understand why they are in the position they are in. They are still a second tier team. End of story.

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