In the Fast Lane with Michael McDowell

For the past 10 years, Michael McDowell has made constant strides in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career.  Presently, the 32-year-old Phoenix, AZ native has found his stock car home with Leavine Family Racing, a team that made its Cup debut in 2011.

Consequently, McDowell and Leavine Family Racing have been a solid combination, particularly with their alliance through Richard Childress Racing and the arrival of crew chief Todd Parrott.  Moreover, they’ve been carving their way towards being a consistent fixture in the top-15 of each MENCS race, a testament to the diligent personnel at the shop and on the track.

All things considered, McDowell expressed confidence with his team and the recent changes to NASCAR. However, he realizes that there’s some work to be done.  Be that as it may, the cagey veteran wants to achieve maximum results for his team.

Most noteworthy, McDowell shared his thoughts on how to improve the on track product, particularly with the playoff schedule.  Arguably, this young driver enjoys the challenges that come with that brand of racing, especially with the competitors he looked up to and competed against.

Ultimately, while this driver and team are one of the underdogs of NASCAR, they are a force to be reckoned with on any given weekend.  By and large, with the talent and strong arsenal of cars in their fleet, McDowell and company are a team worth watching in 2017.

Therefore, it’s time to learn more about this hardy racer.  Let’s get “In the Fast Lane with Michael McDowell” on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson :  It’s your first full season with you solely as the driver of the No. 95 ride.  At this point, it seems like there’s been steady progress made after seven races in 2017.  From your vantage point, what have been some of the factors that have helped with the team’s performance this season?

McDowell gets his game face ready for a day at the races. (Photo Credit: John K. Harrelson/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

McDowell gets his game face ready for a day at the races. (Photo Credit: John K. Harrelson/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Michael McDowell :  I think, as a group, we’ve made steady progress over the last few years.  Transitioning into full time was not a huge step for us this year.  For us as a group, as a unit, this will be the first time that I’ve run the races for LFR on a full-time capacity.

We’re making good progress.  We’ve had good speed this year but we haven’t executed well.  I’ve made mistakes in the races and we’ve had troubles on pit road with loose wheels and things like that.  We haven’t really executed really well, but we still have good speed and a good pace.  We’ve been competitive in each of the events.

RT :  Since Todd Parrott joined late last year, you and the No. 95 became consistent fixtures as a top-20, top-15 running performer.  What’s he brought to the table that’s made you and your team truly escalate your potential?

MM :  Todd’s brought a lot of experience and knowledge and leadership into our program.  Coming from our alliance with RCR, he’s taken the cars and parts that we’ve had and made us faster.  That’s the bottom line.

Since he’s come on board, we’ve picked up a lot of speed and the results have come with it.  He’s been a huge asset to our program.  We’ve had a lot of the components and people that we needed to get the team to be successful.  Todd was that missing link that tied all it together and we’re all grateful to have him.

RT :  While a lot of teams in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series are multicar efforts, it’s no secret that the Leavine Family Racing is a rare breed in being a single car group.  How do you and the team cope with the challenges of that?  Presently, I understand LFR has an alliance with Richard Childress Racing.

MM :   That’s right, we have an alliance with RCR.  We get our cars, bodies, and engines from them.  That really helps us stay competitive.  It’s something that for a single car team, to run in the teens and low 20s is almost a necessity.

It’s really helped strengthen our organization.  You still need to have great people and all the aspects that every team needs.  Cars and parts aren’t the only things that matter to us.  We need to have all the pieces working well and RCR’s alliance really helps with that.

RT :   Having experienced the new race and points format for this year, what are some of the likes and dislikes of it from your perspective?  Has it been a great equalizer for leveling the playing field?

"You haven’t seen anyone play a crazy strategy to get any points." - Michael McDowell (Photo Credit: Russell LaBounty/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

“You haven’t seen anyone play a crazy strategy to get any points.” – Michael McDowell (Photo Credit: Russell LaBounty/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

MM :  I think for me, the stages have given you good breaks in the race.  It helps you break up the race.  From my standpoint, I’m racing to lap 125 and then I’m racing to lap 250.  You sort of set up races inside those races.

For us, until we can consistently run inside the top-10, there’s not really anything for us to get from those stages other than a break to work on your car.  The strategy side hasn’t really played out because of where the breaks are.  You haven’t seen anyone play a crazy strategy to get any points.  We’ve seen guys that are already running in the top-10 try to steal a stage win by staying out or taking two tires.

You haven’t seen someone from 25th get points.  I don’t think it’s change a whole lot for us.  It’s been fun for the fans and for those guys running in the top-10.  Those extra bonus pints will come in handy.

RT :  To follow up on your point, what are some suggestions that you’d bring to the table to improve the stage format and help add a twist to the races?

It's safe to say that McDowell's at home with the LFR team. (Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

It’s safe to say that McDowell’s at home with the LFR team. (Photo Credit: Nigel Kinrade/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

MM :  It’d have to play less into the fuel windows.  Putting it at a place like Bristol, for us, everyone’s going to go 100 laps before you have even think about pitting.  Having something that maybe would break it up to where somebody can say, “Hey, I’m going stretch this fuel run out and make it to lap 120 and hopefully, still be up front,” something like that, where they didn’t fall right in the middle of a fuel run.

I think that it doesn’t have as much gamble there for guys that are not really deciding whether they’ll pit.  They’ll all pit.  At Texas, for example, everybody pitted at lap 30 when we had that competition caution.  Then everyone stayed out until the end.  That’s where it doesn’t create enough opportunity to do something crazy yet.

I think it will at other places like the road courses, the superspeedways, and some other places.  Early on, it hasn’t done anything for the teams that aren’t already in the top-10.  It’s been fun for the teams that have been in the top-10.

It’s working as far as producing good racing.  It hasn’t opened those opportunities for strategies to play out yet.

RT :  You and Justin Marks co-own Go Pro Motorplex, a go kart facility in North Carolina.  What was the origin behind the venue and would you say that doing up go kart racing helps you with your racing efforts?

MM :  Justin and I have been friends for a long time.  We’ve raced against each other in sports cars and we sort of made our stock car transition at the same time, racing in ARCA against each other.  Over the years, we’ve developed a friendship.

When we had breakfast one morning, we talked about how crazy it is that there’s not a go-kart track around here in the Charlotte area and how far you’ve got to go to get to one.

It’s not just the drivers.  A lot of the crew guys grew up racing and that’s how they got there.  They didn’t make it as drivers but they grew up racing at go-kart tracks, quarter midget tracks, or local short tracks.

There’s a lot of racers in general out here and there was no real avenue for those guys to do anything.  It all started out on a napkin at breakfast on one morning and it became a reality a few years after that.  Go Pro Motorplex is one of the premier karting facilities in North America now.  It’s really done well and it’s fun to see.

Racing go-karts helps.  Anytime that you’re racing, you’re always sharpening and fine tuning your skills.  I’ve raced go karts my entire life.  It’s where I got all my abilities and skills from so I think it plays a role in all areas of racing.

RT :  All things considered, if you got to be Brian France for a day or a year, would you likely add more road course racing tracks to make NASCAR more exciting?

MM :  More road courses would be good.  They produce good races.  They’re good races on TV and the fans like them.  It broadens our fanbase too because there’s a different fanbase for sports cars, road racing, and IndyCar.

We could draw a lot more of them into NASCAR if we had more road races.  The biggest thing would be having a road race during the playoffs just for the simple fact that I feel like it should be a part of crowning the champion.

A lot of people would disagree.  I feel like NASCAR’s one of the sports that requires a lot of different disciplines.  From superspeedways to mile and a half tracks to short tracks and road courses, I think it would be fitting to have one in the playoffs.

RT :  In the meantime, there have been some talks about Charlotte hosting a road course race in the future. How excited would you be to race the road course in the fall?

MM :  That’d be awesome but I don’t think it’s going to happen.  It might be something planned in the future but I don’t see it happening in 2017.  If it did, it’d be awesome.

RT :  One of the most exciting races last year in NASCAR was at Road America which took place in less than ideal conditions.  In addition to being a husband and father, how proud are you of that victory in the Xfinity Series last year and do you feel there’s more to be done in your career?

McDowell has taken to the superspeedways in recent years. (Photo Credit: Matthew T. Thacker/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

McDowell has taken to the superspeedways in recent years. (Photo Credit: Matthew T. Thacker/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

MM :  I think it’s a great accomplishment and it’s something I’m definitely proud of.  That was a great day but I think there’s still a lot more to accomplish in my career.  Winning and getting into Victory Lane is a huge dream for everybody.  However, running in the top-10 at Homestead was equally as great of an accomplishment in the Cup series.

Being a single car team, a small team, and underfunded, and running in the top-10 is a huge accomplishment.  I think there’s different goals and objectives throughout your career.  I want to win a Cup race and do that on a consistent basis.

Every year, we’re getting closer and closer to being more competitive.  Hopefully, we’ll make those next few jumps to challenge for some wins.

RT :  Let’s say you could assemble a racing dream team.  First, which driver, from any era and series, would you hire as your teammate because you like them?  Second, which driver would you have on your team towards the end of your career?  Finally, which driver would recruit even if they annoyed you a lot?

MM :  There’s a lot! (laughs) I think the greatest driver is Michael Schumacher.  He’s an astounding leader.  He went from a small team and he made them into champions with McLaren and Ferrari.  He’s somebody who brought a lot of extra elements to the table.

There’s been a lot of teammates that I’ve had over the years that have really made an impact on me.  Memo Gidley was one of those guys.  He’s extremely dedicated, motivated, and hard working.

Probably one of the more talented drivers that didn’t necessarily make it to the pinnacle is Michael Valiante.  He’s probably one of the most naturally gifted drivers that I’ve been around.

Growing up, my guys that I thought were super amazing and impressive were Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya.  They were young then! (laughs) But they were extremely talented drivers who went after it all the time.

RT :  If there was one feature that you could add to your street car that would make it more tolerable in the racecar, what would it be and why?

Double M would like to keep cool in his driver's seat. (Photo Credit: Logan Whitton/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Double M would like to keep cool in his driver’s seat. (Photo Credit: Logan Whitton/Nigel Kinrade Photography)

MM :  (laughs)  Before you said my regular car, I was going to say a pit speed limiter would be nice in our cars!  Everything else I’ve ever raced had a limiter which made pit road a lot easier.  Air conditioning would be nice in our cars.  It gets super, super hot in our racecars.  Everything else, I don’t think is much better or worse, for our cars.

Author’s Notes:  First and foremost, special thanks to Michael McDowell and Leavine Family Racing with this feature on TPF! In addition, we’d like to thank Nigel Kinrade Photography for the photos accompanying this feature, whereas noted.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it’s about anything with an engine and four wheels, you’ll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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