Up Front with McDowell, Vol. 3

Michael McDowell was understandably pumped for the Daytona Road Course. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images.)

Once again, I was fortunate to chat with Michael McDowell, the driver of the No. 34 Ford Mustang for Front Row Motorsports. In Volume 3 of Up Front with McDowell, road courses, race redos, and NASCAR’s renovation in 2020 were on the docket.

 

Road Courses

Terra Jones: The last time we spoke, you were really excited to tackle the Daytona Road Course. You came away with a 10th place finish that day. If you would, follow up on that race. Share how it went for your team and how it was different running that course in a Cup car.  

Michael McDowell: Yeah! The Daytona Road Course was fun. It suited our Cup cars really well – obviously, very different from a Sports Car or Prototype. But, our cars were actually pretty good there. The Charlotte ROVAL is kinda tight and twisty and it’s pretty difficult in our cars. Where Daytona Road Course felt like it flowed well and everything was tied together pretty well for our cars.

As far as the race went, we ran in the top five most of the race and got up to third. As soon as I got to third, I could see over turn 1 and it was raining – I was just getting so excited! I really felt like the rain would give us a legitimate chance at winning. At that point, I could tell that we were quick, but I did not have the speed that the 9 or 11 had. We just weren’t there. I was pushing as hard as I could and the 9 was not pushing and still pulling away!

When I saw that rain, I thought, “Here it is! If I can stay up in the top three, get a good restart in the rain…I’ll have a shot at it!” But, they red-flagged it for lightning and the rain never came. 

At the end, I think we were sixth or seventh when that last caution came out, and felt like, with only a handful of laps to go, that there would probably be some green-white-checkereds. And probably multiple green-white-checkereds.

Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) and I talked about it before the race started…For us, what really swings the pendulum and makes a difference for Front Row is winning a race. So when those guys up front didn’t pit, we felt like, “Well, here’s our shot of getting tires and hoping we’d get a couple green-white-checkereds and the tires would pay off…”

Unfortunately, it didn’t. The green dropped and it stayed green. We restarted 20th and got to 10th. So we did make up a good amount of spots in two laps, but we needed another caution to fall so that we could do it again and it just never fell. 

So, the highs were that we were competitive and I think we had a top-five car. The lows – we finished 10th, it didn’t rain, and we didn’t win. But all in all, it was a good day and a good performance for our team.

 

Jones: Speaking of tracks that are in your wheelhouse. Your best finishes in Cup have been on road courses and superspeedways. I know you have a road racing background but what is it about those tracks that suit you and your driving style?

McDowell: I think it’s just because it’s what I’ve always done. The disciplines that come with road racing, as far as downshifting and not wheel hopping, not missing shifts, not making mistakes. That all comes pretty naturally – I don’t have to think about those things too much. It allows me to focus on making sure I’m doing everything else well. So those come easier. I think it’d be like racing against a dirt guy that grew up racing dirt all the time. It’s just easy for them to get back into that rhythm of what it takes, where it’d take me a little longer because I’ve never been on dirt.

But as we saw, everyone did a really good job of that race. There weren’t a lot of mistakes or a lot of cautions. I think the race went very differently than what everybody assumed it would.

Michael McDowell has no issue mixing it up at Superspeedways, seen here racing door to door at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images.)

Rating the Season

Jones: When we first spoke in June, I had you grade your season. For reference, at that time, you said a “B or B+.” Now that you’ve made it to the end of the regular season, what grade would you attach to your team and efforts now?

McDowell: Probably the same. Maybe just the B. We had a couple of bad weekends. And those bad weekends were, unfortunately, doubleheaders, with Michigan and Dover. Where we were struggling, it was not just with speed, but with execution and pit stops and nothing going our way. At Michigan, we wrecked and had to go to the back-up, and the back-up was not great. And all those things…It was like, “Oh man, I remember when we ran like this and it wasn’t that long ago. A year or two ago, this is what we did every weekend.”

So the good news is, that’s not every weekend for us. The bad news is, we’re still capable of having those weekends if we don’t do a good job. So I’d say a B, but we’ve still got 10 races left to get it back up. 

 

Redos

Jones: You seem like the type of person to focus on the here and now and what’s to come, and not really dwell on the past. But if you had the opportunity to go back and redo one race, from any series – either to do something different to change the outcome or just to relive a moment – what race would it be and why?

McDowell: There’s one that sticks out in particular, but I don’t know if it’d be the best one to go redo. It was the first year I ran at Road America for Gibbs. I led a lot of the race, had a really big lead, was coming to one or two to go, and the caution came out. First green-white-checkered was fine, I got a good restart and took the lead, then the caution came out. The next green-white-checkered, the same. Then, the last green-white-checkered, I slid off in turn 2 and it just all unraveled.

So that’d be one I’d like to redo, just because we were so dominant all day and it was right there. 

On the Cup side, when I go back and watch a couple of the races, I think that I’ve been in position probably twice at Daytona to have a shot at winning on the last lap. You go back and look at picking lanes, blocking runs, saying, “If I would have blocked this guy instead of that guy, maybe I would have gotten the push I needed.” 

But really, as far as just one that got away I feel like that Road America race is the one that got away. The others…there would have to be a lot of things to change it.

Jones: A lot of dominoes would have to fall?

McDowell: Yeah! Oh wait! I just thought of it! Indy! Indy a few years ago when I was in the 95. I was restarting third behind my buddy Trevor Bayne and had a real shot of winning that race. I was real aggressive on the restart, and spun him out in front of the field and crashed all of us. That would be the one I’d redo. Absolutely. Both of us had a shot at it and I felt like, at the time, my car was a little bit better than his. I was like, “Man, I’m gonna push him to the lead and see what happens.” And as soon as I hooked up on his bumper, I spun him out and that was it! So that one, I’d like a redo.

The lack of practice and qualifying has appealed to the driver of the No. 34 Ford Mustang. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images.)

Changes Moving Forward

Jones: It’s safe to say 2020 has been something else. Of the changes NASCAR has explored this year, either by choice or by force, what would you like to see make a return in 2021 and why?

McDowell: I would like fans to be able to come back to the races. And families. Obviously that’s not what you wanted for an answer (laughing) but hopefully, that’ll happen no matter what! But on the competition side, I’m not really sure. I kind of enjoy the no practice and no qualifying. 

Jones: With no qualifying, do you like the ping pong ball draw or the math formula better?

McDowell: I would just rather have a random draw for all 40 spots. I know a lot of people don’t like that because of the competitive side, but I just feel like those races, where you mix it up a little bit, it changes the flow of the first half of the race. So, I like the random draw. But as far as doing it fairly, I think that the new formula is really good for doing it based on performance and with doing it on points. I think as far as that equation goes and how they do it, it makes sense and it’s fair. But it’s also confusing and I don’t know where I’m starting till they post it on Wednesday or Thursday because I can’t figure out all that math! 

 

A huge thank you to Michael McDowell for taking the time to talk, and to Front Row Motorsports for allowing Up Front with McDowell to happen each month. Until next time, be sure to follow his Twitter as well as FRM for all the latest news. 

Terra Jones

As a life-long NASCAR fan and lover of words, I'm fortunate enough to put the two together here at The Podium Finish to bring our readers and motorsports fans news, features, and interviews from the world of wheels. Originally from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, I moved westward to graduate from Middle Tennessee State University. I now reside in central North Carolina with my husband, our three boys, and our dog, Charlotte. While my heart is at the race track, I also enjoy watching baseball, as well as college football and basketball. 

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