500 Reflections with McDowell

Michael McDowell is typically seen wearing a smile, but the one in victory lane was long-awaited. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Over the years, Michael McDowell has had one specific, on-track goal: to win. This goal has eluded him each and every season. However, in the early hours of February 15th, his long-standing dream became reality. As he climbed from his car screaming, “The Daytona 500! Are you kidding me?” fans could easily see how much this win meant to the NASCAR Cup Series veteran. 

Just hours before tackling the Daytona Road Course, where he would start on the front row and overcome adversity of all types to bring home a top 10 finish, I had the privilege to speak with the Daytona 500 Champion. He candidly shared special moments from the week, the adjustment to working with a new spotter, and the enormity of winning on the sport’s biggest stage.

Preparation for Opportunity

Terra Jones: First, let’s look at the off-season. What did you and your team do differently, if anything, to ensure the strongest start possible to 2021?

Michael McDowell: Nothing in particular. You’re always looking to improve on what you did the previous year. You find a few areas that are focal points that you want to work on. But, in regards to the Daytona 500, the preparation for that is ongoing. Over the last five or six years, we’ve been in decent position to have a shot at it and have ran in the top 5. For me, it was more studying the moves I made previously that didn’t work, and things I needed to work on to be in a better position.

Then from a race car standpoint, you’re always working, trying to improve. We always put extra emphasis on superspeedways knowing those are opportunity races for us. It’s not like we went out and did anything drastically different than we have in the past. We just fine-tuned and came up with a good strategy going into the race.

Spotter Change

Jones: You have a new spotter this year – Clayton Hughes. I noticed he has a much different approach than Rocky Ryan, more of a coaching style. Is this something you desired? And how impactful do you feel that “coaching” played into your win at Daytona?

McDowell: Yeah definitely! I think that’s a key ingredient. That’s actually probably the biggest change we made in the off-season. With Rocky moving on to a new opportunity, I needed a new spotter. Drew (Blicksenderfer, crew chief) and I talked about it a lot, but I really wanted to make the decision myself. I wanted to listen to everybody…go back and watch some races and SMT, while listening to them. So I watched a lot of the races he and Martin (Truex, Jr.) did. Then, I sat down and really talked to him. I asked him tough questions, like, “Why didn’t you say this?” or “Why didn’t you do that?”

What I’ve learned with spotters and drivers is everybody wants something different. That chemistry is super important. On the coaching element – I do want someone on the radio that can see the race and says, “Get up…get down…move up!” If you think about the top guys at superspeedway racing, TJ Majors, Coleman Pressley, so many great guys up there – a lot of those guys are walking them through those last few laps. It’s all “Block that run! Pull down. Pull up. Two back with a run.” They’re giving you all that information and sort of driving it for you. 

So I do feel that’s an important element. But not everyone wants someone telling them what to do. And I think that’s the spot Clayton was in with Martin. Martin is obviously very experienced and didn’t want all that information, and I do! So it’s worked out well for both Clayton and me – he can be more of himself and that’s what I was looking for.

Losing the assistance of teammates is never ideal. Losing them in stage 1 is even worse. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

The Big Day

Jones: Your teammates, Anthony Alfredo and David Ragan were caught up in a way-too-early-big-one in the 500, leaving you a ‘lone ranger’ of sorts. How did not having those organizational teammates change the game plan set in place?

McDowell: That was a big disappointment from a team standpoint. Obviously selfishly too. You want to have teammates at the end of the race. You need people to work with, you need pushers, you need people that if you get stuck in a bad spot will come and pick you up – you need those teammates. Unfortunately, they were out so early on it was really a shame. 

On the flip-side, we still had our Ford teammates – and their teammates were thinned out a bit too. I think there were two Stewart-Haas cars that were out and two Penske and Wood Brothers… So, we all needed each other, which helped us make sure the five or six Fords that were left stuck together since there wasn’t the typical 14 that we had to work with! (laughs) We had to make sure we took care of each other. 

Winning Reaction

Jones: Your reaction to winning was so raw and genuine. It was the perfect combination of thankfulness, elation, and even disbelief! This win was such a long time coming. How much thought had you given over the years to what you’d say or what your burnout would look like when the win finally came?

McDowell: You know, you don’t think about that stuff too much. There are times where you daydream, but I think I’ve always thought about what do I need to do to win the race. Not so much, ‘What would happen if you did win?’ So even as the laps were winding down, I never thought, “Oh man! We might win this race.” But I did feel like, “We need to be in position. I think we’re in a good spot to win this race.”

I know, (laughing) it sounds crazy, but you’re not thinking about the ‘What Ifs,’ you’re thinking about ‘How can I?’ So no, I never thought about the burnout or what it would look like.

And honestly, until this week, I don’t think I understood the full magnitude of the Daytona 500. You know that it’s our biggest race. But this week was very revealing on how big it truly is. 

“I don’t think I understood the full magnitude of the Daytona 500.” Michael McDowell was all smiles as he brought home the Harley J. Earl Trophy. (Image: Michael McDowell)

Locked In

Jones: We will see the No. 34 team in the Playoffs! Drew mentioned post-race that Front Row Motorsports would likely save their budget for Playoff cars. But, how does this win change strategy on the track? 

McDowell: We still have to be really efficient with how we approach the year. It’s not like all of the sudden we won the race and we have tens of millions of dollars to go build brand-new everything! But I do feel like we will have the opportunity to focus on those last races knowing so early on that we’re locked in the Playoffs. 

As far as strategy goes, we know it’s an uphill battle for us to advance once the Playoffs do start. If there’s an opportunity for us to score stage wins and to get bonus points, those will be critical for us. We do feel like we can be more aggressive and go more for these stage wins, especially these road courses where strategy plays into those stages so much. You never want to give up a good finish. But, if you are in position and you can get a stage win and points, you definitely want to try and maximize those, knowing that in the Playoffs, you’re going to need every single point you can get. 

But, you can’t get overwhelmed with all that, you just gotta go race hard and see how everything plays out. And Drew is so good at that. That’s one thing I don’t think about or worry about, especially when I’m in the race car, is strategy. Really, we rarely talk about it unless it’s something I absolutely need to know like saving tires or fuel. I really don’t like to think about it, and I know he’s better at it than me. There’s no sense in wasting any thought or energy on it. I just need to stay focused on what I can do.

Great people, great cars. Front Row Motorsports has their eyes on the future. (Image: Front Row Motorspots)

Looking Ahead with Confidence

Jones: We heard a lot this week about the tangible and financial benefits of this win. But, which tracks do you feel you’ll reap the benefits of the confidence that has come with this win?

McDowell: I think the other superspeedways. Those are good races for us, but you don’t know if you’re making the right moves at the end. When you have been unsuccessful, it makes you a little bit gun-shy about what you need to do. So, for Clayton and I, with that being our first race, we have a lot to build on. He was able to help me so much with seeing the race and seeing it all play out. I feel like those will be more opportunities for us. 

I don’t know how it helps us from the financial aspect moving forward. But, I think it’s a great time for us, knowing that the new cars are coming next year. There’s obviously a lot of expense in building those new cars. I do feel that next year will be a reset and level the playing field. And that will, I think, bring Front Row to a top-tier team. Just because the areas where we get beat, I don’t feel will be as big of an issue as they are now. Now, the best teams will always be the best teams with the biggest budgets, but I feel the new car will level the playing field. And when it does, we do have great people. Having great people makes race cars go fast, especially with the reset that’s coming. 

Moments to Remember

Jones: Finally, you had a week of so many incredible moments – many that would not have come had this win occurred in any other race. As you reflect on this week, what are one or two moments, post-win, that you want to remember for years to come?

McDowell: It’s so hard to pinpoint that. For me, I think the thing I’ll remember the most is just feeling the Lord’s presence in it all. I never had that sensation of, “I did it! I won the race!” Instead, I had, “God allowed me to experience something so special.” And then, getting home, landing at the airport, and seeing my wife and kids, and my friends. There are just so many people that are pulling for you and have sacrificed so much. 

It just puts it all in perspective. You know, racing is awesome (laughs) and I’m so glad we won the race! But the things that last forever are your family and friends. So, just having that opportunity to celebrate with them and take it all in. 

Perspective and the winning sticker are in place for Michael McDowell. (Photo Credit: Front Row Motorsports)

I want to extend a huge thank you to Michael McDowell and his Front Row Motorsports Public Relations Manager, Mac MacLeod for making this interview possible. Be sure to follow McDowell and FRM on Twitter for all the latest notes and 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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