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In the Hot Seat with Michael McDowell

Naturally, Michael McDowell strikes a pose as any Daytona 500 champion does at the track. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Naturally, Michael McDowell strikes a pose as any Daytona 500 champion does at the track. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Undoubtedly, Michael McDowell stands out as one of the classiest racers in the NASCAR Cup Series. Primarily, the 36-year-old Phoenix, Ariz. native remains humble, graceful and genuine all while compiling a career season in Cup.

Indeed, Michael McDowell scored a riveting Daytona 500 win earlier this year. Chiefly, the win proved as monumental for McDowell and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team.

It is true that McDowell, crew chief Drew Blickensederfer and company fight an uphill battle against the Goliaths in NASCAR. Nevertheless, this team fights hard, extracting the most out of their No. 34 Ford Mustang.

Moreover, McDowell and his team do not feel the pressure as in years’ past with their regular season efforts. In this case, they can gamble for wins and maximum points versus a conservative, play it safe approach.

Still, Michael McDowell’s experience, maturity and stead approach catalyzes Front Row Motorsports’ progress. From flirting with the midfield to being one of the leading midfield racers in Cup, McDowell continually excels.

Certainly, McDowell’s success comes with his team’s continued growth and thriving chemistry. To put it another way, one of NASCAR’s good guys thrives with one of the series’ hardiest teams in the series.

Earlier in the year, I caught up with Michael McDowell and got his thoughts on his big win. Also, McDowell delves into his faith, favorite music and a certain actor he’d recruit if Hollywood made a biopic about his career. Now, let’s get “In the Hot Seat with Michael McDowell” here on The Podium Finish!

Rob Tiongson :  Michael, congrats again on your Daytona 500 win. I have to imagine it’s still an incredible feeling and accomplishment for you and your team. How much of your life has changed with that victory in the Great American Race? And what does it mean to have your first Cup win at Daytona?

All things considered, Michael McDowell showcased his wheelman skills last Sunday at COTA. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

All things considered, Michael McDowell showcased his wheelman skills last Sunday at COTA. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Michael McDowell :  Yeah, it’s amazing. I’m very thankful to just win a Cup race, let alone the Daytona 500. And just the incredible journey and experience to get to this point.

As far as changing my life, I think there’s areas that it’s definitely [done so]. We’re in the Playoffs. And we’re in the All-Star Race and all that. But changing my life? It’s probably not going to do that so much as it is just allow for some more cool opportunities to race.

Tiongson :  When you realized how Lionel Racing is likely going to offer a raced version of your Daytona 500 winning car, how humbling is it for you to know that race fans can have that replica of your car?

McDowell :  Yeah, that’s awesome. I mean, things like that are so neat. We have such great fans. And I’ve had great fans for such a long time that have been on the journey with us. And it hasn’t always been super fun and competitive.

So, it’s nice for them to experience it and have something to really cheer for and be happy about. And it’s great for Love’s and all of their locations and employees. There’s so many people that are a part of this that it’s fun to be able to put that in their hands.

Tiongson :  Are you likely going to get your hands on one of them, once at least one of the prototypes are produced later this year?

McDowell :  Yeah, yeah. Exactly. I’m not sure how quickly all that stuff happens. But my kids, they love diecasts. They collect all of them. So this would be a special one for them too.

Tiongson :  I’m sure that will be an awesome sight for them to see their dad’s car made as a replica. And certainly a nice memento for you long down the road when your career is in the rearview mirror.

One of those folks who has been a part of that incredible journey for you has been your crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. And I’ve noticed that you guys have a very dynamic driver/crew chief relationship, one that was established in 2019.

Both of you made this team one that can challenge for wins and go for those top 10s, top 15s, on a weekly basis. What has Drew brought to the table that’s made you a better racecar driver and helped step up Front Row Motorsports’ efforts?

Without doubt, Michael McDowell enjoys working with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Without doubt, Michael McDowell enjoys working with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

McDowell :  Yeah. I mean, he’s been a huge part of the progression that we’ve seen here at Front Row. And Drew was somebody that I sought out, that I wanted. And not because of success or resume, just because me being in the garage and seeing him. He’s a great leader. And he pushes hard and is competitive. And he just had the characteristics and the personality that I felt like I needed, along with a lot of experiences and wins and a resume to go with it.

So the chemistry element is so important when it comes to the driver/crew chief. And Drew and I do. We do have a unique relationship. I mean, we are very candid and transparent. And we have a lot of difficult conversations. But we know what the main goal is, and we know that we want to be better. And so, we just keep pushing. He pushes me a tremendous amount, and we just work through it.

And we both have that fight mentality. I think that’s what’s made this such a special relationship and pairing with him and I. And I think that because of that, that’s really helped us achieve more than we probably thought was possible.

Tiongson :  It’s really great to see, because you both have had so many opportunities to knock on the door for wins. And once you guys got paired up together, I have to admit, I was like, “Yep, this team’s going to do some great things, given some time.”

Clearly, the chemistry is there. When I’ve listened to the in-car radio, you guys are typically who I try to listen to. And it’s noticeable how you guys work well together. This year, you guys have that new element in the radio, too, with spotter Clayton Hughes.

I know you mentioned in the interview with us for The Podium Finish how he’s someone who’s more communicative and telling you guys what’s going on.

McDowell :  Yeah, that’s been a pretty awesome. Overall, just how this group has come together. And with the spotter, and with Clayton in particular, that was one of those unique dynamics as well. You know what I mean?

There’s a lot of great spotters out there. Everybody’s style is a little bit different. And every driver is probably looking for something a little bit different. And so it’s just finding that right fit and that right match. That was Clayton’s and I first race together.

I mean, we spent some time at the shop, we studied some video and film, and listened to some radio. And we played out some scenarios.

Like, “Okay, well, what would you… how would you call this, and what would you say?”

But, really, Daytona was the first race that we felt like that we could learn each other and figure each other out, especially with not a tremendous amount of practice. We did one practice, and the rest were kind of single car runs.

So going into the Duels and going into the race on Sunday was really our first time working together. And he did a great job, and gave me all the information that I needed. It was just a natural fit, which is hard to find.

Tiongson :  I’m looking forward to seeing what you guys accomplish together as the year goes on. It seems to be the perfect fit. And I think you’ve mentioned how, like, Joey Logano’s had success with TJ Majors. People who need these spotters to be really vigilant on these double file restarts, especially with the package in place since 2019.

I’m sure you’ve got to be excited about this season’s schedule because there’s an influx of road courses. Road America, the Indy road course, and of course, here in Austin, we’ve got the Circuit of the Americas on the schedule. So how elated are you to race at these places coming up this year?

Unlike the Queen and David Bowie song from 1982, Michael McDowell won't feel "Under Pressure." (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Unlike the Queen and David Bowie song from 1982, Michael McDowell won’t feel “Under Pressure.” (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

McDowell :  Yeah, it’s awesome. The schedule going into 2021, we were just so excited because there are so many road courses and new venues and opportunities. And so we really did feel like, “Okay, this could be a great year for us,” with a lot of opportunity to have some really solid runs and to put ourselves in position.

And then to kick it off with a win, it’s like, wow. Now, we can go into those races and be so aggressive and really go for it and know that we’re locked into the Playoffs. Just enjoy it all instead of that huge amount of pressure that you have of… it’s just tough.

It’s tough to carry all that, knowing that every point counts and every position counts. And it still does. But it gives us a little bit more flexibility and freedom to roll the dice and gamble a little bit more and see if we can’t put ourselves in even another position to win a race.

Tiongson :  It’s always a nice little benefit to have, considering just how much time is invested into Daytona Speedweeks with your cars. That’s quite exciting for you guys. I don’t think you guys have had that opportunity quite often as a whole. So it’s cool to see that for sure.

Now, speaking of things that are coming up on the horizon, of course, we’ve got that Next Gen car that every team and every driver’s been talking about. Some drivers have gotten the chance to test it out.

But what are some of the new components that you’re looking most forward to that you feel will make the on-track product even better?

McDowell :  Well, for me, just the fact that a lot of the parts and pieces are going to be spec. And they’re going to be the same on every car. I think it really levels the playing field for us at Front Row Motorsports. I feel like we have great people. We have really talented people. And with the reset, so to speak, with the new car as a level playing field, I feel like we can actually be contenders.

And so that’s what I’m looking forward to the most. I mean, the best teams and the best drivers are still going to be, week in, week out, up top and the ones to beat. But I also do feel like this is going to give us a great opportunity to close the gap and to be in the conversation more often.

Tiongson :  Is it my understanding too that with this car, it might even introduce the idea of more racetracks or types of racetracks we have yet to see in the NASCAR Cup Series, like street courses, for instance? Just because it seems like this car has done pretty well on road course configuration.

McDowell :  Yep. Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think that there is an element of that. And I don’t know all the inner workings, internally what NASCAR is thinking and doing. But there has been conversations to continue bringing on new venues and more road courses. And obviously that’s exciting for me.

I mean, it’s a new car, and more road courses. Those are all things that will help us to have more chances at victories. And that’s exciting for all of us.

Tiongson :  Absolutely, for sure. Who are some drivers that you have idolized, close up or from afar, in terms of how you were trying to break through with your career?

McDowell :  Yeah, so that’s a funny question, because I get asked that a lot. And I really just… there’s not a lot. And I don’t mean that negatively. I just have never felt… I’ve just never been somebody that has put a lot of… I don’t know what the right word would be. I’m not somebody that would get autographs or be super impressed with anything that people would do performance-wise.

From a racecar driver standpoint, you see guys on the racetrack and you’re just like, “Oh, man. That’s incredible.” But from an idolizing standpoint, I don’t think I’ve ever really had somebody like that.

I feel like there’s been some greats along the way that you go, “Man, I can’t believe that they’ve done this and accomplished that.” But when I think about somebody I look up to, I’m more looking for character. And somebody that is a good husband and leads their family well and does the right thing, rather than somebody that’s had a crazy successful career and does amazing things in racecars.

Tiongson :  That makes sense, for sure. I think the word you may want to say is you’re nonplussed about the pageantry and pomp and circumstance of people. It’s more or less, like you said, the character.

McDowell :  Yeah, yeah.

Tiongson :  No, I totally get that for sure. Makes a lot of sense. Shifting gears, the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s be honest. It’s tested us quite to the core globally. But how have you kept motivated and positive during the pandemic?

Surely, Michael McDowell finds reasons to smile in 2021. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

Surely, Michael McDowell finds reasons to smile in 2021. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

McDowell :  Yeah, I think for everybody it’s been a challenging time. And I’m not immune to that. With four kids, we used to travel as a family to the races. And that was kind of pulled away. Then your kids are in school with all their friends, and that’s pulled away. And so in a very short period of time, life changed drastically for all of us. And our routines changed, and the flow of life changed. So yeah, it’s been a challenging time.

But I think that what keeps you hopeful and positive is just knowing that this too will pass. And it’s not going to be like this forever. There are certain things that you can’t change. You can’t… I don’t want to say do anything about it. But you just can’t change the circumstances. So you just have to fight through it. And grind through it.

Make the best of every situation, the most of every opportunity you have, and knowing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And the sun will still come up, and we still have air to breathe and to be thankful. Take what God’s given us and make the most of it.

Tiongson :  I was going to say, I think a lot of us have probably turned to our faith to kind of get through these challenging times. Because there are days, sure, you kind of need to turn to that versus just relying on your inner strength.

McDowell :  Right, exactly.

Tiongson :  I mean, I’ve had to do that quite a few times myself. There are days I’m like… I really miss being at the racetrack. Understandably, but certainly I do look forward to getting back to that point. And I’m sure a lot of us have other things we look forward to doing.

McDowell :  Absolutely. Yeah, and I think that for people of faith – and all people, not just people of faith – God’s still good even in the midst of a pandemic. And He’s still doing something. And so for me, it was just finding that.

What is God trying to show me during this time? What am I supposed to learn during this time, because this time sucks? But having that perspective of, what is God showing me right now while it seems like everything’s chaotic? And so just trying to find, not the silver lining, but just trying to find the lesson, and what am I supposed to be learning and getting from this moment?

Tiongson :  Absolutely. And I think that’s the best takeaway I think I’ve had myself, too. My faith has probably become a lot stronger because of this. And for me – I’m sure the same for you with your family. Taking a step back, we can all get consumed in what we do, whether it’s our jobs or our passions.

McDowell :  Absolutely, yeah.

Tiongson :  I’m going to switch gears a little bit with some fun questions. I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this before. I don’t think Terra’s ever asked you this. But we’ve seen Bristol Motor Speedway with their unique driver intros over the years. They tend to showcase those driver’s personalities.

But along those lines, what would you choose as your theme song that you feel like would best define you?

McDowell :  Yeah. So this year… and it’s not what best defines me. This is just this year. There’s a song, it’s a hip-hop song called “Options” from NF. And for whatever reason, it’s what I listen to when I work out. But it speaks a lot to me. And so I told my kids, I said, “If Bristol this year has intro songs, this is going to be my theme song. This is the one that it’s going to be.”

Tiongson :  I’m going to have to check that out on my Spotify.

McDowell :  Yeah, check it out.

Tiongson :  I’m not much of a hip-hop person. I told Austin Dillon this a while back. I listen to music that would make you think I’m 70 years old.

In general, Michael McDowell finds inspiration with his music choice. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

In general, Michael McDowell finds inspiration with his music choice. (Photo: Sean Folsom/The Podium Finish)

McDowell :  And I listen pretty much to just K-Love, just contemporary Christian music. But for whatever reason, like I said, this one stuck out to me, and it’s been kind of my anthem.

Tiongson :  There you go. I’ll have to check it out, to say the least. If Hollywood came up to you and they said, “Hey, Michael, we want to make a movie about you,” what actor would you choose to play the role of you on the big screen?

McDowell :  Yeah. If they wouldn’t let me do it, I always tell people I’d let Leonardo DiCaprio do it. Because he looks a lot like me.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Michael McDowell for taking the time for this latest “In the Hot Seat” interview series on The Podium Finish. Also, thanks to Mac MacLeod and Front Row Motorsports for making this interview possible. You can keep track of Michael McDowell on his Facebook and Twitter accounts, his official website and here on TPF!

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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