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McDowell Seeks Another NASCAR Playoff Push

Typically savvy on the road courses, Michael McDowell has showcased his versatility on the ovals in NASCAR Cup Series racing. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

Typically savvy on the road courses, Michael McDowell has showcased his versatility on the ovals in NASCAR Cup Series racing. (Photo: Luis Torres | The Podium Finish)

As Michael McDowell has found consistency and comfort with the No. 34 Love’s Ford Mustang, he’s showcased his savvy and smooth driving as the lead Front Row Motorsports driver in 2022.

While most fans recall the 37-year-old Phoenix native for his thrilling 2021 Daytona 500 victory, he’s likely gaining additional attention with his best NASCAR Cup Series season efforts in his career.

With the first half of the Cup season closing with Sunday’s Kwik Trip 250 at Road America, McDowell finds himself ranked 21st with a top five, a third place result at Sonoma Raceway, and six top 10 results. Tallying a respectable average finish of 17.1, McDowell has gelled in immediate fashion with new crew chief, Blake Harris.

Perhaps McDowell will love Road America more if he wins Sunday's race. (Photo: Logan Skidan | The Podium Finish)

Perhaps McDowell will love Road America more if he wins Sunday’s race. (Photo: Logan Skidan | The Podium Finish)

“It’s been great,” McDowell said in a Ford Performance media availability. “When we came into this season with the Next Gen car, we had this high expectation and hope that it would bring us closer to the elite teams and sort of the powerhouse teams, but, at the same time, racing is racing and it’s all about maximizing everything and so people really are what make the difference.  So, we felt like we had really good people at Front Row, we just needed kind of a clean slate to be able to showcase that and I feel like the Next Gen car has done that.”

Despite the strong performances and results this year, McDowell wants to make it clear that this is not a surprising development for his hardy bunch. All things considered, it’s been a steady but noticeable climb from a team fighting for top 25 results to battling for top 10 finishes on a consistent basis.

“I also think that, for me and for this program, we’ve been making steady gains the last four or five years, so it’s not like a light switch,” he offered. “When I started with the team we were running 25th and it took a year and then we were running 20th and it took another year or so and last year we were in those high teens and that 15 range.  Scoring top 10s and scoring top fives, but sort of not regularly, and now this year I feel like we’ve kind of made that next step to where we have top 10 speed and if we’re able to execute and do everything we can get top-10 results, so that’s been a lot of fun.”

A lot of the fun that McDowell has enjoyed in 2022 goes beyond running toward the top 10 running order. In this case, he credits Harris and his crew for making continual strides, particularly this year with the Next Gen car.

“Blake has done a great job,” he observed. “Chris Yerges, who has been with my program for his third year now, the race engineer, has done a great job.  We have a good group of guys and gals and we’re starting to hit on some things, so I feel really confident moving forward that we can keep it up.  I feel like that’s probably the biggest difference between years past.

“There might be a few flashes that we had, where we would have some speed and score a top 10, but then we’d spend two or three weeks in those mid-twenties again and we’d be like, ‘Oh, man.  What happened?’  This year has been more every weekend we’re in those low teens and almost single digit speed, so we’re starting to get there.  It’s been fun, but we still have a lot of racing left.  The season, I don’t even think we’re quite halfway yet, so we’ve still got a lot of racing to go here.”

Like his Ford Racing comrade, Joey Hand, McDowell loves road courses. Despite his “Great American Race” success last year, he considers the 4.048-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin as a prime opportunity.

Perhaps McDowell will love Road America more if he wins Sunday's race. (Photo: Logan Skidan | The Podium Finish)

Perhaps McDowell will love Road America more if he wins Sunday’s race. (Photo: Logan Skidan | The Podium Finish)

“Road America is my best track, so with as well as we’ve been running and as well as we ran at Sonoma,” McDowell said. “I mean, we have to highlight this as a weekend that we’ve got to try and get a win, for sure.  But, it’s not our only shot and that’s nice.  We’re not quite where we need to be to be legitimate contenders for wins every weekend on ovals, but we’re pretty close.

“Taking that and moving to Road America, we should be contenders there.  There’s no reason why we won’t.  COTA, we missed the setup and weren’t great and we ran 13th there.  Sonoma, we hit it and were pretty good.  Sonoma should help us build toward Road America.  We feel good about it, so it’s not a must win in that regard, but every weekend in the Cup Series is a must-win.”

The pressure may be on for McDowell with only nine races left until the NASCAR Playoffs. However, he illustrated the team’s recent gains and successes, particularly with the competitiveness of his No. 34 car.

“[At] Gateway, we were pretty close,” he said. “We had the speed to get up front and to stay up front.  Nashville, we needed a little bit more to be a race-winning car, but we were easily a top-10 car at Nashville, so that’s a huge difference for us this year.

“Sonoma, I felt like finally I had an opportunity to do what I always believed that I could do at a road course and just have a good day – qualify in the top five, race in the top five, be there throughout the entirety of the race, so that one was an important momentum shift for us because I’ve always felt good on the road courses.  That’s my background, but I’ve never felt like we’ve been actual contenders and at Sonoma, we were actual contenders.”

For a driver who’s fought hard from a journeyman racer to a driver who’s more than capable of leading the midfield battles in Cup, McDowell understands how significant wins are for himself and Front Row Motorsports team.

Until the final lap is in the books in the Coke Zero Sugar Free 400 at Daytona, McDowell is ready to go to battle with his scrappy organization.

A victory at Road America may do wonders for McDowell and his No. 34 team. (Photo: Mike Moore | The Podium Finish)

A victory at Road America may do wonders for McDowell and his No. 34 team. (Photo: Mike Moore | The Podium Finish)

“The wins are so important and I got to experience that last year with the 500,” McDowell stated. “I got to see what it does for our team and what it did financially for out team, making the playoffs and all the things that the fans don’t know about.

“There’s a formula that I can’t even explain because I don’t understand it all, but it helps our program for years to come, and so for us to be able to keep that going and win a race, I know how much that means to the team and the organization and so hopefully we can do it.  We’ll see what happens.”

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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