The rain-postponed Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway provided the perfect opportunity to speak with Michael McDowell. The driver of the No. 34 Ford Mustang with Front Row Motorsports was candid about various challenges the 2020 season has brought. In our first installment of this season’s monthly journal, we covered goals for the team, hitting the track with no practice, and quarantine binge-watching. Now, let’s get up front with McDowell!
Terra Jones: In a previous interview, you shared you have one goal: to win. With that in mind, what are some other goals for this season?
Michael McDowell: The first goal is still the same: to win a race. The second goal is to be in the top 25 in owner’s points. That’s something we haven’t done as an organization – have multiple cars in the top 25. The goals are always to continue to make progress and continue to get better, which I feel we’ve done, but, get both cars in the top 25 and win a race.
Jones: With those goals in mind, what grade would you give your season thus far?
McDowell: I’d say a B or B+. I think we are definitely a lot better than we were last year. The guys at the shop have made good strides, we have good speed in our race cars. Drew and the road guys have done a great job. We still have to execute better on pit road – not just the guys going over the wall, all of us in general. Whether that’s me sliding through the box, or us having a slow stop or loose wheel…you’re always going to have things like that. But as we’re getting closer to the front and running more consistently in the top 15, those things are being exposed a little bit more. So, we definitely have to step up our game all the way around.
Jones: How difficult has it been to attack each race without any practice?
McDowell: I think it’s been good for us because we seem to unload pretty close. I think that with more experience than some of the drivers out there, especially with so many rookies this year, it’s probably given me a little bit of help beating some cars we wouldn’t typically beat every weekend. I’ve actually enjoyed just getting in and going. It’s intense, fun, and challenging.
But the part that I miss is interacting with our guys. Like today, I’m in the motorhome and they’re in the hauler. I can’t be where they are. So you don’t have that one-on-one or team interaction, which is really unfortunate. That’s the part we all enjoy. We’re all family. Now, (laughs) I just sit in the motorhome, wait to get dressed, and go.
Jones: During “quarantine,” did you pick up a new hobby or binge something on Netflix after the kids went to bed?
McDowell: Yeah! (laughs) Both of those. We did binge a little. We have become Survivor fans over the last two or three years but hadn’t watched previous seasons. So we started with season 1 and we were doing a good job. We got all the way through season 3 or 4, but then realized this wasn’t healthy and we needed to stop!
I guess my new hobby was iRacing. It started out, not that I had to, but I sorta needed to, for our partners and team, to stay on TV and stay relevant. I really enjoyed it. I’m actually doing it more now that it’s not on TV and there’s not a lot of pressure. I just jump on there and run some races. It’s actually been a lot of fun. It’s definitely a time, (laughs) when I put the headphones on it drowns out all the noise. In a house with four kids, in quarantine, there’s a lot of noise!
Jones: As a rookie, what has John Hunter Nemechek brought to the table? And conversely, how has he challenged you as a veteran driver?
McDowell: He’s probably not getting the credit he deserves just because he’s not sitting in a top tier car. I think he’s done a phenomenal job. He’s with a veteran crew…all those guys have been at Front Row with David Ragan, so he walked into a really good situation.
Where he’s challenged me? Obviously, he was outperforming me in the beginning. He’s really good at restarts…so it’s given me some data points to look at and things to reconsider to figure out how I can do better.
But one thing I find interesting is that we have finished closer to each other than any other teammate that I’ve had. This isn’t a dig at David, but, last season…if I had a good run, he’d have a bad run and vice versa. Where John Hunter and I…we’ve been running within a few spots of each other which I think has helped overall – morale, performance, and working together.
Obviously, because we are in the same cars, we race each other a lot. We’ve had to work through what that looks like as teammates that are racing hard and wanting to do the best they can for their individual teams, and the whole team.
That’s not easy for me to say because you want to be the top dog and be the leader. But I’m thankful that we both have found our stride, we’ve got good momentum, and the team is clicking well. It’s fun to see!
Jones: I read an interview with Frontstretch where you referenced “things coming down the pipeline” in regard to your future with FRM. Can you elaborate on what those “things” are?
McDowell: Well, I don’t know. I was speculating. I think a lot changed when we realized this year was going to look different. It was full-speed ahead on the Gen-7 car – they were testing, were going to roll with it, then that got delayed… Then there were talks of making some really big schedule changes… There was a lot to be excited about because those all fit into my wheelhouse with racing sports cars and prototypes. That was definitely something that I was looking forward to, and still am!
But in regard to staying at Front Row…there are no guarantees, there never is. I think it’s the same with big teams as well. The only difference between the big teams and the mid-level teams is that everything happens early. Mine won’t be until November, or potentially even December. But that’s pretty normal for us on that side of the garage.
I would love to tell you that I have a five-year deal and we’re gonna see it through, but that’s not the reality of how it works. It’s always year to year. But…I want to be at Front Row and continue to build it.
Nothing would be more satisfying to me than to be able to win a race, get into the Playoffs, continue to run in the top 15, and push that to the top 10.
I’ve always enjoyed that process. If you look over my career, that’s been my M.O…. I just want to be able to stay with it long enough to see the fruit of it. I think John Hunter’s in a really fortunate spot. I’m happy for him, but at the same time, it’s like, “You weren’t here two years ago when we were grinding it out!”
I wanna be part of the good side of it. Instead of shooting for top 15s, shooting for top 10s. I don’t think we’re far from that. But it’s a tough series and a tough road, and I’m not naive to the fact that, for me, it’s year to year and I have to perform. And I feel like I’m doing that.
Keep up with Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports on Twitter.
Thank you to Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports for allowing not only this interview, but this series to happen. We at The Podium Finish are excited to bring this series to you each month in 2020.