It’s safe to say that Michael McDowell’s limited tenure in the Sprint Cup Series with Michael Waltrip Racing last season was a humbling experience.
The same young driver that came as close to stealing the ARCA Re/Max Series crown from Frank Kimmel as any driver had this decade before Justin Allgaier did it last year, lasted only 20 races before finding himself out of the fold in the MWR Cup stable. His brief stint as a Cup regular was one that will be remembered not for results on track (he cracked the top 25 only five times), but for two spectacular, highlight-reel wrecks that saw the former open-wheeler walk away after flipping his car eight times at Texas and triggering a massive multi-car wreck on the frontstretch at Watkins Glen that sent debris clouds billowing hundreds of feet in any direction.
McDowell had taken the same route as Brent Sherman had only a few years back when he (and his Serta sponsorship) signed with BAM Racing in 2006, going straight from ARCA to Sprint Cup with less than a season of seasoning in the Nationwide Series or Truck ranks… and just like Sherman, failed to survive more than a few months on tour. While McDowell seldom resembled the wreck-waiting-to-happen that Sherman did driving the No. 49 car (check out Sherman’s highlights from Bristol in March of 2006 before disputing that characterization), he also proved to be much over his head driving for an organization that was struggling itself to establish on the Cup circuit.
Fortunately, McDowell got a second chance this season to tackle NASCAR… and it came in the Nationwide Series, which is probably where he should have been last season. And low and behold, in a developmental series where drivers coming from lower-level ranks such as ARCA are meant to come and learn the premier circuits of NASCAR without being thrown to the wolves alongside 40-plus of the best drivers in the world, McDowell has shown plenty of the talent that won him four ARCA races and had him in that title chase until a late-season wreck at Talladega.
Driving for a JTG Daugherty operation that for much of the offseason couldn’t say for certain whether they’d field a Nationwide program in 2009, McDowell has scored 11 top-15 finishes in 17 starts and currently finds himself knocking on the door of the top 10 in the points standings, only three markers behind NNS stalwart Jason Keller.
And there hasn’t been one type of track that McDowell hasn’t shined on… he’s run well everywhere. His three top-10 finishes this year have come on a concrete track (Nashville), a short track (Richmond) and an intermediate (Las Vegas). Can’t help but think that McDowell’s background in ARCA racing, a series that has long prided itself on the diversity of its schedule, has at least played a large role in this prospect’s on-track resurgence.
Because when considering all the myriad of routes that drivers can take en route to making it to NASCAR’s top echelons, the ARCA Re/Max Series is perhaps the one that makes the most sense, both on paper and in terms of results. Unlike NASCAR’s Camping World Series, which concentrates solely on short tracks and the occasional road course, the ARCA Series provides the only opportunity that developing drivers have to be exposed to a number of racing disciplines that NASCAR schedules encompass, be that restrictor plate racing or tackling the tricky, high speed 1.5-mile intermediate ovals that make up the bread and butter of NASCAR scheduling today. The fact that ARCA returned to road-racing in 2008 only furthers the case that developing drivers ought to look nowhere else for a place to get seasoned.
It doesn’t hurt either that the cars and engine packages being run by ARCA competitors are about as close to resembling the cars run in the Nationwide and Cup ranks as any other racing series out there (the ARCA cars got even closer this year, adopting a gear rule that disallowed shifting at Pocono). Or that in terms of race distance, ARCA events are often the longest events development drivers will take part in before heading to NASCAR (such as a 250-lap race at Iowa or a 312-miler at Rockingham last year).
And one look at the Nationwide Series standings this year goes a long way towards affirming the value of ARCA background before jumping to the Nationwide ranks. The points leader, Kyle Busch, snagged a number of ARCA trophies in 2003 and 2004, immediately prior to a 2004 Busch Series campaign that saw him the only driver able to mount a serious challenge to Martin Truex Jr. for the series crown. Joey Logano, Steve Wallace, Scott Lagasse Jr. and Michael Annett all are in the top 15 in NNS points… and all had ARCA wins under their belts prior to tackling big-time NASCAR.
And how can one forget the performances that Allgaier has delivered time and time again in the No. 12 this season? Allgaier, who won the 2008 ARCA title on the back of winning races on every single type of circuit imaginable (restrictor plate, short track, dirt track, downforce track and road course), has yet to find a circuit on the Nationwide schedule that has gone over his head. Only three weeks into his rookie campaign, Allgaier proved a force to be reckoned with at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading a number of laps and running in the top five for a substantial portion of the race while making passes on the treacherous low side of turns 3 and 4 that even NNS veterans Busch and Jeff Burton couldn’t make that Saturday. All of this even though Allgaier had never before raced at Las Vegas… good thing he’d seen intermediate circuits before, thanks to ARCA.
Also worth noting is Allgaier’s performance this past Friday night at Daytona, where despite getting dumped from the draft time and time again thanks to the yellow stripes on his bumper, he still managed to stay in the lead pack and score a top-10 finish for his troubles.
There are a number of shortcomings to ARCA racing. The disparity in equipment that many often experience can make ARCA racing on tracks such as Daytona or Talladega deceptive when compared to NNS races at the same venues: Annett won two ARCA plate races but was quick to note that racing Nationwide at Daytona was a whole different ballgame last Friday. The competition is also not what is seen at the NASCAR level (ARCA regulars such as Darrell Basham and Brad Smith are fantastic underdog stories and a blast to see at the track week after week, but they’re not going to be winning anytime soon).
But numbers don’t lie. And the number of Nationwide regulars that are succeeding in NASCAR’s AAA ranks after spending time racing ARCA speaks volumes as to how beneficial that seat time really is.
And Nationwide owners are taking notice. Now that McDowell’s sponsorship with the No. 47 team has dried up, longtime NNS owner Randy MacDonald has signed him for a two-race deal in his No. 81 Dodge, an opportunity for McDowell both to continue his charge towards the top 10 in points and secure a sponsored ride for the rest of 2009… this after giving Patrick Sheltra a ride at Daytona the week before (Sheltra is currently eighth in ARCA points). Matt Carter, who finished third in ARCA points last season, signed two weeks ago with Specialty Racing… and this past Friday scored the team’s first top-15 finish in years.
And just this week, CJM Racing announced that Justin Lofton, currently second in ARCA points with three poles and a win at Talledega thus far in 2009, would drive a second car for the team in four races later this season.
If the exploits of Allgaier and McDowell are any indication, get used to hearing the names Carter and Lofton more often in the near future.