2019 marks Michael McDowell‘s 12th season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but the wily veteran has been in the headlines more this year than maybe any other.
McDowell started the season with a fifth-place run in the Daytona 500 and was a major player in the battle for the win. Since then, McDowell’s best finish has been a 24th at Auto Club Speedway, but it’s the off-the-track incidents that have had him grabbing headlines.
After the Daytona 500, McDowell and his Ford teammate, Joey Logano had a confrontation, and McDowell was also critical of another Ford teammate, Clint Bowyer. Fast forward a few weeks to ISM Raceway and McDowell gets into a scuffle after qualifying with Ford driver Daniel Suarez.
Aside from the drama, McDowell is entering his second season with Front Row Motorsports, owned by Bob Jenkins, who just built a brand new race shop and expanded to a third team with rookie Matt Tifft. Also, McDowell has a new crew chief for this season: Drew Blickensderfer, who is a Daytona 500 winner with Matt Kenseth.
Frontstretch caught up with McDowell prior to this past Sunday’s (March 24) race at Martinsville Speedway to discuss the current season.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: I heard Front Row Motorsports got a new shop this year. Was it a remodeling or a brand new shop?
Michael McDowell: Yeah, so Front Row Motorsports expanded from two cars to three, and because of that, we ran out of space. And so we kept the current Statesville [North Carolina] shop we’ve been working out of for the last several years, but got an additional shop in Mooresville, North Carolina and moved the race teams down there and left the fab shop in Statesville. So a little bit of both. We got a new building and kept the old one.
Massie: What’s that like going back and forth, having the fab shop in one location and the team shop in the other?
McDowell: It’s gone well. Ideal would be to be in a great, big building and have everybody there under one roof. But unfortunately, there just wasn’t that space available, and so we just made the best of the circumstance. And it’s gone, like I said, really smooth actually, but not ideal, obviously. You want everybody in the same building if you could.
Massie: What have the benefits been so far of having more space to work with?
McDowell: I think that the main benefit of expanding to three cars is we’ve added a tremendous amount of people, and quality people. And then, we need the space for those people to work. But the new building’s been great, and it’s really, for the short period of time we’ve had it, it’s gone pretty flawless.
Massie: The new package NASCAR introduced, it hasn’t seemed to have made too much of a difference in results or anything like that. But do you think it will help your team out in the long haul?
McDowell: Yeah, I think that everybody’s always optimistic at the beginning of the year that the new package would bring everybody closer together, and I think it has. We’ve definitely seen more speed at mile-and-a-halfs, especially in qualifying, than we did last year for this package with us, as far as a competition standpoint. But the race is still the race, and the best cars are still the best cars, and so we still got work to do, for sure. But racing is racing. People are going to figure it out, and some figure it out at faster rates. It’s our job to keep up.
Massie: How far off would you say this team is from going out and competing for wins? What’s missing right now?
McDowell: It’s not one thing in particular. Racing is all about thousands of little things, and that’s what separates the [Team] Penskes, the Stewart-Haas [Racing] from teams like ours, is they just have so many people that are touching every aspect of the race car. And just the sheer volume of people make the race cars go faster.
Massie: You had four different packages in the first four races of the year. What does that do to a driver, just going back and forth, back and forth?
McDowell: You know, that part hasn’t been so hard because each of the tracks have been so different. Daytona [International Speedway] is Daytona, it raced just like it always has. And then, Atlanta [Motor Speedway] obviously being the first race, I call, for the new package. And then [Las] Vegas [Motor Speedway] with the [air] ducts in it. But Atlanta to Vegas was very similar. And then the short track [package], the short track obviously at Phoenix [ISM Raceway] with more downforce was a bit of an adjustment.
But yeah, I think you learn over the years, you just go. You don’t have a choice. They’re not asking for your opinion, and so the best thing you can do is focus on going out there and making your car as best as you can. So I haven’t put a lot of thought into the actual package as I have in going out there and making as much speed as you can.
Massie: So it’s not like when you got in the car this morning [March 23], there’s no situation where you step on the gas too hard because there’s extra horsepower?
McDowell: No, no. I think you automatically kind of adjust. Yeah, you don’t really notice that part of it.
Massie: What are David Ragan and Matt Tifft like as teammates?
McDowell: This is my second year with Front Row, so David and I work really well together, and we’ve been friends off the track for a long time. So it’s been a good dynamic, him and I together. We’re different in a lot of aspects, so I think that’s actually good. He thinks about things differently than I do. That helps the overall package and program.
And then, bringing Matt on has been fun for him and us — a young guy, a rookie doing and seeing all this stuff for the first time. But he’s very mature, he’s very good at what he does. And he’s been with great organizations like [Joe Gibbs Racing] and [Richard Childress Racing], so he brings some knowledge and insight of how they did things. And so he’s a great asset to the team.
Massie: I asked Matt Tifft back at Atlanta if there had been any rookie hazing or not. He said there hadn’t. Are there any plans?
McDowell: No, David and I are pretty mild-mannered, pretty reserved. Yeah, I didn’t even think about doing anything like that.
Massie: Did I just put an idea in your head?
McDowell: Well, you know it just kind of happens on your own, really. The Cup Series is such a jump from [the NASCAR] Xfinity [Series]. I don’t think people give it credit for what it really is. And so it’s hard enough for a guy coming into it.
Massie: Describe Bob Jenkins for me a little bit. What words would you say to describe him?
McDowell: The thing that stands out to me about Bob is he’s committed. He’s committed to this race program, he’s committed to NASCAR. He’s spending a lot of his own money to do it. But more importantly, he’s just a man of character, a man of faith, a man of integrity. He cares about his people and cares about how he does things. Those are attributes that are important to me and important to him.
Massie: You’ve been talked about a lot more this season than other seasons. Do you feel like you’ve been in the spotlight for the right reasons or the wrong reasons?
McDowell: No, definitely the wrong reasons. I think that Daytona was, as far as getting spotlight there, to me, that was more blown out of proportion than anything. We had a good Daytona 500, and really, that should’ve been it. There shouldn’t have been much more to talk about.
And then obviously the scuffle with Suarez, that was just emotions and things like that happen. They’re not, for me, they’re not proud moments, but things happen. It’s just the way life is. You just move on.
Massie: Is there like a renewed fire and passion for you this season? Or have we just not noticed it until now?
McDowell: Yeah, y’all just haven’t noticed it. I’ve been this fiery and this outspoken, and I am the way I am. I’ve been like this for 10 years. It’s really why I’ve survived in this sport when a lot haven’t. So I think maybe being a little bit more competitive or maybe just being in certain circumstances, people have seen it. But yeah, this is the way I’ve been, it hasn’t changed.
Massie: What do you do differently in the future to make sure the other guy in a confrontation is the one who ends up on the ground?
McDowell: Just don’t wear your HANS device.
I mean all joking aside, [Suarez] grabbed me by the HANS device, which is connected to your head. There’s not a whole lot you can do when someone’s got you by the HANS device.
Massie: Well in that situation, Drew Blickensderfer was the guy, I mean he just slammed Suarez onto the hood of the car there. Did that impress you about him that he had your back like that?
McDowell: Yeah, I mean obviously, Drew’s got a lot of fire. That’s one of the reasons I wanted him on this team and this program is he’s just got fire, and I’m wired the same way. So obviously, that came out, and Drew’s wrestling experience came out. And I’ll have to ask him for some tips. I didn’t grow up wrestling, I’ve never kicked somebody. But I’ve done a lot of boxing, and so leg sweeps and kicking and all that stuff, I was always taught was for girls. Obviously, there might be some benefit to it.
Massie: You talked about the attention you got at Daytona. Obviously, it was with your Ford teammates, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Did Ford talk to you about that at all? Or have you seen more respect from the Ford teammates since then?
McDowell: You know, like I said, I think that that was really just blown out of proportion. I mean I met with Joey a couple days later and talked about it and laughed, no big deal. As far as Clint Bowyer goes, I mean he was just racing and I was just racing. He was trying to get into a hole that wasn’t there, and he ended up wrecking himself. I don’t think there was really anything to discuss there because I don’t think there was any disagreement about it. I mean he knew what he had done.
Massie: And he watched the film.
McDowell: Yeah, he watched it. So that really blew over. Ford has done a great job of getting all the teams to work together, and that’s been a part of their success. Obviously, they want to make sure those relationships stay intact and, as far as I’m concerned, they all have.
Massie: You mentioned you’ve been in Cup for a decade now. How do you want fans to remember you in the Cup Series?
McDowell: Yeah, you know, I don’t really care how they remember me. And I don’t mean that rudely or arrogantly, but man, people spend their whole entire lives trying to achieve or impress somebody, and I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m just trying to do my job the best of my ability, give it everything I have. Whenever my last race is, whether that’s this year, whether that’s this weekend or it’s five years from now, it’s just about giving 100 percent — not leaving anything on the table. And how people perceive that, man, I could care less.