Michael McDowell is off to the best start of his career. Now in his 13th year in NASCAR Cup Series competition and fourth season attempting every race, he currently sits 23rd in points, the highest he’s ever been 12 races into a season.
Since NASCAR came back from the COVID-19 break, McDowell and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team has been on a tear. In the eight races since May, McDowell has moved up four spots in the standings, and he’s finished in the top 15 in three of the past four races. His performances at Bristol Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway marked just the third time in McDowell’s career he’s had consecutive top-15 finishes, and he’s on pace to set a new career-high in top 15s in a season with four so far.
Measuring a driver based on top 15s might not seem worth doing, but it is when considering the progress McDowell has made in 2020. His NASCAR career started with the Arizona native being rushed to Cup to essentially replace a retiring Dale Jarrett after one full season in the ARCA Menards Series and four combined starts in the NASCAR Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. But the former World Karting Association and Grand-Am Cup Series driver was quickly let go after one season with Michael Waltrip Racing. From there, he bounced around a few start-and-park teams before landing a part-time role that became full-time with Leavine Family Racing. From there, McDowell landed the gig with FRM, where he has spent the past three seasons and become the mentor to rookie John Hunter Nemechek.
McDowell caught up with Frontstretch to discuss why he’s had such a solid start to 2020, whether he and FRM almost parted ways, his relationship with Nemechek and how he got out of the dark times early in his career.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: You’ve already got four top 15s this season including three of the past four races, and you’re on pace to have a career high by a landslide. How has it felt to be running so much better?
Michael McDowell: It feels good. We’ve been growing and building our program at Front Row for the last three years. And I feel like we’ve gotten better each year, but don’t always have the stats or the results to show it. But I feel like this year, it’s all coming together. We’ve got good speed and been able to execute. Just having more speed and more potential is what gives you the opportunity to have top-15 runs. It’s something those guys worked really hard in the offseason, but for me, personally, it feels good and it makes it worthwhile.
I spent seven or eight years start-and-parking Cup cars just to try to stay in the series, always hoping that one day I’d be able to get into a competitive ride and have an opportunity at it. I had an opportunity with LFR [Leavine Family Racing] where we went from starting and parking and not running all the races to running full-time. And then, transitioning to Front Row, running full-time. It feels good to finally get the results that I felt like I knew all along that could happen. And it makes it definitely worthwhile. There were a lot of years of grinding it out and not as much fun as some of the other guys were having. So it feels good to finally be in a good spot and to make the most of the opportunity.
Massie: Has it been more fun coming to the racetrack with the recent good runs?
McDowell: Yeah, I mean that’s what it’s all about. It’s not only fun, but it also makes you thankful. Now I go to the racetrack, and I know I’ve got enough tires to put new tires on every stop and not having to use somebody else’s used tires and things like that. It wasn’t that long that that was the case for me. It’s been a slow process, but I feel like it’s finally coming together. And hopefully, I can continue to capitalize on it, continue to build momentum. And hopefully, we win a race here and finally get that opportunity to keep growing and building. I feel like I’ve been doing it a long time, but the reality is I’ve only been racing full-time in the Cup Series for the last five or six years. Those first eight years were not the kind of experience that you want.
Massie: Why have the Front Row cars been so much faster this year?
McDowell: It’s a combination of a few things. One is that the rules package for the most part stayed the same between 2019 and ’20. And then also with the development freeze with parts and pieces. That’s a big area where the big teams can accelerate their development is building parts and pieces underneath stuff. I think, also, with this time of quarantine, the wind tunnel is not being utilized, and some of the technology not being utilized has allowed us to catch up and stay closer to the competition.
Massie: So everything shutting down, as bad as it may be, has actually benefited your team on the track?
McDowell: Yeah, I think it’s allowed us to stay closer. Where normally, beginning of the year, you start out with your best cars, your best pieces, and then the bigger teams develop at a faster rate than you can. So you just slowly fall further and further behind as the year goes on. There will be some of that, but not as much this year with the development freeze, with some of the wind tunnel time and things like that being limited.
Massie: Last year, you had the best year of any of the Front Row cars, but this year you’ve got John Hunter Nemechek matching your results. Does that stoke the fire of the No. 34 team to try to beat the No. 38 each week?
McDowell: There’s kind of two parts to that. John Hunter’s done a great job and has been really fast. Him and Seth [Barbour, No. 38 crew chief] and the No. 38 group kind of hit on it early in the year and were definitely outpacing us. It just took us a few races to navigate through what I needed and what we needed to do, and now we seem to be kind of hitting our stride. The good news is that both of our cars are faster, and John Hunter’s had top 15s as well and had really great race at Darlington [Raceway].
I feel like as a team, you look at Bristol [Motor Speedway], where we ran 14th and 15th. This weekend at Homestead [Miami Speedway], we were in position to run 15th and 16th, and on the last lap, John Hunter had a right front go down, ended up 19th. But we’re together, and our cars are very close as far as speed. … We’re both executing well, not making mistakes, not getting speeding penalties and not having problems on pit road and things like that that’s allowing us to run nose-to-tail in these races. He’s done a good job.
As far as beating your teammate, I just want to run good. If I get a top 15 or top 10 and he ended up one or two spots ahead of me, that’s not killing my day. I’m happy for Front Row and happy for everybody. I just want to run well and do the best that I can and get the best results that we can. In a 36-race schedule, you know it’s going to ebb and flow. You’re going to have good weeks and months, and you’re going to have bad weeks and months, so you just have to get it while you can get it and not get too distracted by where your teammate is running or where you’re at in that comparison.
Massie: Does Nemechek come to you for advice, or does the social-distancing aspect make it kind of difficult for that?
McDowell: Social distancing makes it difficult, but also not having practice. Normally, you’ll have practice, you’ll talk about what your car did, what you needed to do, things that I found, things that he found, and we’ll have meetings: pre-race meetings, post-practice meetings. Now, you just show up and go. So, there’s not a lot I can help him with other than just past experience. But until you get out there and do it, it’s hard to really describe it. I think that’s been a little bit of breaking down of communication is not having full weekends.
And also too, not being able to go to the shop and do our pre-race meetings at the shop. Normally, you’re with your crew chief, you’re with your engineers, you’re with the other drivers in person. You’re talking about it and kind of extracting that information from each other. Where now, it’s through a Zoom call or Skype, [Microsoft] Teams, and it’s just not quite the same as it is sitting there with somebody.
Massie: You’re currently 23rd in points, the highest you’ve ever been at this point in the season. And you’ve climbed four spots in the points since the COVID-19 break. Do you feel that you have a shot at the playoffs if you keep doing like you’re doing?
McDowell: I think that without a win, it’s going to be really hard for us to have a shot at the playoffs. If you look at say 20th, it’s close. There’s only about a 30-point gap between where I’m at and 20th, but to get in that top 16, you’re going to have to score stage points, you’re going to have to do that consistently. I think that would be tough without getting a win, but not impossible.
One of the things that’s actually held us back in the points was we had a mechanical failure at [Las Vegas Motor Speedway]. We had a throttle linkage break and ended up not getting any points at all. That really hurt the start of the season and put us behind. But now we’ve put together four or five consistent runs in the teens, and that’s helped the points. But without scoring stage points, it’s going to be very challenging to claw your way back into the top 16.
Massie: At certain points last year, it seemed like you weren’t coming back with this team. How close was that to actually happening?
McDowell: It’s complicated when it comes to smaller teams in the garage. Because most of the big teams are already doing their deals for next year. We’ve already seen Ryan Blaney announce his extension at the beginning of the year and Alex Bowman. And a lot of these guys at the bigger teams, their deals are done by now. And on our end of the garage, things are so much different because, just like it is at the front, it’s driven by sponsorship, driven by those partnerships. But for a lot of these teams, they don’t know that until October, November.
Last year, my desire was always to come back to Front Row. I think Front Row’s desire was to have me there. It’s just with the unknowns of what was happening with some partners and what it was going to look like. For me, I’m always fighting the guy who can bring $1 million or $2 million to the team. That’s hard for team owners to turn that away. That’s a challenge that’s real that I face every year is, who can potentially bring money and displace me at Front Row. But thankfully, our partnerships have been growing. And as we fill those schedules out, as long as those partners come back, I think that I’ll be here with Front Row for a long time and finish out my career here and try to win races and move into the Next-Gen car and more road courses and street courses and some of the things that I think are coming down the pipeline are really going to help me.
It’s not a matter of wanting to be here or even them wanting me back as much as it is the business and economy of racing. And it’s tough, it’s not easy. Our owner Bob Jenkins spends a lot of money of his own to keep this race team going, and that’s hard to do year after year. I understand the spot that he’s in and feel like they’ve been great to me, and I’m thankful for it.
Massie: Let’s go back to the beginning of your career. In a two-year span, you went from just getting into stock cars in ARCA to essentially replacing Dale Jarrett after he retired. In hindsight, do you wish you had been given more time to develop in a less-pressure situation?
McDowell: Yeah, absolutely. A couple things with that is there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for me at the time. Obviously, I came off a really successful ARCA season. I tested for [Gene] Haas at the time. They were starting a Truck Series program. I talked to JR Motorsports a little bit about their Xfinity program. But it was just starting to transition where teams were needing sponsors and needing drivers to maybe have some of that. It wasn’t quite like it is now. There was still some development, but it was still heading that direction.
So nobody had a full-time opportunity for me. I did some testing for Evernham [Motorsports]. I think they offered a handful of races and some testing. And there were some other deals like that we talked about, but there was nothing that was full-time racing except for that Cup ride at Michael Waltrip Racing with Dale Jarrett retiring. So even though I was obviously not prepared for that, I had raced at a high level in other series, just not the Cup Series. I felt like I understood the pressure and how to handle that, running Indy cars and sports cars and being at a high level with manufacturers and things like that. So that part of it wasn’t as daunting as much as it is going to racetracks I’d never been to in a Cup car for the first time.
It was tough. I wouldn’t do it over again. It’s easy to look back and say, ‘Yeah, I wish I could’ve ran a year of Trucks, a year of Xfinity.’ That would’ve been great, but those opportunities weren’t available. The opportunity that I had was in the Cup Series. It was a hard learning curve, but at the same time, I learned so much in that short period of time. And that really helped me get established in the sport and hang around for a few years when I probably wouldn’t otherwise. That’s led to me being here 12 years later.
Massie: If you could go back in time and give 23-year-old Michael any advice at the start of his Cup career, what would it be?
McDowell: I wish I could’ve enjoyed the experience more. I didn’t take it all in and realize how cool it was. I felt the pressure of performing, and I was doing everything I could to perform. That’s important, but when you go to the Brickyard [Indianapolis Motor Speedway] for the first time, that should be something that you take in and enjoy the experience. I was laser-focused and just trying to push myself as hard as I could in every single area and didn’t ever take in how cool it is to experience those things for the first time: a Bristol, a Talladega [Superspeedway], the Brickyard. There’s a few of those places I wish I would’ve taken it in a little more and enjoyed the journey of it.