NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2021 NASCAR Preseason Power Rankings No. 26: Michael McDowell

After completing his best NASCAR Cup Series season to date, Michael McDowell looks to build on his success in 2021. He’ll do so with 21-year-old Anthony Alfredo, McDowell’s third Front Row Motorsports teammate in as many years. Alfredo replaces John Hunter Nemechek in the No. 38 Ford, after Nemechek signed with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series.

While it’ll be another reset of sorts, McDowell showed some strength during a season rocked by the the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Look Back

McDowell earned four top-10 finishes last year, all at non-superspeedways. Prior to that, seven of his eight career top-10 finishes had been at superspeedways. His first top 10 of 2020 came at Pocono Raceway, where he ended in eighth place. Unfortunately, he wrecked out on lap 15 the following day, leaving him in last. He bounced back the next week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, coming home seventh.

One of his more noteworthy moments occurred at a non-points race — the All-Star Open at Bristol Motor Speedway. While battling Bubba Wallace and William Byron for position, Wallace tapped McDowell from behind. McDowell slid back down and tagged Wallace’s right-rear, which sent him hard into the wall and ended his night.

Wallace wasn’t happy about the incident, voicing his displeasure in an interview to FOX Sports. He also brought his bumper to McDowell’s hauler afterward.

McDowell seemed to put the incident behind him for the rest of the year, though, earning two more 10th-place results at the Daytona International Speedway road course and Bristol Motor Speedway. Additionally, the Arizona native earned six more top 15s and eight more top 20s, ending the season with 18 total top 20s. That’s a marked improvement from years prior, and though he didn’t earn any top fives, McDowell did have a career-best average finish of 20.9. He also earned his highest points rank to date: 23rd.

Promising Venues

One of the tracks McDowell has had the most success at is Daytona; he’s notched two top fives and six top 10s at the superspeedway, more than any other track in his Cup career. Last season he ended 14th in both events, so it stands to reason he would continue his strong performance there. He’ll need to gel with his new teammate quickly, though, so they can avoid all the mayhem and make it to the end of the Daytona 500. McDowell could even squeak out a win in the final race of the regular season at Daytona.

David Ragan, who earned one of Front Row’s two Cup victories, is also set to attempt the Daytona 500. Though it’s unclear whether he’ll race in a chartered car, his superspeedway experience will be an extra boost for McDowell if he can make it into the 40-car field. While driving for FRM, Ragan has seven top 10s at Daytona and Talladega.

McDowell is also known for his road course racing ability, and that’s something FRM is working on for this year, according to NBC Sports. Since the Daytona road course, Circuit of the Americas, Road America and the Indianapolis road course were added to the Cup schedule, the team is making some changes to improve its road course package.

“The one thing our crew chiefs and engineer crowd kind of felt strongly was that the package we were taking to the road courses could definitely be better,” general manager Jerry Freeze told NBC Sports. “Certainly on the Daytona road course and the Charlotte [Motor Speedway] ROVAL, where we’re actually running the banking on the traditional track with the road course.

“They felt like we underperformed at those tracks … and a lot of the problems were raw speed on the banks and transition from the flat to the banks. There were some things we could do … more so, a redo on the body spec to come up with something that was a little more downforce friendly. We’re kind of looking at the road courses a little differently than we have in the past.”

The team will bring a road course chassis that is better equipped for the banked corners at the Daytona road course and Charlotte ROVAL. Then at Sonoma Raceway, COTA, Indy and Road America, a traditional road course chassis will be used. McDowell has a NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at Road America and has earned five straight top 20s at Watkins Glen International from 2015-19. He’s certainly capable of scoring good finishes and possibly a win at any of the seven road courses.

Other venues where McDowell could gain some fairly strong results are at Bristol, Pocono, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway. He’s earned top 15s and 20s in recent races at these tracks.

On the flip side, McDowell has historically struggled at both Michigan International Speedway and Dover International Speedway. He’s still searching for his first top 20 at Michigan, but does have two such results at Dover. However, it’s more likely the team will focus on his strengths — superspeedways and road courses, as indicated above.

2021 Scenarios

McDowell could certainly have a better year than he did in 2020, or things could turn sour for the team. Alfredo doesn’t have as much experience as Nemechek did when he piloted the same entry last season, so the team might suffer growing pains early on.

Still, Nemechek snagged three top 10s and 16 top 20s in 2020, almost as much as McDowell, so the car is well-equipped for the tasks ahead.

One of the best scenarios for McDowell would be to sneak away with a road course or superspeedway victory and clinch FRM’s second playoff berth. Chris Buescher earned a spot in the 2016 playoff field when he won a fog-shortened race at Pocono, so it’s entirely plausible.

Alternatively, McDowell could earn some top fives as well as top 10s thanks to the new additions to the Cup Series circuit. With Front Row working to improve its road course package, McDowell may come out swinging and earn his best average finish yet. He also might steal some stage wins from the competition, which would definitely help him if he made it into the playoffs.

One thing the No. 34 pilot did well last year was avoid trouble, as he exited early out of just two races. It would suffice if he took great care of his equipment this season.

However, that may be a bit difficult to do, especially since trouble lurks at every corner at superspeedways. There’s also the Bristol dirt track and Nashville Superspeedway that drivers will need to adjust to quickly, or they’ll be left out in the dust. A worst-case scenario for McDowell would be that he wrecks out early of these and other races, which not only affects his average finish, but also dashes his playoff hopes.

Mechanical issues would also derail things for the team; if they occur early on, McDowell would have to pull together a string of top 10s in order to ensure a higher position in the points standings. He’s likely hoping the team can instead build off the career year they had in a tumultuous season.

Outlook

McDowell would love to be in the mix for the win at his specialty courses- superspeedways and road courses. He could get into the playoffs with a victory, which is probably one of his biggest goals. Even if he doesn’t win, though, he can still claim some top fives and 10s. Also, the Cup veteran can use some the data from last season to help him earn consecutive top 15s and 20s at his better tracks. It’s definitely an exciting and hopeful time for the Front Row organization.

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch