Michael McDowell is having the best season of his career.
After beginning his NASCAR Cup Series tenure with Michael Waltrip Racing, McDowell bounced between teams for a number of years before landing at Front Row Motorsports, where 2021 marks his fourth season with the Ford stable.
A name that previously only sparked flashbacks of his horrific, violent 2008 crash at Texas Motor Speedway, now evokes images of a triumphant figure in a yellow firesuit at Daytona International Speedway. McDowell scooted by a hard crash on the last lap of the 2021 running to win the race, his first Cup victory in his 358th start.
McDowell also has a win in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, coming at Road America in 2016 while driving a one-off for Richard Childress Racing.
In addition to the Daytona 500 win, McDowell has reeled off solid runs all season long in 2021, including three straight top-10 finishes to start the season, a 12th-place result on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway and a third-place effort at Talladega Superspeedway.
Frontstretch chatted with McDowell after Talladega in April to get his take on his 2021 success, building a relationship with FRM over the past four years and the keys to success in superspeedway racing.
Adam Cheek, Frontstretch: You might be tired of answering this … but you’re a Daytona 500 winner. That feeling probably doesn’t get old.
Michael McDowell: It doesn’t. I mean, it’s a great accomplishment and something that we’re proud of. And winning the Daytona 500 is one of those races that does last forever. It’s not something that goes away. But at the same time, you don’t live in that every moment […], life moves on and life keeps going. So you can’t stay completely focused on it, but it’s definitely something we’re all very proud of, and it’s been a fun few months to relive it, to enjoy it and really enjoy all the season so far in 2021. It’s been a great year, obviously, the win kicks it off and is what’s really allowed us to enjoy it. But it’s been a good season all together, and it’s been fun.
Cheek: You’ve already matched your top-10 total from last year a little more than a quarter of the way through this season. What’s the atmosphere around the shop like and the momentum for your team?
McDowell: Yeah, it’s great. We have a good thing going on at Front Row Motorsports right now, and the [No.] 34 car has been making solid gains the last few years, and I feel like last year was a breakout season for us. People are just starting to kind of recognize it now, but last year was a solid year for us, and we were more competitive than we’ve ever been. And we had speed to race inside the top 15, in the top 20 the majority of the time, so we felt like, as a group, we were getting close, that we are kind of embarking into that next phase of where we could run. And so it’s been a lot of fun at the shop, everybody’s working hard. We got good momentum and confidence. And our race cars are nicer than they’ve ever been, and we have more speed in them. And so everything’s kind of starting to pick up some momentum, and that’s fun. It’s fun to be a part of that and enjoy it. And it hasn’t always been like this, so we’re taking the moment in.
Cheek: You’ve always been one to watch on superspeedways, but you’ve been in the top three within the final half lap of both Daytona and Talladega this year. Do you feel like anything has changed with your approach to superspeedway racing for 2021 that helped you be in that position?
McDowell: Well, I think it’s everything. I feel like we’ve been strong at superspeedways […] I had to go back and look, but [in] 2019 we were also in the top five coming to the white flag in both of those races too. So I think we finished fifth at Talladega in 2019 and fourth or fifth at Daytona, so we’ve been there, but I do feel like our cars have more speed. And then [it’s] just confidence, and I got a new spotter with Clayton Hughes too, and just making good decisions and putting ourselves in position. And [crew chief] Drew [Blickensderfer] has just done an incredible job with this [No.] 34 team from from the ground up.
I think in all areas we’ve gotten a little bit better, and that definitely magnifies it to superspeedways where we were already pretty good. It’s also reflecting in running top-10 at [Homestead-Miami Speedway] and having strong performances on tracks other than superspeedways. Those might not be wins, but for us to run in the top 10 is a win at those places. So we feel like we’re on a good trajectory, and things are going well, but you always got to push hard in this sport because you’re only one or two weekends away from not being where you want to be.
Cheek: Kicking off the year with the Daytona win, reeling off a top 10 at the Daytona road course and then another at Homestead, those are all such different tracks. How did you guys approach all three of them and get those results?
McDowell: Well, I think there’s a few things. The Daytona road course was our best race last year from a pure performance standpoint. So we knew that having the Daytona road course as the second race was going to be pretty strong for us, just because we felt like we were building off something pretty good already. And so that wasn’t a huge shock. When we go to these road courses, we plan on running in the top 10 and and, really, [the] top five. What was a shock is coming to the green flag with a flat right front tire, going all the way to the back and having to work our way back up. It really was a great race for us with those things considered, that we lost all our track position and really had to fight hard to get back up in there.
And then [at] Homestead, same thing. [In] 2020, I think we finished 15th, and we felt like we were a top-15 car. And that was really good for us in 2020, one of our best races. So we knew that a little bit better and we could be in the game, and I think that Homestead probably surprised all of us a little bit with how fast we were. Because at the end of that race, we were legitimately a top-five car and had top-five speeds, so that was awesome. So yeah, it’s been fun. But at the same time, the sport is humbling and those low-downforce 750 [horsepower] short tracks have been our weak spot, […] and not just at Front Row, but at Roush Fenway [Racing] with our technical alliance.
And so we go to Martinsville [Speedway], we go to Richmond [Raceway], and we get our teeth kicked in again. And you’re back to reality and knowing that you got to work hard on those areas, but we feel good at the road courses. I obviously want to be better and feel decent at the mile-and-a-halfs, and our weak point is the short tracks right now. So we’re all working hard at the shop, trying to figure out what we need to make that part of the program better.
Cheek: The finish line at Talladega is obviously further down than it is at Daytona, but you were in a position to win both races. What were the different mindsets you had that close to the front when the white flag flew at each race?
McDowell: Yeah, so like you said, they play out very different, right? The move for the win is at different spots historically at Daytona and Talladega. And Talladega, it’s so easy to be lured into going too soon. But even when you come off of turn 4, you still have a long way to go before you get to that that start-finish line, and the momentum is just a little bit different at Talladega. So the runs seem to be bigger, and you can seem to come from further back to make a run, so you just don’t want to go too early. And so the mindset at Daytona coming off of turn 2 was [that] I was going to stick with Brad [Keselowski]. I knew Brad would take a shot at Joey [Logano] at some point, I figured it would be on the entry to turn 3 that he would make a move. And he did a little earlier than I thought, and obviously they got together, and it all worked out.
But at Talladega, I knew that coming to the white, where we were sitting, I felt like I wanted to wait until the trioval. And I felt like I was executing it pretty well, I backed off of Brad coming off of turn 4, backed up to the [No.] 24 and came with the momentum […] maybe just a little bit too soon, but it just didn’t quite work out. Brad did a phenomenal job of pulling down when I pulled out and and was able to break the momentum a little bit there, and he did a good job doing what he needed to do, but I felt like we were in a good position. I think I was calmer at Talladega coming to the white than I was at Daytona, and I don’t know if that’s experience or nerves or what it is. But I felt really precise and calculated at Talladega, like I had a good plan and knew what I was doing. I just didn’t execute it well enough, and Brad did a better job.
Cheek: What has building this relationship with Front Row been like over the last several years? You ran for [FRM owner] Bob Jenkins at Watkins Glen International in 2013 in the [No.] 35. Did that basically form your connection with them and eventually lead to the ride opening?
McDowell: Yeah, it’s been fun. Bob Jenkins and I, we’ve been friends for a while, just at the track hanging out the back of the haulers. I got an opportunity several years before joining the team to go to Watkins Glen and do the road course for them in one of their third cars, kind of a one-off deal for me. I was starting and parking for Phil Parsons at the time, and we weren’t planning on racing Watkins Glen, so he said, “sure, go ahead.” So that was kind of my introduction to Front Row, and that did kind of kick something off. We qualified well, we ran really well in the race, and then we broke a track bar, but we were running inside the top 10 and probably had a shot at the top five.
And so Bob and I always talked about that afterward, even as I drove for other teams, that, one day, we would get together and try to make a run at it. So the building process has been fun. Since I’ve been there, they’ve given me the tools, but they’ve had a tremendous amount of confidence in me. So I think for the first time I’ve really felt like a real valued asset there, where I think that that’s allowed me to just have a sweet spot where I can be myself and be confident, feel good about telling them what I think we need to do and what I need to do and have this very transparent relationship. And it’s been a growing process, we’ve been getting better and better.
Drew Blickensderfer is a big part of our success that we’re having right now, and a lot of it, I feel like, is Drew’s and I’s relationship. Drew and I push each other very hard, we have a very transparent relationship. We’re pretty rough on each other, but we don’t get offended, and we work hard. And we know why we are and if I make a mistake, or I need to do something better, he’s telling me and I’m not getting upset about it because I know that he wants the very best for this race team. And he wants to run well, and he’s super competitive, and so am I. So we always kid, like, ‘You’re not going to hurt my feelings, what hurts my feelings is running bad.’
That hurts my feelings when I leave the weekend, like Richmond, and we were a 30th-place car, that hurts my feelings. Somebody yelling at me that I need to drive better or further or do a better job doesn’t hurt my feelings, because if that makes us faster I want to do that. But leaving running 30th hurts my feelings. So we have a good relationship, and we work really hard at what we can as a group and as individuals, and he does a good job leading our team.
There’s been so many changes at Front Row Motorsports, I mean, Derrick Finley, who was my crew chief when I started there, has rolled into the competition director role. And he’s done a fantastic job just making our racecars faster: the body is better, the cars are lighter. And he’s getting Drew and [No. 38 crew chief] Seth Barbour the tools that they need so that our race team and our race cars can be faster. So there’s so much that goes beyond what the eyes see, and there’s been a lot of moving parts at Front Row. It’s been fun to be a part of building that and seeing it have success, because I think everybody works hard in our sport, and it doesn’t always translate into success. So it’s nice that we’re getting results and everybody that’s worked so hard can see that it’s paying off.
Cheek: You mentioned the changes at Front Row. You and David Ragan were teammates for your first two years [at FRM], followed by John Hunter Nemechek last season and Anthony Alfredo this year. What’s the dynamic there: working with a veteran driver versus someone who’s learning the ropes of the Cup Series?
McDowell: It’s been unique the whole time, like you said, because it’s been so different with having a different teammate every year. It feels like it’s easy to get off on our own island and just kind of stick to what the [No.] 34 team does because we haven’t had a lot of changes on the [No.] 34, but as far as teammates go, Anthony and John Hunter are so different personality-wise, experience-wise, just all of it, they’re different altogether. I’ve really enjoyed working with Anthony. He’s a very humble guy that is eager to learn and works hard, and he knows he has an uphill battle. He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of experience, [but] he’s got a lot of talent and he’s got a lot of dedication, and that’ll pay off.
But it is incredibly challenging to come into the Cup Series. And so he’s doing a good job, and I’ve been able to build a good relationship with Anthony. It’s been easier than some over the years, and I’m not really sure why — just timing and situation, almost just kind of how it works naturally. But he’s a good teammate, and he’s able to work hard and try to get better every weekend, and he’s doing a good job.