Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Michael McDowell Leads the ‘Dog Days’ for Underdogs at Kansas

Author’s note: “It wasn’t going to be just the biggest post-9/11 sporting event. It was going to be the biggest gathering of people yet.” Those words are inscribed on a display at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. They were uttered by then president and CEO of Dover Motor Speedway, Denis McGlynn, who spoke as NASCAR made its return following the tragic day to Dover on September 23, 2001. 21 years later, the NASCAR Cup Series completed its second consecutive race on 9/11 at Kansas Speedway. And 21 years later, it is still a day we will never forget, nor quit praying for those affected. 

Top Dog: Michael McDowell

2022 has been a career year for Michael McDowell, who has a career-best 11 top 10s. Once again, he exited the race at Kansas Speedway as the top dog. However, it came on a day where several underdogs showed speed but caved to the attrition of the event.

The opening stage of the race was fairly quiet for McDowell, who started 23rd and struggled to find pace early, though he was able to move through the field to a 14th-place finish in the stage.

After observing earlier two-tire strategy from Austin Dillon and Alex Bowman, crew chief Blake Harris made the call to go with two tires to begin stage two. The strategy arguably worked better for McDowell than Bowman and Dillon, lining him up in second while gaining valuable track position. The 37-year-old kept his car inside the top 10 for most of stage two before fading to 17th by stage end.

Despite efforts to re-attain the speed found in stage two, McDowell was unable to drive back into the top 10, running outside the top 15 for most of the remainder of the event. As the checkered flag flew, his green-and-black machine crossed the line in 16th. While it wasn’t the top 10 McDowell was seeking, it was his 17th top 20 of the season.

Underdog Highlights

It has been a solid couple of weeks to be Noah Gragson. He has also had two fruitful 9/11 weekends between 2021 and 2022, as he won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Richmond Raceway on the date a year ago. After winning an amazing Xfinity finish at Darlington Raceway last weekend, Gragson extended his career-high season win total to five in a rain-shortened NXS race on Sept. 10.

Then, on Sunday, Gragson hopped in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 CURE Ecosystem Chevrolet for the Cup race. As he will continue to learn when moving to Cup full-time in 2022, the series is a battle.

Gragson had to overcome two obstacles to earn a respectable 18th-place finish. In stage one, he had to pit twice on the first stop to tighten the lug nuts. Later on, he was hit fairly hard by none other than future Petty GMS Motorsports teammate Erik Jones. Despite the contact, the 24-year-old earned his fourth career Cup top 20 and matched his best finish with Kaulig in nine starts.

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Bubba Wallace Once Again a Playoff Spoiler, Wins Cup Race at Kansas

Following Gragson in 19th was Kaulig teammate Justin Haley. Haley had one of the more impressive runs among the underdogs at Kansas, running inside the top 15 for most of the race.

In the final stage, Haley was able to pass Austin Cindric to climb into the top 10, an impressive run for the team on a mile-and-a-half track. However, the No. 31 was not able to keep up with the track changes, causing Haley to slip in the running order. The result is his third top 20 in the past four races.

For other underdogs, they were ready to tap their heels three times and go home. Jones, who won at Darlington a week ago, was unable to shake the after effects, finishing in 29th. He reported that something felt broken in the final stage, including a vibration that grew increasingly worse.

Perhaps the most promising underdog run was by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The No. 47 team raced with heavy hearts, as long-time employee JR Hollar passed away earlier in the week.

Stenhouse appeared to use that as motivation for the group. After starting at the rear following a practice incident on Saturday, he methodically worked his way through the field, using the high line to his advantage. It eventually propelled him to second behind Martin Truex Jr. in stage two. As he was closing the gap on the No. 19, his right rear tire blew out, sending him hard into the outside wall. It was a crushing blow for a potentially winning car, as Stenhouse wound up in 30th instead.

Underdogs Sound Off

Erik Jones (29th): “Definitely not the day we were looking for at Kansas Speedway with our FOCUSfactor Chevy. We were off in practice yesterday and made some adjustments to help today, but just never had a good handle on our Chevy. We started the day too tight, adjusted to then be too free.

“Had contact with a couple of other cars racing three-wide in stage two, and then the handling was just never where it needed to be. Not sure if we broke something when we made contact but struggled the rest of the race. We’ll go back to the shop, look over everything and refocus on Bristol next week.”

Top 10 Underdog Moments Since 2000 – No. 9

The 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway was once again a highly anticipated race with playoff implications. Superspeedways are the great equalizer in our sport, allowing underdogs to potentially upset the field. But the way it played out in 2019 even surpassed the level of the unexpected. 

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Playoff Drivers Continue Opening Round Woes at Kansas

As many Americans know, the weather in Florida is about as predictable as Daytona races. After the race was postponed from its original Saturday night slot to Sunday afternoon, ominous clouds once again threatened the race as the final stage began. On lap 119, the building tension snapped like a twig when contact between Austin Dillon and Clint Bowyer for the lead triggered a 17-car crash. 

Kurt Busch inherited the lead but immediately surrendered it after heading to pit road as the field got the one to go signal. That gave the lead to Haley, who was making just his third career Cup start. His lone lap led came under caution before a lightning hold forced the field to pit road. Another lightning hold followed by rain sealed the deal and handed Haley one of the biggest upset wins in history

Underdog Scheme of the Week

Ty Dillon’s car was not hard to miss this weekend. The teel No. 42 Sunseeker Resort Chevrolet brought a bit of the vacation relaxation vibe to Kansas, the first time Sunseeker sponsored the ride this season. Dillon finished a solid 20th, giving him five top 20s in the past six races, his second such stretch this season.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: KANSAS

About the author

Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.

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