LINCOLN, Ala. – In recent years, races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway have been viewed as wild-card events due to the unpredictability of the on-track action action. In practice, the superspeedway races aren’t necessarily that crazy and trends tend to develop over time.
A good example would be the RAD engine alliance between Richard Childress Racing, Andy Petree Racing and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the early 2000s. They dominated Daytona and Talladega because of their power.
Today, there are standout drivers at Daytona and Talladega, but their good form is mainly due to skill. One of those drivers is Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell. His only career NASCAR Cup Series victory came in last year’s Daytona 500, but he had been knocking on the door for years, even dating back to his time with Phil Parsons Racing.
“[Races at Daytona and Talladega] are a great opportunity,” McDowell told Frontstretch after the race. “Obviously, with the big pack and everyone bunched up, you have an opportunity to stay up front.”
Sunday was another example of that good form. Despite losing the draft in stage two with Austin Cindric, McDowell was able to race all the way up to a third-place finish. That marked McDowell’s third top five and fourth top 10 at Talladega. Career-wise, six of McDowell’s seven career top-five finishes have come at Daytona and Talladega, along with 12 of his top 10s.
Despite the third-place finish, it was clear that McDowell thought that he could get more. He was a little disappointed with himself after the race.
“[Ryan Blaney] and I did a good job of staying hooked up and had a big run [on the final restart],” McDowell said. “I needed to back up to [Denny Hamlin] a little bit quicker than I did. At the same time, I saw [Chase Elliott] wasn’t connected and I thought, ‘Man, if I could just stay on Blaney and get one more shove, we might be able to fight for [the win]. They were just able to get connected a little bit quicker than we were and regenerate the energy.
“It’s tough. We were close to having a shot at winning the race. To come out of Talladega with a top five and a clean car is a good day. Just disappointing. This was a great opportunity for us to win, but we came up a little bit short.”
It was not just McDowell that was flying the flag for Front Row Motorsports on Sunday. Rookie Todd Gilliland inserted his Georgia Peanuts Ford Mustang into the conversation regularly, running as high as third. Gilliland eventually had to settle for a sixth-place finish, but McDowell was impressed with his teammate’s form.
“Todd did a great job all day,” McDowell added. “He was up front all day in the top 10 and challenging up there. I was fighting hard to get back up there and finally did. I wish I could have gotten up in the same lane and we could have worked together, but [on] those last two restarts, [Gilliland] was in the opposite lane and we just weren’t able to get connected.
“It was a good day overall for Front Row [Motorsports]. Something to build on for sure.”
The whole season for McDowell has been something to build on. Sunday’s third-place finish was McDowell’s 12th top-10 finish of the year, a career best and constitutes nearly half of his 29 career top 10s. Through 31 races, McDowell is 23rd in points, including a 100-point deduction that was assessed when modified single-source parts were found on McDowell’s car after Pocono.
Since McDowell made the playoffs last year due to his win in the Daytona 500, he will not eclipse his 16th-place points finish this year. However, this is McDowell’s best year of his career. In addition to the 12 top-10 finishes, his average finish is currently 16th, a full 4.5 positions per race better than last year, which was already a personal best. Seeing the Front Row No. 34 in good position is no longer unusual.
Had that penalty not happened, he would be 19th in points, third-best among drivers without a victory. After 424 Cup starts, McDowell is moving into new territory.
“It’s been an incredible season for us,” McDowell said. “To run as well as we do, week in and week out, I’m really proud at what we’re building at Front Row [Motorsports]. Having said that, we’ve finished 11th the last two weeks, so you could have added two more [top 10s] to that.”
McDowell’s 12 top 10s are tied for 11th-most in the NASCAR Cup Series this year, equal to playoff contenders Hamlin, Alex Bowman and Daniel Suarez, along with Erik Jones. He is the only winless driver of the quintet. While McDowell’s expertise is Daytona, Talladega and road courses, five of those top 10s were not on those tracks. That includes top 10s in both Darlington Raceway events and a ninth-place finish on the dirt at Bristol Motor Speedway back in April.
About the author
Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.
Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.