HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — After Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500 to open the NASCAR Cup Series season, many people expected him to have a surge in confidence.
However, McDowell took that wave of momentum and has carried it forward to three top-10 finishes in three races, one of the most prolific stretches in the history of Front Row Motorsports.
It has been one of the feel-good stories of the NASCAR Cup Series season, and the journeyman driver from Glendale, Ariz., shows few signs of slowing down.
He recorded a sixth-place finish last Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Asked this week on a media conference call if his run of success was due to better cars, better engines or a rise in confidence, McDowell smiled and shook his head before responding.
“None of the above. I think that it’s a combination of different things and one of those things is that we ran fairly well last year at Homestead,” McDowell tipped. “We had a top-15 car and were able to come back with something very similar with a few adjustments. I think the competition has actually come back toward us. My guys have done a great job. We’ve made our cars a little bit lighter, (added) a little bit more downforce and we’ve made some small gains, but I don’t feel like we’ve done anything different or special as far as engines and chassis and all those things. We’re still getting the same equipment that we got last year.
“I feel like we’re executing better and I feel like starting up front helps a tremendous amount,” McDowell noted. “When you start 25th or 30th, it’s hard to dig yourself out of that hole, so I think that the track position helped us early on. Obviously, we had a car capable of it, but I think there’s a lot of factors to it. We didn’t go out and buy new chassis and buy new cars and have a bunch of new parts and pieces. We’re running the same stuff we ran last year; it’s just that our guys have done a good job of making it a little bit faster and a little bit better.
“And I do feel like (Scott Miller and Jay Fabian) cracking down on some of the shenanigans going on has helped close the gap for us.”
McDowell’s smile was unmistakable in advance of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was the look of someone finally understanding what it’s like to run at the head of the pack in the top level of stock car racing after years of effort and heartache.
“It feels great. It’s very rewarding, in particular last week at Homestead,” said McDowell. “It was an awesome team performance, not just on-track, but even our pit stops were good. We came in in the top 10 and left in the top 10 and even gained a couple spots; there’s so much to having good on-track performance. It was just nice to have one of those days where it was all there.
“We had a fast car. We executed well. The strategy was good. The pit stops were good. Not that it was easy, but it was a pretty smooth day altogether and it was a special day for me,” he continued. “I know coming off the 500 it’s hard to compare to that, but to run how we ran at Homestead was very rewarding for us.”
With a win already in hand, McDowell knows his No. 34 Ford team will compete in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs later this year. It’s a new position for McDowell, who fought for many years just to survive in the sport and make a name for himself.
Considering he’ll be going into uncharted waters in the fall, McDowell admitted his expectations for the future are still unclear. He’s just trying to enjoy the moment.
“You always want to have goals and you always want to have something that you’re trying to achieve, and we have achieved that already, so what does it look like next? I’m not exactly sure what the expectation looks like, but I think the approach and the mentality stays the same, and our approach has always just been to fight hard and give it everything you have,” McDowell said. “I don’t know how we’ll be at Vegas and I don’t know how we’ll be at Phoenix. I would love to be the guy that comes on here and says, ‘Yeah, we’re legit. We’re going to win five races this year and contend for the title,’ but I don’t know that to be true yet.
“What I do know is that we’re going to fight our guts out and we’ll see where we end up, because I don’t know,” he added. “We don’t know whether we’ll have the speed that we did at Homestead or if we’re going to run 20th, but we’ll fight hard and keep pushing at the shop and at the track to keep moving in a good direction. I think that will pay off, but I really can’t tell you where I think we’re at right now.”
Whether more successes like what McDowell is experiencing now are ahead is still to be seen, but he did make one thing clear: he’s having the time of his life and plans to enjoy it while it lasts.
“It’s a fun time to be at Front Row Motorsports. We’re all enjoying it and it’s a tremendous team effort,” said McDowell. “Everybody has worked really hard in all the departments and in all the areas we can to get us to where we’re at.”