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Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Indianapolis Motor Speedway
McDowell took unique, different route to NASCAR success

It’s no secret that the Road to Indy offers one of the best trails in American open-wheel racing. But Michael McDowell took that route to another destination: stock car racing.

The winner of the Daytona 500 in 2021, McDowell launched his professional racing career in what was then the Star Mazda Series, now known as Indy Pro 2000. McDowell has nine career wins at the top tier of the Road to Indy ladder system, including seven in 2004, when he also won the series championship.

At the time, McDowell dreamed of racing in the INDYCAR SERIES and even considered pursuing a Formula 1 career after racing on the international karting circuit. But ever the realist, the six-foot-tall McDowell knew he would struggle to fit into the cramped space of an F1 car, so he focused on North America’s premier open-wheel series.

McDowell raced a Road to Indy show in the 2003 and 2004 seasons which he dominated with wins at places like Sebring International Raceway, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Road America and more. It was a performance that earned him a spot in the Indy Pro 2000 Hall of Fame in 2013.

“My path from go-karts to formula cars has always been to drive open wheels and chase INDYCAR,” said McDowell. “I had a dominant year (in 2004). It was crazy. It was kind of the start of my career.”

McDowell realized his INDYCAR SERIES dream at age 20 with two Champ Car races in 2005. The opportunity came after Ryan Hunter-Reay and team owner Paul Gentilozzi split after 11 races into the season, creating an opening in the number 31 car.

McDowell drove that car at Surfers Paradise and Mexico City, where he finished best in 11th place in Mexico in a car that fielded a future Daytona 500 winner and a future Indianapolis 500 winner in the same season.

While trying to make a career out of open wheel racing, McDowell also raced sports cars in the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series. The same weekend he raced to his best open-wheel finish, McDowell took his first sports car win in Mexico City for Finlay Motorsports.

Still, McDowell wanted more of open-wheel racing or sports car racing, and neither could offer him what he was looking for. So the Phoenix native took the advice of Chip Ganassi Racing director Mike Hull and started pursuing stock car racing.

McDowell said he grew up as an INDYCAR fan and admittedly didn’t know much about NASCAR. But Hull saw potential in McDowell and put him in touch with Dodge’s development program, the manufacturer CGR was attuned to in NASCAR at the time.

“That’s the way it was with stock car racing,” said McDowell. “It was never really on the track and never really in the plan, but there just weren’t many opportunities (in open-wheel or sports cars). I felt like I was already committed to sports cars at the age of 19, I felt like I wasn’t giving myself a chance.”

It was just the shot McDowell needed. He started competing for Eddie Sharp in the ARCA Menards Series, scoring three top-10 finishes in five races in 2006. In 2007, he won four races, scored 11 top-five finishes and 15 top-10 finishes in 23 starts, earning Rookie of the Year honors.

The achievement was enough for Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing to bring him into the NASCAR Cup Series team for the 2008 season in the No. 00 Aaron’s Dream Machine. But the transition from open-wheel racing to stock cars was challenging for the relatively unknown driver.

McDowell arrived in NASCAR’s premier series with just one start in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and four in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Little was known about his single-seater background, and McDowell said that was intentional.

Some of McDowell’s counterparts in sports car racing had been involved in NASCAR. They advised him to keep his background in open wheel racing and sports cars to himself, fearing that he would be labeled an outsider and put in a position where he was just another “ringer” on the road.

“(They told me) if you want to make it your profession, you have to belong,” McDowell said. “So when I went to ARCA I didn’t talk about my story, my history or races that I had won or championships or where I came from. Nobody asked, and nobody cared. That was the intention, because I just wanted to be a driver.

“I didn’t want to be known as an open wheel guy or a sports car guy trying to make it in stock cars and have that label. I kind of went under the radar. I didn’t try to make a big show of it. I haven’t done much self-promotion. I just went in there and raced and tried to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. †

McDowell said the transition from open-wheel to stock cars was like starting over in his racing career. As seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion and NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver Jimmie Johnson has learned, it was more about breaking bad habits that worked well in one discipline but not another.

Ironically, the part of stock car racing that has been the biggest challenge for McDowell to pick up has been restrictor plate racing at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, forcing drivers to race in large groups without letting go of the throttle.

“When I first ran Daytona and Talladega, I thought it was the dumbest thing ever,” he said. “You’re wide open, three-and-four. I didn’t even know what to do. You never pass, you are stuck next to someone. It was the strangest thing for me. So far out of my element. I was completely new to it. I hated it.”

McDowell soon discovered that there was a very specific style to this type of racing, and he noticed that a few drivers always seemed to be in the race. So McDowell used his background in Champ Car and GRAND-AM to learn how to succeed at Daytona and Talladega.

McDowell, 37, said drivers in open-wheel and sports cars are taught to be highly data-driven, understand the technology and study the car’s telemetry. He said the technical aspect taught him how to become a superspeedway racing student.

He watched videos, studied data and paid close attention to the drivers who excelled on the high-banked racetracks. McDowell said it was the way he nearly qualified last for speed in an underfunded car and turned it from a top-10 finish at Daytona for a year.

Still, the Front Row Motorsports driver struggled to turn his superspeedway talents into a win. Finally, he realized that he had to run his own race and not worry about the drivers around him.

Last year McDowell finished third on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in the number 34 yellow car, behind leader Joey Logano and second place Brad Keselowski.

Team Penske’s then teammates went down at Turn 3 on the final lap, and there was McDowell, riding through the smoke in the exact position he needed to take the first win of his career on NASCAR’s biggest podium.

“(Being a Daytona 500 champion) is awesome,” said McDowell. “It is very worthwhile because of the journey. The journey took a lot of time and a lot of struggle, so it’s worth having won the greatest race in our sport. †

That Daytona 500 win was kind of a career rejuvenation. The win put him in the NASCAR Playoffs, earning his best finish in the championship in 16th place. In 2022, McDowell will have had a career year.

During the first half of the season, he has finished in the top 10 six times and one in the top five, the last at the Sonoma Raceway road course in June.

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