Through Bob Pokrassen
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
Michael McDowell was always a threat on road courses no matter what car he drove NASCAR Cup Series†
He won an Xfinity Series race for Richard Childress Racing in 2016 at Road America, so he knows he can pull it off.
But this year he has a different feeling as the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Road America this weekend. And that’s because he poses a threat to finish in the top-10 on ovals in addition to the road course.
He finished third in the Cup race in Sonoma earlier this month, following the top-10 in May in Darlington (seventh) and Charlotte (eighth).
“Sonoma gave us a lot of confidence,” said McDowell. “We were a few changes away from winning that race in Sonoma, so if we can take that and build on that and unload well at Road America, we’ll have a shot.”
McDowell has four top-10s in the past nine Cup races and is 21st in the Cup standings. His average finish this season is 17.1, which gets him up to speed for his first year where his average finish is above 20th.
The Front Row Racing driver’s scoring is more a reflection of not getting stage points – he’s earned points in just three of 35 stages this year – than of not finishing in the top 20.
Michael McDowell on success in 2022
Prior to the Nashville race, Michael McDowell had five top-10s in the previous eight races. He discusses how he earns those finishes while not finishing in the top-10 in most early stages.
It’s just another sign of steady progress for this team. Heading into the season, the team had hoped that NASCAR’s new Next Gen car—and the requirement for teams to purchase most parts and parts from a single supplier rather than teams that make or source their own parts and parts—have more parity. would create.
“Last year we started that trend and that momentum continued to gain top-10s, running well,” said McDowell, who won the 2021 Daytona 500. “And then this year, with this Next Gen car and just the chemistry that Blake and I have, we hit it off.
“And I feel like we’re in a good place. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s exciting to work really hard for a long time and finally be competitive week in, week out.”
But McDowell’s team had some setbacks when crew chief Drew Blickensderfer left for Stewart-Haas Racing. Blake Harris, car chief for Martin Truex Jr. of Joe Gibbs Racing, joined the organization in January.
There have been races where McDowell could have earned stage points, but the team went to the pits to make sure they had track position for the final stage. Some weeks they haven’t qualified great, and they spend most of the early stages hanging around between the 10th and 20th, and it takes a while to get into the top 10.
“Michael is really good at keeping his stuff, not hitting the car, not knocking over the wall by trying to hit the wall early on,” said Harris. “So I think some of our finishes, when we haven’t had strong days, are also a bit due to attrition.
“That all plays into the reason why you don’t see us pointing to the podium as often as when we can finish well.”
So is it just the Next Gen car that improved the team’s performance?
“It can’t be just that,” McDowell said. “We were building here, running” [in the] teenagers last year and maybe not as many top-10s and top-5s, but we were close to where we are now, just a little bit better this year. There are many factors.
“We have really solid people with good Cup experience, and then the new car just brings the playing field closer together.”
That performance (and now confidence) from Sonoma is the result of the new car. McDowell said no matter how good a driver is, there is a limit to how much a driver can do when teams are all building the cars slightly differently, as has been the case in many of the previous years.
McDowell believes Next Gen drives better in traffic
Michael McDowell averages a top-20 finish for the first time in his career. He explains why that’s important to him and why he thinks these cars are better in traffic than in the past.
“I always thought that Sonoma would be the place where I would shine and stand out, and I would never have been good there,” McDowell said. “So with all the same brakes and the same parts in our cars, with about the same amount of lead, I did what I felt I could do all the time.
“Went there in the last few years with a car weighing 100 pounds [of adjustable weight] compared to the Hendrick cars that carry 350 pounds and [I’m] probably 300 pounds less downforce, and not as good at braking – no matter how good a racer you are on the road, you won’t be able to keep up.”
Now McDowell and his team can keep up, even though they know they will still be underdogs.
“It’s important to keep an eye on where we are,” Harris said. “I don’t want to pitch” [that we’re] underfunded in any way, but we don’t have the funding or factory backed support that your top 24 teams have.
“I’m still a little ready if we run in the top-20, we beat a handful of guys that we probably shouldn’t have.”
Part of that is McDowell and his 15 years riding in Cup. Not all of those years were so glamorous, as McDowell had seasons where his primary goal was to qualify for a race and then park it early in the event to collect the scholarship money.
“Michael knows very well where the track is going and what adjustments, and I’d say he’s a super analytical guy,” said rookie Todd Gilliland, McDowell’s teammate at Front Row. “I’m sure he knows his car inside out and can probably set it up himself.”
What McDowell knows is that he has a season to remember after a year of winning the Daytona 500.
“I feel like we’ve had good gains in the last five years, and this is an extension of that,” said McDowell. “But [this is] definitely the best season I’ve had.”
What should you pay attention to?
At 4,048 miles in length, Road America is the longest race track for NASCAR. And that means a “short” race in terms of laps. The stages are 15 laps, 15 laps and then 32 laps on the Cup side.
While there are plenty of angles to get things done, it does mean that strategies come into play until when you need to pit. Fuel mileage? It is better not to run out of fuel as it can be difficult to drive all the way to the pit lane.
It also means a long time under warnings for drivers and teams to set strategy (and if you’re watching from home, time to get something to eat or drink). That can be a good thing or a bad thing because teams can rethink their strategy. The vastness of the facility can also lead to problems with radio communications.
And then there’s the challenge for NASCAR as a sanctioning body, as it uses cameras stationed around the track primarily to identify warnings — and the goal is for warnings to be just one or two laps.
Thinking out loud
There will be a lot of talk about whether Road America should remain on the Cup schedule as NASCAR looks at the possibility of a street course in Chicago.
A few hours apart, it seems logical that if NASCAR wanted to add the Chicago street track, Road America might be the one to be dropped from the schedule.
But that’s a nearsighted picture. The tracks would be so different as Road America has a lot of overtaking opportunities and long straights, while a street track will probably be a much narrower track.
And Road America’s weekend on July 4 seems to be a much better fit than racing in Chicago on July 4, when the disruption for those staying in town for the holidays and not interested in the event can leave them with a sour taste.
The Wisconsin market should be considered an important one as those are the diehard fans of NASCAR. At 1,600 campgrounds, no one should think Road America is shattering all attendance records (you’d need an average of 30 people per campground to even have 48,000). But the clusters of grandstands and then people lining the track give it a great atmosphere, and the 4th of July weekend is perfect for racing on a circuit with limited business opportunities, as most corporate executives probably don’t want to travel.
If NASCAR wants to take away a road course, why not put the Indianapolis Motor Speedway race back on the oval, especially since the Next Gen car seems to race better on intermediate tracks? NASCAR can move a race from a two-event venue (Kansas? Richmond?) back to the LA Coliseum next year).
If Road America comes off the schedule just because of the Chicago street track, that would be disappointing. If it works out because the long 4,048-mile warning flags make it a frustrating show and/or NASCAR just wants a race with more laps, that would at least be more understandable.
They said it
“Every win is important and special to me because they’re very hard to get. I don’t take them for granted, so they’re all great in my opinion. They’re too hard to win not to appreciate them quite highly.” † Chase Elliot after his win in Nashville
Bob Pockrass has devoted decades to motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 after stints with ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bob pokras† Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
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