PHOENIX – Despite driving for a smaller NASCAR team, Glendale’s Michael McDowell understands his significance to the Arizona racing community.
“I used to not think about it very much when I was young,” McDowell said. “Like it doesn’t matter where you’re from because it’s where you are now and all that. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that … other than (Alex) Bowman, there (are) only two guys from Arizona in the sport. So that is kind of a badge of honor, right?
“If you think about all the drivers just in Arizona that would love to be in my spot that grew up racing at Canyon and Manzanita and the go-kart track there … you’re carrying the torch for them and that’s pretty neat.”
Although his spot is exhilarating and allows him to drive in the most-popular racing circuit in the United States, it sometimes isn’t rewarding. McDowell drives the No. 34 Ford Mustang for low-budget Front Row Motorsports in a sport dominated by big-budget teams, including Penske, Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. It makes sense – those teams usually can place the best engines in their cars, have the best pit crews and the most talented drivers.
Every so often, however, a driver for one of the smaller teams on the circuit cracks the code and ends up in the front of the pack of big-name drivers and teams.
This is the case for McDowell, a 13-year veteran of the NASCAR Cup Series.
McDowell, who bounced around between smaller teams during his career and before 2020, never had more than two top-10 finishes in a season. However, in 2020, the race weeks changed, allowing McDowell to have the most successful year of his career.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams just showed up to the tracks and raced. There was no practice or qualifying. Big-name drivers, such as Kyle Busch, could not go out for practice and come back into the garage to have their teams tinker with the car until it was a perfect racing machine.
Unlike Matt DiBenedetto, another smaller-team driver who said no practices in 2020 hurt him in races, McDowell said the lack of qualifying, practice and tinkering the big teams were able to do allowed him to narrow the gap and have a career-year with four top-10 finishes and a career-high 20.9 average finish.
“Typically you would think that the smaller teams … that the practice would help them because they would need to figure out their setups and their heights and all that,” McDowell said. “But what we found is our team is actually really good with simulation and our engineering is good. And we were able to unload and be competitive. And so that was eye-opening to us, just the fact that we can without practice, do as well as we did.”
In 2021, NASCAR will still have minimal qualifying and practice. Just eight races on the schedule will have practice and qualifying. Also, the development of parts and chassis on cars has been stopped due to NASCAR debuting the Next Gen car in 2022. This element of the 2021 season gives McDowell hope he can accomplish even more this year and close the competition divide even further.
“I feel like we made some big gains over the last three years and last year being probably the biggest,” McDowell said. “And so what makes me optimistic about 2021 is that NASCAR sort of put a freeze on development of parts and chassis and things like that because the new Next Gen car is coming. And so a lot of what teams had last year, they’ll have again this year. And teams are always making improvements and making things faster and lighter and better. But we were able to catch up a little bit to the competition last year I feel like so we should still be fairly close when we start here in 2021.”
Another reason McDowell is excited about the 2021 season is the number of road courses the Cup Series will run this year. Last year, the series competed at two road courses. This year, drivers will head to seven separate road courses which is music to the ears of crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and McDowell, who finished No. 10 at the Daytona Road Course last season.
“The fact there (are) more road courses, that obviously is a big advantage to us,” Blickensderfer said. “ … Adding a few more road courses, us getting our program better at all the bread and butter-type mile and a half racetracks, I think … we can take advantage of some people again this year like we did last year.”