Glendale’s Michael McDowell hopes to defend Daytona 500 championship with new team

Winning the Daytona 500 was a life-changing experience for Glendale’s Michael McDowell. He hopes to defend his title Sunday in the kickoff of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – For 13 years, Michael McDowell raced in the NASCAR Cup Series without a win. Despite three top five finishes and 12 top 10 finishes, the Glendale native never secured a much-coveted victory.

“For so long, I was just trying to win a race, and you didn’t want to do anything that was going to jeopardize your opportunity of winning the race, and I don’t think that was always the best decision making,” McDowell said.

He entered his 14th season last year at the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s most prestigious race of the season, with the same ambition of finally getting that race win.

McDowell led only one lap as day turned to night following a near six-hour rain delay.

It was the final lap, the most important one.

By crossing the finish line at the Daytona International Speedway first after 200 laps of racing, McDowell finally found his elusive first Cup Series race win. In the process, He joined an exclusive club of Daytona 500 winners.

McDowell became the 40th driver to win the Daytona 500. Among those 40, 17 of them are inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

He said that the moment eventually sank in during the morning following his victory The win opened his eyes to how impactful winning NASCAR’s season-opening race can be.

“We all know that’s the race you want to win, but from fans, viewership, sponsors, partners, it moves the needle,” McDowell said. “This is the race that moves the needle in all those categories. I knew that it was a big deal, but I had no idea of that ripple effect of winning the 500 of what that could look like for our partners and for our team and just everyone involved with it.”

McDowell eventually had a solid 2021 campaign that included a career-high five top 10 finishes.

He will look to repeat his Daytona 500 success on Sunday. However, the team around him and his car will look a lot different.

“There’s no secret at Front Row Motorsports,” McDowell said. “We seem to be a springboard or a stepping stone for some guys in the sport that get opportunities to move on to the Big Four.”

Those four teams – Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske – won 32 of 36 races last season.

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The crew chief who accompanied McDowell to last year’s Daytona 500 win, Drew Blickensderfer, left Front Row Motorsports in December. He eventually moved to one of the Big Four to become the crew chief of Aric Almirola’s team at Stewart-Haas Racing.

On Jan. 6, Blake Harris was announced as the new crew chief of the No. 34 team. Harris has a wealth of experience, including time spent with the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series championship-winning team at Joe Gibbs Racing with Martin Truex Jr.

McDowell said that he and Harris have had plenty of time to work together before the season begins on Sunday.

“In all the seasons that have changed, this is a good season just because of the fact that we’ve had a lot of tests,” McDowell said. “In the last five or six years, we haven’t had any testing. Even though we’re going into Daytona as our first race, we’ve done three tests together, the Clash and then headed into the Daytona 500.”

Those tests along with the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum back on Feb. 6 have Harris and McDowell already feeling familiar with each other.

“I don’t feel like I have a new crew chief at this point,” McDowell said. “I feel like I know him pretty well. He knows me pretty well.”

Even with new people around him, one thing remains true for McDowell. Daytona presents a quality chance to win, just like last year’s breakthrough.

Although the pressure of winning a race for the first time went away last year, McDowell said it does not fully disappear.

“I don’t want to say less pressure because the pressure is still on to win, but I feel like maybe it’s a little bit less pressure in the fact of you’re not worried about ‘if ‘I don’t do this just right’ or’ if I make this mistake, it can cost you,’” McDowell said.

Before the green flag waves to begin the 2022 Daytona 500 on Sunday afternoon and the pressure kicks in, McDowell will get a moment to relive his 2021 victory.

His 2021 Daytona 500 race-winning car has been displayed at the nearby Motorsports Hall of Fame of America for the last year. This weekend, McDowell and Front Row Motorsports will get the car back.

While McDowell said there has not been formal conversations about where the car will end up, he does have a pretty good idea of the car’s future home: Tennessee, the home of Bob Jenkins, the owner of Front Row Sports.

“He has put a lot of confidence and trust in me and gave me an opportunity when there wasn’t a lot there for me,” McDowell said of Jenkins, who gave McDowell a chance with Front Row Motorsports in 2018. “It feels great to be able to do that and to be a part of the program and help it grow. It is a special thing that him and I will both get to share forever.”

Nicholas Hodell Nick-o-lus ho-DELL (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Nicholas Hodell expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in community sports management. Hodell has interned with 98.7 Arizona Sports and contributes to Inferno Intel.