When looking back on Michael McDowell‘s NASCAR career, it‘s hard to put a label on it. For so long, he was known as the driver who escaped a frightening qualifying crash at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008, driving as a rookie for Michael Waltrip Racing.
That title changed in 2021, when McDowell made a last-lap pass to win the Daytona 500. He will forever be known as a Daytona 500 champion.
But the decade-plus in between was a roller coaster of a ride. In all eight of his Cup Series starts in 2009, he start-and-parked for Tommy Baldwin Racing. When 2010 arrived, he failed to finish 23 of his 24 starts, with 22 of them being start-and-park rides. Same song, different verse in 2011, as there were three races he competed the majority of the race in, but one of those was replacing Kyle Busch at that same Texas track he wrecked at, as Busch was suspended for an incident in the Craftsman Truck Series race that weekend.
Aside from his rookie campaign with MWR that consisted of 20 races, McDowell failed to finish 111 of his next 127 Cup Series starts through the 2013 season. But it‘s those moments that made McDowell thrive. While it might not have looked like it from the outside, everything was on the line for him.
“If you miss the race, you didn‘t get paid,” McDowell told Jayski.com, reflecting back on his career. “I felt like my neck for my family was on the line to be able to provide. Those were high pressure, very intense situations. They weren‘t just showing up and having fun. Making the race was important and it taught me a lot.”
On a personal level, McDowell believes those years were “some of the greatest years” of his life. He had to work on himself outside of the racecar, something he wasn‘t akin to in the past.
“So much of my entire life has been wrapped up in performance from the time I was a little kid racing,” McDowell said. “Your identity can be easily wrapped up in performance, and when you‘re in a situation where you cannot perform to the level that you want to, you have no choice but to find and figure out who you are, what makes you tick and what‘s important.”
With no education, McDowell only had jobs in motorsports to make a living. Aside from being a driver, he‘s also served as a driving coach and instructor, both of which are part of racing. He had nothing to fall back on and knew somehow he needed to find a way to stick around the sport.
“That was a character shaping period of my life, but it also prepared me for a lot of different elements,” he said. “Would I do it over again? Nope, I would get in the 48 or the 22 and win races and win championships; that‘s what I would want to do. But you don‘t get that opportunity, so you have to make the most of whatever is in front of you. I felt like staying in the sport, staying in the game was my best opportunity to be able to do what I dreamed of doing.”
McDowell did make occasional starts in the Xfinity Series, and even won in his last race in 2016 at Road America for Richard Childress Racing. He found additional work within the industry, as he was one of the primary testing drivers for Team Penske. Much of his input was put into Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano‘s racecars, helping them run up front.
That gave him fulfillment.
“Even though I wasn‘t out there winning the race, when Joey and Brad unloaded and they qualified on the pole and won the race at Phoenix, I felt a lot of satisfaction in that because I know that I spent three days in the offseason preparing for that moment,” McDowell said.
Life changed for McDowell when he moved to Leavine Family Racing for the 2014 season. The team competed in just over half of the races, but he scored his first top-10 finish at Daytona, finishing seventh. In 2016, he ran 31 races, and picked up a pair of top 10s, including his first on a non-superspeedway at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Despite having a consistent 2017 season, McDowell‘s first year that he competed in all 36 races, he was bounced out of the No. 95 car and replaced by veteran driver Kasey Kahne. He made the switch over to Front Row Motorsports to pilot the No. 34 car, which had won two previous races at the Cup Series level with David Ragan and Chris Buescher.
Immediate success was had, as McDowell finished ninth in his first start with the team at Daytona. But the No. 34 car went without a top 10 the rest of the year, and McDowell finished 26th in the championship standings. McDowell continued to prove relevance on superspeedways in 2019, picking up top five finishes at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway.
But 2020 was McDowell‘s breakout season to that point. He had four top 10s, all on different tracks. That‘s what got the ball rolling into making Front Row a contending team.
“I think that momentum shift started in 2020,” McDowell said. “That was the year that we started making good progress, not just result wise, but at the shop in process and procedures and all of those things.”
What got McDowell gitty was the introduction of the Next Gen car. With the chassis being constructed more like a sports car, he believed he would have instant success. And he did, as 2022 stands as his best season to date, picking up a career-high 12 top 10s and 67 laps led, with an average finish of 16.7.
All that leads to 2023, where McDowell finds himself five races away from pointing himself and Front Row Motorsports into the playoffs. With Daniel Suarez having a difficult race at Pocono Raceway last weekend, McDowell added a cushion, now 17 points above the cutline. Should there be a new winner below the cutline, however, the No. 34 team could be in trouble.
“I‘m thinking about where we‘re at, but I‘m not worried about it because I know that [five] races in our sport is an eternity and so much can happen in those weeks,” McDowell said. “You just have to focus on the week that is in front of you, the race that‘s in front of you, a qualifying session and make the most of every single lap and session that you can get. It‘s going to stack up how it stacks up.”
With upcoming races at the Indianapolis road course, Watkins Glen International and Daytona to close the regular season, McDowell is confident with how the end of the regular season pans out. He needs to get through this weekend at Richmond Raceway and next week at Michigan International Speedway with as little damage done as possible. In 40 combined starts at those two tracks, he has just one top 10, coming earlier this season at Richmond.
With McDowell‘s success, there has been some noise within the industry of him potentially moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2024, should Aric Almirola decide to retire. McDowell said his focus is elsewhere, getting the No. 34 team into the postseason.
“It‘s awesome, humbling and rewarding,” McDowell said, regarding his name being in conversation with bigger teams. “It‘s nice to be in those conversations, even if those conversations aren‘t happening. It‘s funny to hear the chatter about a lot of those things. It‘s rewarding, but I just don‘t think about that a lot.”
McDowell doesn‘t have an ideal timeframe of what his plans are for the 2024 season. While competing for Front Row, more times than not, he hasn‘t known until the offseason whether he would be returning to the team for the following season.