What’s an aspiring Sprint Cup racer supposed to do when he gets the call from Joe Gibbs Racing?
Take it. And that’s precisely what Michael McDowell did.
McDowell, 26, will replace Kyle Busch at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Busch was parked by NASCAR after an altercation Friday with Ron Hornaday during the truck race.
“JD (Gibbs, president of JGR) called and said, ‘Be here in the morning,’ ” McDowell said. “Not a lot of time to figure things out.”
McDowell has had an exceptional run when subbing for JGR in the Nationwide Series this season. In five Nationwide starts in the Gibbs No. 18 Toyota, McDowell has one pole with an average start of 5.2, one top-five finish, four top 10s and an average of 8.2. He’s led 66 laps and completed 100 percent of laps raced.
“We felt like with such short notice, we like him a lot, we think he’s a great person," owner Joe Gibbs said. "So, he was kind of a natural choice for us.”
For McDowell, who has barely warmed the seat of the No. 66 Sprint Cup start-and-park special owned by Phil Parsons, there hasn’t been much of a chance to show what he’s capable of considering the team has only gone the distance in two of 27 races this year — Martinsville I and Infineon Raceway.
McDowell was scheduled for a similar limited run Sunday. Now, Josh Wise will fill the No. 66 seat. Still, McDowell is grateful for the track time.
“The plan for this weekend wasn’t for me to run too many laps in the 66 car,” McDowell said. “I want to thank Phil Parsons and all my guys in the 66 car. It’s hard to come in the morning of and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a better opportunity.’ They were very understanding of the situation.
“It’s an awesome opportunity for me. I’m going to go out and have a lot of fun, maximize the opportunity and know I didn’t do anything to really deserve it. I just got the phone call. I feel very fortunate and very blessed to get the opportunity.”
The No. 18 team scrambled Saturday morning to put inserts in Busch’s seat for McDowell since practice started at 8:45 CT. The team replaced seats after the final practice. But McDowell said he “was comfortable” in the car.
“We had to work on it a little bit because every driver likes a little different feel,” McDowell said.
McDowell, who will have to start from the back of the pack because of the driver change, posted the 29th-fastest lap in Happy Hour (182.890 mph) but had the 25th-best, 10-consecutive-lap average.
Still, considering that McDowell was working as a driving instructor at the Bondurant school seven years ago, the Glendale, Ariz., native will make the most of his break Sunday. In 81 career Cup starts, McDowell’s best finish is 20th at Richmond in 2008.
“For sure this is by far the best opportunity I’ve had,” McDowell said. “It’s cool to see how these things work out. Like I said, I didn’t do anything to deserve this ride. I just happened to be here. This kind of answers the question of why do you show up and start-park every weekend. This is why I do it. I’m here so if an opportunity like this ever comes up, I’m fresh and I’ve had seat time and I’ve been on th track that weekend.
“I’m dying for an opportunity like this. Unfortunate circumstances and I feel definitely sorry for everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing for having to go through it, but I’m just going to capitalize on the opportunity and get the best finish I can.”
While McDowell isn’t a household name — yet — his flip during qualifying in 2008 between Turns 1 and 2 was one for the highlight real.
Nevertheless, McDowell “loves Texas."
“You can’t hit any harder than I’ve hit at Texas so it definitely doesn’t scare me,” McDowell said. “And to walk away from an accident like that is nothing short of miraculous. Last night I was talking to somebody and I said I feel like Texas kind of owes me something a little bit. And then this morning with everything that’s going on I’m like, ‘Man, this is my opportunity to go show what I can do.’
“A lot of that stems from the opportunity I had at Joe Gibbs Racing with the 18 Nationwide car. Jumping in Kyle’s car is a sweet transition for us. I’m very fortunate and thank God for the opportunity and hopefully I’ll make the best of it.”