Michael McDowell confident in Next Gen car, having best year yet
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
He won an Xfinity Series race driving for Richard Childress Racing in 2016 at Road America, so he knows he can get it done.
But he has a different feeling this year as the Cup Series heads to Road America this weekend. That’s because he is a threat to finish in the top 10 on ovals in addition to the road courses.
He finished third in the Cup race earlier this month at Sonoma, which followed top-10s at Darlington (seventh) and Charlotte (eighth) in May.
"Sonoma gave us a lot of confidence," McDowell said. "We were a couple changes away from being able to win that race at Sonoma, and so if we can take that and build on that and unload well at Road America, we'll have a shot at it."
McDowell has four top-10s in the past nine Cup races and sits 21st in the Cup standings. His average finish this season is 17.1, which puts him on pace for his first year with an average finish above 20th.
The Front Row Racing driver’s points standing is more a reflection of not earning stage points — he has earned points in just three of the 35 stages this year — than it is of not finishing in the top-20.
It is just another sign of steady progress for this team. Heading into the season, the team hoped that NASCAR’s new Next Gen car — and the requirement that teams purchase most of the parts and pieces from one single vendor instead of teams creating or obtaining their own parts and pieces — would create more parity.
"Last year, we started that trend and that momentum getting more 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 Blake and I have, we've been hitting on it.
"And I feel like we're in a good spot. It’s been a lot of fun. It's exciting to work really hard for a long time and finally get to be competitive week in and week out."
But McDowell’s team had a bit of adversity when crew chief Drew Blickensderfer left for Stewart-Haas Racing. Blake Harris, car chief for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr., joined the organization in January.
There have been races in which McDowell could have earned stage points, but the team pitted to make sure they had track position for the final stage. Some weeks, they haven’t qualified great, and they hang out between 10th and 20th for much of the early stages, and it takes a while to get inside the top 10.
"Michael's really good at conserving his stuff, not beating the car up, not knocking the wall down by trying to run the wall early on," Harris said. "So I think some of our finishes when we haven't had strong days have been a little bit due to attrition as well.
"That kind of all plays into why you don't see us stage-pointing as much as we do when we can finish well."
Is it just the Next Gen car that has increased the performance of the team?
"It can't just be that," McDowell said. "We were building toward this, running [in the] teens last year and maybe not getting as many top-10s and top-5s, but we were close to where we're at, just executing a bit better this year. There’s a lot of factors.
"We have really solid people with good Cup experience, and then the new car is just bringing the playing field closer together."
That performance (and now confidence) from Sonoma is the result from the new car. McDowell said no matter how good a driver anyone is, there is a limit to how much a driver can do when teams are all building the cars slightly differently, as was the case for many of the previous years.
"I always thought Sonoma would be the place where I would shine and stand out and never have run good there," McDowell said. "So with all the same brakes and all the same parts in our cars, holding about the same amount of lead, I did what I felt like I could do this whole time.
"In years past, going there with a car that holds 100 pounds [of adjustable weight] compared to the Hendrick cars that are holding 350 pounds, and [I’m] probably 300 pounds down on downforce and not as good of brakes, it doesn't matter how good of a road-course racer you are, you're not going to be able to keep up."
Now McDowell and his team can keep up, though they know they will still be underdogs.
"It's important to keep sight of where we're at," Harris said. "I don't want to pitch [that we’re] underfunded by any means, but we don't have the funding or the factory-backed support that your top-24 teams do.
"I still kind of stand by at any point when we're running inside the top 20, we’re beating a handful of guys that we probably shouldn't."
Part of that is McDowell and his 15 years of driving in Cup. Not all of those years were all that glamorous, as he had seasons when his primary goal was to qualify for a race and then park it early in the event to collect the purse money.
"Michael does a super good job of knowing and being really prepared of where the track is going to go, what adjustments, and I would say he’s a super-analytical guy," said rookie Todd Gilliland, McDowell’s teammate at Front Row. "I’m sure he knows his car in and out and could probably set it up by himself."
What McDowell knows is he is having a season to remember following a year in which he won the Daytona 500.
"I feel like the last five years we’ve been making good gains, and this is an extension of that," he said. "But [this is] definitely the best season I’ve had."
What to watch for
At 4.048 miles in length, Road America is the longest road course for NASCAR. 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 corners to get things done, it does mean strategies come into play as far as when to pit. Fuel mileage? Better not run out of fuel because it could be difficult to coast all the way to pit road.
It also means a long time under cautions for drivers and teams to determine strategy (and if you’re watching from home, time to go get something to eat or drink). That can be a good or bad thing, as teams could overthink their strategy. The vastness of the facility also can lead to radio communication issues.
Then there’s the challenge for NASCAR as the sanctioning body, as it uses cameras stationed around the track primarily to determine cautions — and its goal is that cautions are only one or two laps.
Thinking out loud
There will be a lot of chatter on whether Road America should remain on the Cup schedule as NASCAR looks to the possibility of a street course in Chicago. Given the proximity, it would make sense that if NASCAR wanted to add the Chicago street course, then Road America might be the one to get cut from the schedule.
But that’s a myopic view. The courses would be so different, with Road America having plenty of passing opportunities and long straightaways and a street course likely being a much more narrow circuit.
Road America on July 4 weekend seems to be a much better fit than racing in Chicago on July 4 weekend, when the disruption to those who stay in the city for the holiday and are not interested in the event might leave them with a sour taste.
The Wisconsin market should be viewed as an important one with many die-hard fans. At 1,600 campsites, no one should think Road America shatters any attendance records (you would need to average 30 people per campsite to have 48,000 people there), but the clusters of grandstands and people lining the course give it a great atmosphere, and the July 4 weekend is a perfect one to race at a track with limited corporate opportunities, as most corporate executives likely 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 at intermediate tracks? NASCAR can move a race from a venue with two events (Kansas? Richmond?) or possibly take a year off from Auto Club Speedway in California to begin the already delayed project of converting it to a half-mile (especially when the Clash will be back at the L.A. Coliseum next year).
If Road America comes off the schedule just because of the Chicago street course, that would be disappointing. If it comes off because, at 4.048 miles in length, the long caution 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 really hard to get. I don't take any of them for granted, so they're all big in my opinion. They're too hard to win to not appreciate them in a pretty high regard." — Chase Elliott after his win at Nashville
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!