Chris Graythen | fake images
Road America has a special place in Michael McDowell’s heart. Just six years ago, he earned his first victory on a NASCAR national tour at the historic venue in an Xfinity Series race for Richard Childress Racing.
This year, McDowell returns to Road America with a lot of confidence. Through the opening 17 races of the 2022 Cup Series season, the 2021 Daytona 500 champion already has a career-high six top-10 finishes and is on pace to establish a new personal benchmark when it comes to best average finish, currently at 17.1.
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Many people in the garage may be surprised by McDowell’s success this year. But he’s not too far from where he anticipated running this season.
“I’ve been looking forward to this Next Gen car, and the reason I feel that way is that I felt really confident in what I was doing with the cars that we had and getting the most out of them and more than anything just confident with how it goes with everything,” McDowell said at a media availability on Wednesday. “I felt that we were going to be in a position to do what we are doing. It wasn’t a big shock for me.”
“I think what has been amazing has been his consistency. I knew there would be times where if we hit well and have all the same bits and pieces we could compete.”
The consistency has come to a variety of race tracks. The No. 34 team, led by first-year crew chief Blake Harris, backed up its victory in last season’s Daytona 500 by finishing seventh in the Great American Race this year. McDowell then spent two months before earning his second top-10 finish this Easter at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Race.
Including Bristol, McDowell has been on a hot streak, with five top-10 efforts in the last nine races. He was running inside the top 10 at Nashville before a late caution flew and dropped him to 13th in the order of finish. His other top 10s have come at Talladega, Darlington, Charlotte and Sonoma, while he also led a career-high 34 laps at Gateway.
“We’re covering them all and I think probably the most impressive thing is that we can do it more consistently now and the next step for us is to be able to do it this whole season, and that’s the question mark that we don’t know,” McDowell said. on your top 10. “I think we can, but the big teams always seem, in the past, to develop a little faster and a little more than the smaller teams.”
Jerry Freeze, general manager of Front Row Motorsports, says he’s pleased with McDowell’s on-track success. He recalls that McDowell emphasized this year, because the Next Gen car is likened to a sports car, where its driver is highly experienced.
“He kept telling us it was going to fit him because of his road racing background and maybe the new cars will align with some of that thinking with the transaxle and other components,” Freeze said in a statement to NASCAR.com.. “I don’t know if it’s been the whole reason for the success, but Michael enjoys this car and we really saw it in Sonoma. Hopefully we’ll see the same at Road America this weekend as well.”
The last time he was on a road course, McDowell had arguably the best streak of his career, being a mainstay inside the top five.
Entering the weekend 21st on the playoff grid and 97 points under the cutoff line, McDowell knows he will likely need a win in the next nine races to make the postseason. But don’t rule it out. In the Cup Series’ return to Road America last year, McDowell finished 30th, but in two road-course races this year in the Next Gen car, the No. 34 car has an average finish of eighth.
“Road America is my best track, so with how well we’ve been running and how well we’ve done at Sonoma, we have to highlight this as a weekend where we have to try and get a win,” McDowell said. . “But it’s not our only chance and that’s good. We’re not exactly where we need to be to be legitimate contenders to win every weekend on ovals, but we’re pretty close.”