Michael McDowell has become a household name in racing circles since winning the 2021 Daytona 500, but the underdog driver’s normal, everyday life hasn’t changed all that much.
Michael McDowell, NASCAR’s hottest driver, still takes his kids to school every day. He still works out every day and hones his driving skills on the Ford racing simulator each week. He even still drives his own motor coach to the track for most races.
“I hate to say it like this, but my life hasn’t changed a whole lot since winning the 500,” Michael McDowell says. “I mean, it’s been very exciting and it’s been busy and (I’m) very thankful to win the race and to have all the things that come with it, but as far as your actual life, it doesn’t change. … I’m still doing all the things you normally do, it’s just that you’ve got a win sticker on your car, you’re locked into the playoffs and you’ve got an awesome trophy at the house.”
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Some things have changed, though. Michael McDowell drove for 13 seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series before scoring his first career victory in the Daytona 500. In 357 career starts, he had just three top-five and 12 top-10 finishes before this season. Now suddenly he has three straight top-10s and is fourth in the NASCAR Cup standings after three races.
Despite driving for the same team and having the same cars and equipment as last season, Michael McDowell and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team have made small improvements to their cars and are executing much better. He’s also taking advantage of the momentum from his monumental win at Daytona, which has led to better starting positions each week, and of NASCAR’s move to tighten its technical restrictions in an effort to level the playing field.
“We’re running the same stuff we ran last year, it’s just our guys have done a good job of making it a little bit faster, a little bit better, and feel like cracking down on some of the shenanigans going on has helped close the gap for us," Michael McDowell said.”
Michael McDowell earning respect from peers
What has changed is the way he’s being raced by his peers. After years of battling near the rear of the field with small, underfunded teams, Michael McDowell is suddenly running up front, and rival drivers are taking notice.
“Guys aren’t used to necessarily me being up there all the time, and so that made it a little bit different racing a lot of the guys that typically don’t race the 34 and I don’t typically race,” Michael McDowell said. “There was some getting used to each other ... but, for me, the race was kind of the same. You’re trying to get every spot that you can, whether it’s the 2 that you’re trying to pass or the 43. It doesn’t matter which car it is, you’re just trying to get around them and next car, next car, next car, you just keep pushing.”
There are some drivers, though, who are surprised to see Michael McDowell running up front and are not yet paying him the respect he believes he deserves. He declined to name names but said he noticed that during his sixth-place finish at Homestead last week.
“I won’t throw out names because I don’t want to turn it into that, but I literally saw a driver wave another driver by, and then race me for the next seven laps like it was the last lap,” Michael McDowell said. “There are top guys that don’t want to be passed by the 34, and I get it, I understand that because they think that they’re having a really bad day if the 34 is going around them. On the flip side, I somewhat deserve it because I race the guts out of everybody and always have."
While his Daytona 500 victory was a huge surprise, Michael McDowell and his team were not shocked because they have run well in recent years on restrictor-plate tracks. Michael McDowell is also an accomplished road racer, with his only career Xfinity Series win coming on a road course, so his eighth-place run on the Daytona Road Course was also not a shock.
His most impressive performance so far might have been running in the top 10 all day at Homestead. His top-10 finish, he said, was “very rewarding.”
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“It was, overall, an awesome team performance, not just on-track, but even our pit stops were good,” Michael McDowell said. “We came in in the top 10 and left in the top 10 and even gained a couple spots, so there’s so much to having good on-track performance, and it was just nice to have one of those days where it was all there. We had a fast car. We executed well. The strategy was good. The pit stops were good. Not that it was easy, but it was a pretty smooth day altogether and it was a special day for me. I know coming off the 500 it’s hard to compare to that, but to run how we ran at Homestead it was a very rewarding race for us.”
Now Michael McDowell must face another big change — expectations. Though he’s locked into a playoff spot (as long as he remains in the top 30 in points), he is now in position to finish the regular season in the top 15, or even top 10, in points.
That’s uncharted territory for a driver who has never finished better than 23rd in points.
“I haven’t been in this spot before, so you’re trying to process that,” Michael McDowell said. “You always want to have goals and you always want to have something that you’re trying to achieve, and we have. We have achieved that already, so what does it look like next? I’m not exactly sure what the expectation looks like, but I think the approach and the mentality stays the same, and our approach has always just been to fight hard, give it everything you have, and if that’s 20th, then you fight as hard as you can to make sure you get a 20th or better.”
What does he expect the rest of the season? He has no idea.
“I would love to be the guy that … sort of everybody wants to be like, ‘Yeah, we’re legit. We’re gonna win five races this year and we’re gonna contend for the championship,’” he said. “I don’t know that to be true, but I do know we’re gonna fight our guts out and we’ll see where we end up because I don’t know.”