Journeyman’s Journey Takes Him To Victory Lane At Daytona

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 15 2021

Michael McDowell celebrates his first ever Cup Series victory. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – During Michael McDowell’ childhood the Arizona native dreamed of becoming a race car driver, but the 36-year-old NASCAR competitor never thought about being a Daytona 500 champion. 

However, that is now the title that will forever be by his name. Darting through a last lap, multi-car crash in the wee hours of Monday morning, McDowell snapped his 357-race winless streak and became the eighth driver to record his first NASCAR Cup victory in the prestigious event.

“To get my first Cup win at Daytona is just unbelievable,” McDowell said. “I’m just so thankful, thankful for everybody that has allowed me to do it. There were lots of years when I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it.”  

 McDowell’s NASCAR journey has been a difficult one. He made his NASCAR Cup debut in 2008 with Michael Waltrip Racing, but then lost his ride that same year. 

“When I lost my job at MWR that was pretty hard to overcome just because I was a young guy that came into NASCAR with not a lot of experience,” McDowell said. “I never ran truck. I never ran Xfinity. I ran one season of ARCA with some success. I got picked up by MWR, a new manufacturer, and it just didn’t work out. So it’s hard to rebound from something like that.”

McDowell stepped back to Xfinity with Tad Geschickter and JTG. The team ran well, but then halfway through the season the funding evaporated. He then became a journeyman driver, often running start-and-park cars. 

“When you show up to the race track knowing you’re not going to race, it’s hard,” McDowell admitted. “I did whatever I could during those start-and-park days.”

That included working on race cars daily at Phil Parsons’ shop, driving Trevor Bayne’s motorcoach and serving as a driver coach. 

“My wife (is) more realistic and she’s like, ‘Man, I don’t think it’s in the cards,’” said McDowell, who noted that not having his family with him to celebrate was the toughest part about winning during the pandemic.

“For whatever reason … I’m like, ‘It’s going to happen. I just know it is. I never lost hope. God just has a plan for each of us, and I just never felt like it was time … for me to quit. I just always felt like there’s a win on the horizon, and you’ve just got to keep grinding it out.”

  In 2014, Leavine Family Racing tagged McDowell as its driver, but it was 2017 before he finally got a full NASCAR Cup season under his belt. In 2018, McDowell found his current home with Bob Jenkins’ Front Row Motorsports. Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, who hadn’t visited victory lane since 2011, joined him the following year. 

“He’s a great guy, super loyal, super honest,” Blickensderfer said about McDowell. “That’s the reason I came to work for him. I liked his honesty and his ability to say, you tell me what you think I need to be doing. He knows at the end of the day no matter what the spotter says to him, the owner or I say to him, it’s for the better good of the 34 car. He doesn’t wear his ego on his sleeve. He’s fun to work with.”

McDowell recruited Blickensderfer after Carl Edwards recommended his former crew chief to his friend. 

“I made the move to Front Row Motorsports because of Michael McDowell and because of Bob Jenkins,” Blickensderfer said. “I saw what they wanted to build and I wanted to be part of that.”

In Sunday’s Daytona 500, McDowell often ran in the top 10. In the 14-car crash on lap 14 his Ford received two flat tires and a flattened right side. However, after a more than five-hour rain delay, McDowell’s Ford performed flawlessly. He ended Stage 2 in seventh and was sitting third when the final stage began. McDowell pitted with the rest of the front-running Fords when they made their final stop with about 30 laps remaining and Blickensderfer knew they were in contention at that time.

“When (our crew dropped the) jack at the same time as the 2 car (Brad Keselowski), who pitted right in front of us and left with them off pit road, and we were like a four- or five-car Ford train right there, I thought, ‘We’re in a good spot,’” Blickensderfer said.  

  With 10 laps remaining in the 200-lap race, McDowell sat fourth behind Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick and Keselowski, respectively. Headed for the white flag, Keselowski pulled out of line entering the third turn and Logano moved down to pick up his Penske teammate. McDowell followed Keselowski.   

When they received the white flag, Logano was leading with Keselowski second and McDowell third. On the final lap as the pack streaked towards turn three, McDowell bump-drafted Keselowski, who then tagged Logano, triggering the final lap crash. Logano spun to the inside, Keselowski to the outside and McDowell shot through the opening and into the history books. 

  While the Front Row crew celebrated, a teary-eyed Blickensderfer sat on the pit box and thought, “Man, I didn’t know if this day would ever come.” However, their persistence had paid off.

“I think that’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, but that’s the moral of everyday life,” McDowell said. “That’s the moral of our race team. We just keep fighting hard and you just never know what’s possible.”

(Editor’s Note: Deb Williams is in her fourth decade of covering motorsports. The former editor of NASCAR Winston Cup Scene and managing editor of GT Motorsports has also covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. The 1990 and 1996 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year has authored five books and hosts the podcast “Racing Now and Then.”)


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, February 15 2021
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