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Inside NASCAR: For McDowell, driving motorhome part of plan

January 09, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

For McDowell, driving the motorhome is all part of the plan

It could be any family in America, loading up for an early summer vacation at the Outer Banks, the Great Lakes, or the Grand Canyon. Mom, dad, child, and even the dog clamber aboard a 40-foot-long recreational vehicle stuffed with groceries and with a pickup truck in tow. Dad settles behind a broad steering wheel attached to a dashboard full of switches, buttons, and even a small TV screen that helps him change lanes. Mom buckles the 2-year-old into a car seat. And with a push from the diesel engine the Fleetwood Discovery is off, snaking its way through this suburb north of Charlotte, onto the Interstate Highway System, and beyond.

The details, though, divulge that this is no pleasure trip. On one counter sits a black cap with a 66 on the front. The dog is named Sparco, which also happens to be a popular brand of racing firesuit. The pickup being towed in the back has a golf cart lashed down in the bed. The motorhome is pointed not at the beach or the mountains, but Richmond International Raceway. And the driver is more accustomed to wheeling something with a little more horsepower and a little less drag.

Sparco doesn't get dog-tired riding around. (TSNM)

"Hopefully this time, we won't knock the corners off the motorhome," NASCAR driver Michael McDowell says as he wheels the behemoth down the tree-lined streets -- got to watch out for those low branches -- that lead out of his neighborhood. "It's happened before."

In NASCAR, motorhomes are as ubiquitous as tires and fuel, and not just because of the fans who park their camper vans and cab-overs in the infield every weekend. For drivers, owners and crew chiefs at the sport's national level, they've become homes away from home, and the result is a millionaire's row of expensive, immaculately cared-for "buses" that line up every Thursday in a lot typically guarded by local police. Drivers on the Sprint Cup tour hire a driver of their own, sometimes a friend or family member, to keep these rolling apartments clean and get them to the race track each week.

There's just one exception -- McDowell, who drives his to every track within 10 hours of Charlotte, family in tow, and typically makes a multi-week tour of venues in the northeast or Midwest each summer. Other Sprint Cup drivers will arrive in Richmond on Thursday afternoon and find their motorhomes already on site, washed, stocked and ready. They'll have a driver to worry about things like water levels, waste disposal and diesel fuel. They'll spend a few nights and then jet home after the race, leaving the driver to repeat the process again the next week. And then there's McDowell, who does it all himself, partly so he doesn't have to spend money on hotels, partly so he can travel with his family, and partly because he's willing to do whatever it takes to keep himself relevant in the sport.

Which is why the 26-year-old native of Glendale, Ariz., drives his motorhome to most events on the NASCAR circuit. Which is why he's competed for almost every start-and-park team in the garage area since his stint with Michael Waltrip Racing ended late in the 2008 season. Which is why he handles his own public relations, maintains his own website, even cobbles together some of his own sponsorship deals. For Richmond, his HP Motorsports team has a sponsor, and will get to race. So he spends much of the five-hour drive north on his cell phone, finalizing design for that weekend's autograph cards, and organizing the pickup of caps and shirts carrying the logo of Christian radio network K-Love. All this while most everyone else he'll compete against is focusing almost exclusively on their race cars.

"I'm just doing anything I can to stay in the sport," McDowell says as he wheels the Fleetwood northbound on I-85. "I'm doing it because I'm having opportunities provided to me, too, so I don't want to be wasteful about it. A lot of guys who I think are really good don't have anything going on right now, so I don't want to just sit back and ride. I know that once you fall out, it's hard to get back in."

Michael McDowell cruises down the road, sometimes part of a NASCAR convoy en route to the next track. (TSNM)

In NASCAR, being out of sight is career suicide. You're either in the garage area or out of it, with no in between. Other racing series are littered with former NASCAR drivers who lost rides or sponsorship, dropped out, and can't claw their way back in. McDowell doesn't want to be one of those drivers. Which is why he wheels start-and-park cars, despite the belittlement that sometimes accompanies it. Which is why he's in the driver's seat of the big black-and-gold motorhome, passing truck stops and exit ramps and the green springtime scenery of the North Carolina piedmont, trying to make his next career break one mile at a time.

On the road

In traffic, the motorhome buffets like a sail whenever it catches a strong breeze. And yet, McDowell says, it's surprisingly easy to drive. The Fleetwood barely feels like it's breaking a sweat as it cracks 70 mph. Pull up close to a big rig or another RV, and you can feel the motorhome suck up to the vehicle in front like it's in the draft, something the driver is all too willing to demonstrate.

"Got a little Talladega feel," he says.

He bought it when he got his first big break in NASCAR, as is so often the case. Many of the top-of-the-line motorhomes owned by the sport's biggest stars are tricked-out machines costing $2 million or more, with flat-screen TVs that rise out of a panel or barbecue grills that pop out of the sides. McDowell's cost $200,000, and came with the standard options. He shopped like anyone else, browsing Camping World and Tom Johnson stores, and looking for something he thought he could afford. He settled on the black-and-gold paint scheme because it matched the color of the gold Toyota truck it would tow. He even hired someone to drive it.

Then the economy tanked, and sponsors were driven out, and McDowell went from a driver with a ride at Michael Waltrip Racing to someone wheeling start-and-park entries to pay the bills. Motorhomes depreciate alarmingly fast -- the reason former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler urges young drivers to rent, not buy -- so McDowell was saddled with a gold and black albatross worth roughly $120,000 that he couldn't unload. He said goodbye to his driver. Since he was competing for lower-level teams that didn't have a means of flying him to the race track, he made a cost-effective decision. He loaded up the family and started driving the thing himself.

Jami and Michael (Getty Images)

"I love being able to travel with my family. ... But it's also nice when you're at the race track, coming back from qualifying or whatever, and them being there."

--MICHAEL MCDOWELL

He'd done it before, back in his sports-car and ARCA days, so he wasn't unaccustomed to being behind the wheel. But given all the different hats he's wearing these days trying to keep his NASCAR career afloat, finding the time to pick up the RV from the Mooresville facility where he keeps it housed, clean it and stock it with groceries, can be an effort. Sometimes he gets behind, and that gets him behind on the drive, and that forces him to pull into the driver/owner lot at the track much later than everyone else. That doesn't sound like much, until you diesel into someplace like the cramped lot at Bristol late on Thursday night, and have to go banging on doors asking others to move their cars or golf carts so you can back into the one narrow space that's still available.

In comparison, the driving is the easy part. With son, Trace, strapped into a car seat, wife, Jami, riding alongside, and Sparco sprawled out on a couch in the back, McDowell cruises along, not even needing the little TV screen -- which is hooked into cameras on both sides and behind the Fleetwood -- to help him change lanes. Trace, the savvy young traveler that he is, quickly falls asleep. When Trace gets old enough to start school, the travel arrangements will have to change. For now, McDowell is happy to be able to do this while his whole family can do it together.

"We like being on the road together. We enjoy it," he says. "Just like anything else, there are moments to your job or any vacation that you dread. But I love being able to travel with my family. I love being on the road together. But it's also nice when you're at the race track, coming back from qualifying or whatever, and them being there. Not just so you can hang out, but when you have good moments. They're not as good without your family. And when you have low moments, it's kind of the same thing. It's fun to experience it together."

Races that are too far to drive to, though, are another matter. In those cases, McDowell has become something of an expert forager, sharing hotel rooms, bumming rental car rides, even hitching flights on private jets from other teams, drivers or crewmen he's friendly with. It says something about his networking skills and likeability as a person that he hardly had to pay for any long-distance travel costs last year. McDowell has plenty of connections -- he's part of a close group of friends that includes Trevor Bayne, Landon Cassill and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., he still does some road-course testing for Waltrip, and he's on good terms with Brad Keselowski and Robby Gordon, among others. Somehow, he's always been able to scrounge a room, a ride, a seat on somebody's airplane. His emergency fallback is a hauler ride home.

That won't be necessary on this trip, as the RV hums up I-85. It's a smooth ride, which belies those moments when the combined size of the motorhome and tow vehicle make maneuvering the beast in tight spaces an exercise in patience and geometry. The front end corners at a much tighter radius than the back, sometimes giving the driver the illusion that he's cleared something when he hasn't. McDowell can point to small dings in the rear flashing of the RV, marks where it's made contact with tree branches or some other object. Stopping for food or diesel fuel requires a visual inspection of gas pumping stations and parking lots, which the motorhome can get stuck in if the confines prove too small. The McDowells look for big truck stops, because they know they're spacious enough for the Fleetwood to snake in and out of.

"Just because the sign says diesel," Michael says, "doesn't mean we'll fit."

Ninety minutes into the trip to Richmond, it's time to find out. Lunch choices are a burger joint on one side of the highway or a sub shop on the other, and the latter wins out not because of a cuisine preference, but because the parking lot is larger. At the fuel stop, McDowell slips on gloves before filling up, because he says it's difficult to get the smell of diesel fuel off your hands. The motorhome -- which gets 10 miles to the gallon -- left home with about a quarter tank, and the grand total for the fill-up is $250. The stop also gives McDowell a chance to check the bindings on the straps holding the golf cart to the truck bed. There's also Trace's toy Mini Cooper, which McDowell winches down a little tighter. Losing that, he jokes, would be the biggest disaster of the trip.

There's always something to double-check on the motorhome, which feels like it has about as many individual parts as the space shuttle. The day before, McDowell spent two hours hunting for the right fuse box to fix a brake light extension that hooked into the tow vehicle. One time last year, the retractable sun shield on the front windshield wouldn't retract. McDowell thought he smelled smoke, so he tugged on it gently, and the whole thing came down. At Talladega, he was dumping out the line -- which is exactly what it sounds like -- when it broke and splashed foul stuff all over him. No wonder many top drivers trade their RVs in every three years or so to avoid chronic maintenance issues, a luxury McDowell does not have.

Michael McDowell arrives at the track, where motorhomes have become a weekend fixture. (Turner Sports New Media)

That much is clear later in the drive to Richmond, when McDowell asks a simple, but ominous question. "So," he says, "you think we need to worry about that check engine light that just came on?" Thankfully, not this time. Eventually, it goes out.

Blame Felix

The motorhome has its place on a short list of things top NASCAR drivers cannot do without. It's their home away from home, and on race weekends the driver/owner lots become neighborhoods unto themselves. While it's difficult to believe now that there was ever a time when drivers stayed in hotels like anyone else, in truth the luxury motorhome is a fairly recent introduction. And it all started because Felix Sabates' wife and daughter couldn't find a useable bathroom at North Wilkesboro Speedway.

For all the convenience they provide drivers who have a myriad of duties in and around the track on any given weekend, motorhomes have their share of critics, within the industry as well as outside. Think the motorhome lot has fostered a little too much collegiality among participants who are supposed to be competitors? Think it's isolated drivers too much from the rest of the race track environment? Think these "buses" -- so called because some use the basic framework of a motorcoach -- are showy expenses in a time when many sponsors and teams have had to cut back?

Blame Felix. "I was the one who caused all the headaches, I'll tell you that," Sabates says with a laugh.

As Sabates remembers it, it was the fall of 1989. The NASCAR tour was competing at North Wilkesboro, the rustic old track in the North Carolina foothills that would drop off the circuit in 1996. Sabates , who owned the race car of driver Kyle Petty at the time, was there with his wife and daughter, who went hunting for a restroom. All they could find were portable toilets. A Cuban émigré whose big ideas led to big successes in the toy and electronics industries, Sabates had another one -- why not bring a motorhome, and the privacy and comfort it afforded, to the race track?

It was Felix Sabates who led the RV movement, but it MIchael McDowell who had to move his motorhome when he inadvertantly parked in Rick Hendrick's spot. (Getty Images)

So he did, and showed up at Daytona International Speedway the next year greeted by alarmed parking attendants and security officers who weren't sure where to put him. This was a time well before the fenced-off driver/owner lots of today, many of which contain green spaces and playgrounds. This was also a time when infields were a little rowdier than they are now. No matter. Sabates found the parking lot the track had set aside for drivers and owners -- for their passengers cars, that is -- and pulled on in.

"Everybody's standing around looking like, what is that? It was a big deal," remembers Sabates, now a minority owner of the Earnhardt-Ganassi race team. "Think about it, they had never seen anything that big."

Track staffers weren't the only ones curious. Sabates, setting a standard for tidiness that's ramped up to obsessive levels today, hung a sign outside his motorhome door with a simple message: Thank you for not smoking. Soon, there was a knock. It was NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr., who came in and looked around. "Where are your ash trays?" he asked. The best Sabates could provide was an empty soda can. France then asked Sabates if he knew who NASCAR's title sponsor was. Sabates said yes, it was R.J. Reynolds. France asked if he knew what the company made. Cigarettes, the team owner replied.

"Remove that sign," France ordered.

Then the chairman laughed, allowing Sabates to breathe again. He looked around the RV. "One day there are going to be four or five of these damn things in here," France playfully chided, "and it's all going to be your fault."

He vastly underestimated. The next year Geoffrey Bodine and Darrell Waltrip showed up in motorhomes, and France joked that he needed to start charging Sabates rent. When they all showed up in the notorious infield of Talladega Superspeedway, Sabates said then-track general manager Mike Helton balked at letting them stay there, because he didn't have any security lined up. Eventually, he pulled some together. Even so, this was an era where staying in the infield at a place like Darlington could be an adventure. The first real driver/owner lot, Sabates remembered, was at Charlotte, where Humpy Wheeler poured some pads behind the infield care center and installed water and electrical hookups. There were about 12 spaces, and Sabates got No. 1. Even today, seniority determines who parks where in the driver/owner lot.

Eventually, though, even that lot became too small as more and more competitors bought motorhomes. One day, France called Sabates. Daytona was building its own driver/owner lot. "Since you started this crap, I want you to pick the first parking space," the chairman told him. They met at a place called the Village Tavern, and Sabates picked a space right by the front gate. You don't want that one, France told him. You want this one over here, where you have room to park seven cars. It's the same spot Sabates uses now. "He had it picked out for me already," Sabates says, laughing.

Sabates bought his first motorhome for $350,000, and he guesses the same model would go for about $1.4 million today. They're a tremendous expense, and that's before you add in fuel, groceries, insurance, maintenance, storage, a driver, and everything else that goes along with one. Nationwide driver Aric Almirola learned that the hard way when he bought his first motorhome. Like the McDowells, Almirola and his wife drove their RV to nearly every Camping World Truck Series race when he competed on that circuit last year.

"I love my motorhome. But I probably got way over my head way too early," Almirola said. "I got a contract, and it said in the contract what I was supposed to make, and I did the math and thought, sure, I can afford a motorhome. Everybody else had one, so I figured it wasn't that bad. Then I got it, and found out how much more went into it beside the monthly payments. And I realized that I probably shouldn't have owned a motorhome."

Almirola is fortunate -- he landed his current gig with JR Motorsports, which allowed him to turn his bus back over to a driver. Like most competitors in NASCAR's national divisions, he'd be hard-pressed to manage without the convenience and comfort it provides. Still, "It's a never-ending cycle," he said. "Sometimes it's worth every penny, and other times it makes you pull your hair out."

Like it is for any motorhome driver, the work is never done for Michael McDowell. (Turner Sports New Media)

Even France eventually succumbed to the allure, using a motorhome for the first Cup weekend at what is now Auto Club Speedway in Southern California. He and wife, Betty Jane, didn't quite care for it, Sabates remembered, and stayed there only one night. But he recognized the direction the trend was heading. "You have drivers who have motorhomes, the owners have motorhomes," the chairman once told Sabates late in his life. "Pretty soon, the drivers of the motorhomes are going to have their own motorhomes." He wasn't that far off.

Pressure wash

By the time the grandstand towers of Richmond International Raceway come into view, everybody is getting antsy. Trace and Sparco are both ready to get out, the former to scoot around in his Mini Cooper, the latter to do his doggie business. McDowell pulls up to the main gate and utters the magic words -- "driver/owner lot" -- and is waved through. Although driver/owner lots are in the infield at most tracks, three-quarter-mile RIR is too small for that. So it's up a hill to a lot just outside the entrance to the Turn 3 tunnel. Here, drivers use their golf carts to zip back and forth to the infield.

McDowell pulls up to another gate, this one manned by an attendant sitting under a white tent, and watched by a Henrico County deputy. For every race he drives the motorhome to, McDowell has to send a letter to the track stating who he is and requesting a spot in the driver/owner lot. In return he'll get a packet with a space number, this time 94. He also has to put down a deposit, which can run thousands of dollars, which the track returns when he shows up. Once he gets there, there's no actual charge for the space itself -- with the exception of Indianapolis, which charges $5,000. At the Brickyard, McDowell parks in a grass lot inside of Turn 4, which is free but doesn't have any water or electrical hookups. That means taking quick showers so he doesn't run out of water, and running the generator off the RV's diesel engine. A few times, he's had to drive it back out to top off the tank.

He even does windows. (TSNM)

"I don't mind extending myself. I don't mind the work. It's not that part of it. I want to use my time the best I can."

--MICHAEL MCDOWELL

A different kind of bucket list. (TSNM)

"What if didn't have all this other stuff to do? How much better a driver might I be?"

--MICHAEL MCDOWELL

At Richmond, there are no such concerns; next to every space is a short white box that electric and water lines can be hooked into. Unlike the garage area, where the haulers are parked by points position, here spaces are doled out on the basis of seniority -- which is why McDowell found himself parked next to Sam Hornish Jr. for much of the drivers' rookie seasons on the Sprint Cup tour. Of course, sometimes McDowell rolls in late, and in one such instance the lot attendant told him to take any available space. He did, and was awakened the next morning by a knock at the door informing him he was in someone else's spot.

McDowell relayed what the attendant had told him the night before. No matter, the other man said, we've had this spot for 10 years. "Who's space is it?" McDowell finally asked. The answer: Rick Hendrick's. "I'll be out of here in a few minutes," he said.

By 4:30 on Thursday afternoon, the driver/owner lot is filling up. McDowell pulls in and gets to work unhooking the tow vehicle, which he has to do before he can back into his space. He disconnects the Y-shaped hitch that latches the truck to the motorhome, folds it into the back of the RV, and places a cover over it. Trace reacts with glee at the sight of his Mini Cooper being brought down. Using a waffled ramp he pulls from the bed of the pickup, McDowell backs the golf cart off the truck. He's all ready to pull into space No. 29, except for the fact that he doesn't like it. There's no grass for Sparco. There's another available space, the lot attendant tells him, but it's at the bottom of a hill and McDowell knows everyone's water will wash through his spot.

So operating on the theory that forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission, McDowell eyes a suitable substitute next to Carl Edwards' motorhome, given away by the golf cart with the Aflac logo. He backs in, moves the truck and golf cart into place, opens a compartment in the rear of the RV to pull out lines and hoses for the electrical and water hookups. Sliders, the expandable compartments that widen the living and bedroom areas, come out. There's a hiss as stabilizing jacks descend from the undercarriage. Then McDowell opens another hatch, this one full of cleaning supplies -- buckets, rags, a long-handled mop, bottles of soap and cleansers -- and begins what's probably his least favorite part of every trip.

The cleaning. There's kind of a code in the driver/owner lots that vehicles are to be kept spotless, and there's plenty of pressure to keep up with the neighbors. For most drivers, that's no big deal. They have motorhome drivers whose job it is to keep the things immaculate, and at almost any moment you can look around the lot and see men scrubbing away with Windex or Ajax, or spraying off suds with a hose. Some NASCAR drivers are fastidious about their motorhomes, not even allowing anyone to wear shoes inside. That mind-set is passed down to their drivers, who work obsessively to keep the things almost surgically clean. They'll wipe them down by hand after a rain. If you're washing yours, don't dare get water spots on somebody else's.

"We're not that intense about it," McDowell says, "but we don't want to look out of place." So borrowing a hose from a neighbor -- Bayne borrowed his at Talladega, McDowell explains, and never gave it back -- he begins soaping and spraying, using the mop to hit the high spots beyond arm's reach, shining up the tires, even buffing the seats in the golf cart to a shine. Then he sets out camp chairs, welcome mats, and pulls out a grill. The final step is putting into place the snap-covers that go over the windows. There are no other NASCAR drivers in sight. This is not the glamorous life of a Cup driver that most envision. But to remain at this level, this is what McDowell has to do.

The occasional doubts are natural. "I don't mind extending myself. I don't mind the work. It's not that part of it," he says. "I want to use my time the best I can. The opportunities, I felt like last year, they seemed to be running away from me a little bit. So I felt like, OK, if I'm going to be working this hard, should I be doing it in something else and applying myself differently? It's kind of complicated for anybody, really, no matter who you are. A lot of it has to do with my faith, a lot of it has to do with, if I believe I'm called to be here, then I want to do everything with excellence. But when I felt like the opportunities were diminishing, maybe I should have been doing something else."

For McDowell, a former Bondurant School instructor and successful sports-car and ARCA driver before he came to NASCAR, there are certainly other options. But he wants to be here, at the only level where he's never won. He'll do what it takes -- right now he's trying to convince a motorhome manufacturer to lease him an RV on a yearly basis so he can promote it. Other drivers aren't doing that, cobbling together their own sponsorship deals, picking up hats and shirts, signing off on autograph card designs, sharing hotel rooms on the West Coast, scrubbing their motorhomes just to stay in the game. It makes you wonder, how much better of a driver could McDowell be if he could focus just on the race car like everyone else?

"What if I didn't have all this other stuff to do? How much better a driver might I be?" McDowell asks. "If I can handle all this and continue to be an average to OK race car driver, then when I don't have to do all this, and can work on just being a race car driver all the time, I feel like I'll be the better for it."

Iowa bound

Michael McDowell can close his eyes and see it. He's sitting in the media center at Iowa Speedway on Sunday, talking about winning that day's Nationwide Series event in Joe Gibbs Racing's powerhouse No. 18 car. He can envision people asking the question -- how did this happen? How did a start-and-park guy land a ride, even a temporary one, of this quality without bringing sponsorship? McDowell can watch it all unfold in his mind's eye, the moment that would validate all of the effort he's undertaken to remain in NASCAR.

He has an opportunity to make it reality. McDowell on Sunday will make the first of at least three starts this season in Gibbs' No. 18 Nationwide car, the same vehicle Kyle Busch has driven to five victories so far this year. McDowell also will drive the car June 30 at Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis, and Aug. 6 back at Iowa. Steve deSouza, Gibbs' vice president for Nationwide operations, said the team is working on putting McDowell in the car for the road-course events at Road America and Montreal as well.

Clearly, it's a huge opportunity in top-flight equipment for a driver who's best known in NASCAR for his spectacular qualifying crash at Texas three years ago. He still can't believe it's real. "I'd never even spoke to them about it," McDowell said. "I didn't even know if I was on their radar screen. Crazy. Nothing short of miraculous, in my eyes. You look at what I've done the last two or three years, you wouldn't think I'd be on their list of guys to call. I went and met with them and it was like the opposite. They couldn't believe I was willing to miss Cup races to do it. I felt like somebody was going to jump out of the closet and punk me."

"In my own racing career, I did a lot of same types of things, to include driving the truck and working on the engines ... so I know what it's like to have to do all that."

--STEVE deSOUZA

This was no joke. The car sponsor for those races, Pizza Ranch, wanted a driver it could use for promotion, and deSouza said the company liked what a veteran like McDowell brought to the table. McDowell said they did the deal in about a day.

"I think he's just the kind of guy that Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole aspires to," deSouza said. "He has a great platform. He's a well-rounded guy. I think all of our drivers on the whole are extremely talented, but it just seems like if you go back through his history, one of the things that caught our attention, it just seems like there were some times there not too far back that he was coming along pretty good. I think every driver hits some bumps in the road and things sometimes go really well and sometimes they don't. In his case it kind of got derailed, whether that was his fault, timing, or whatever the case may be. But we looked at that, he has experience, he's an extremely good road racer, and so we decided, hey, let's give him a shot and see if we can put him in our stuff."

The fact that McDowell has been a start-and-park driver wasn't a deterrent. DeSouza said he likes the fact that McDowell is still in a car every weekend, that he still has to practice and qualify. The Iowa race comes with a test day, and deSouza believes McDowell will need only a few laps to re-acclimatize his mind-set to running a full race.

"Every week, he's in it, he's making adjustments, so he knows what he's looking for to go out and qualify the car," deSouza said. "That's an advantage over a lot of guys who have no seat time at all, and occasionally three, four, five times a year get to race. Mike's there every week. Really, when you look at the pros and cons, there's not a lot of risk. He doesn't wreck a lot of stuff. ... A few years back when he had good, competitive equipment to run hard, he was always fast. You go back even a little bit further and he won a lot, and that's important."

McDowell is taking nothing for granted. He's been working out with Gibbs trainers, and listening to Busch's radio channel during Nationwide events to get a feel for how crew chief Jason Ratcliff communicates with his driver. He's cut down on carbohydrates in an effort to try and get down to Busch's weight, because he doesn't want Ratcliff to have to change one thing -- even the seat -- about a car that's been a monster on the track. When McDowell began the process, he was 210 and Busch was 200. McDowell is losing weight, but Busch is, too. The week of the Richmond race, McDowell was at 195 compared to Busch at 188.

"I've been training trying to get down to his size, and he keeps getting smaller," McDowell said. "I'm going to start feeding him In-N-Out burgers or something."

McDowell has fully invested himself in this opportunity, checking in regularly with deSouza, stopping by the Gibbs shop whenever he can, talking race strategy with Ratcliff. Then again, this is a driver who's accustomed to taking on all he can carry. That strikes a chord with Gibbs and with deSouza, who was a champion powerboat racer before moving into NASCAR team management.

"In my own racing career, I did a lot of same types of things, to include driving the truck and working on the engines. I was able to find myself to the top of my career on the boat-racing side, so I know what it's like to have to do all that," deSouza said. "And I feel like most people who have built from the ground up and have been doing this a long time have had to go through some of that to some degree. So good for him. I think that shows his perseverance, his passion, and his mind-set of how badly he wants to get this done. We like to see that, too. Joe [Gibbs] particularly has seen a lot of that in football, where you have a guy who's talented and has to work hard to get his break, and his work ethic is that much better than anyone else around him. So we're encouraged by that."

The preparation all leads to Sunday afternoon and that 1-mile track in Newton, Iowa, and a race that could open the next chapter in McDowell's career. He's studied how Busch talks over the radio, he's discussed strategy with Ratcliff, he's won the support of Joe Gibbs Racing and Pizza Ranch. He's even altered his diet to try and get down to Busch's weight. There's also one other thing McDowell has done, another sign of just how important this race is to him. He's hired a motorhome driver for the weekend. When he arrives at Iowa Speedway, the Fleetwood will be all shined up and waiting for him.