News & Media

McDowell hopes to seize 'opportunity' at Iowa

May 19, 2012, Mark Aumann,

NEWTON, Iowa -- The path from obscurity to popularity requires an opportunity. And for Michael McDowell, Sunday's Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway is an "opportunity race."

Given the chance to drive the No. 18 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in Sunday's Pioneer Hi-Bred 250, McDowell knows he has the equipment to win. With four top-10 finishes in five Nationwide starts last season, the talent is obviously there. Now it's a matter of seizing the opportunity.

Iowa strong

Michael McDowell made five Nationwide Series starts in Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 18 Toyota in 2011, scoring top-10 finishes in four of them, including both races at Iowa. He has three top-10s in four Iowa starts overall.

"I led both races ... and really had a chance to be in the top five in every race I ran last year. So I hope that's the reason why I'm back in the car."


"One race can change a guy's career," McDowell said. "We've seen it time and time again in our sport. For me, I want to build a career here. If I can build this schedule from five races to 10, 10 to 15 and 15 to 30 over however long it takes, that's what I want to do."

With the current economics, there are more good drivers than good rides. So McDowell readily realizes he may have to continue to take an unconventional path to achieve that goal.

There's not a driver in the garage who relishes the idea of being pigeon-holed as a start-and-park driver, something McDowell has done without complaint for the Phil Parsons-Mike Curb Cup operation in 2012. But even though McDowell knows this may be a temporary career setback, not being in the garage at all would be career suicide.

"I wouldn't have gotten this opportunity with Joe Gibbs Racing if it wasn't for being in the Cup Series, even start-and-parking every weekend," McDowell said. "In our sport, if you're not around for six months or a year, you just kind of get forgotten about.

"That's really allowed me to stay in the game. And I capitalized on that last year here. I led both races, led both road courses and really had a chance to be in the top five in every race I ran last year. So I hope that's the reason why I'm back in the car."

Failing to qualify for the Cup race at Darlington stung, so McDowell hopes to ease the pain with a good run at Iowa, a track where he's had success. In this race last year, he qualified second, led 19 laps and eventually finished seventh.

Even though McDowell has made it to halfway only three times in 10 Cup starts, he doesn't believe his lack of seat time will affect his ability to get up to speed quickly. And that was proven out when he went right to the top of the speed chart in Saturday's two-hour practice session, eventually winding up 11th of the 43 cars entered (speeds).

"It's a whole different game plan, coming into these races," McDowell said. "But I have done a lot of Nationwide races, full races. So you don't really lose that, even though you're not doing it every weekend. Even with the Cup program, we'll do 60 or 70 laps and I'll race as hard as I can, to be dealing with traffic and how the cars are moving around -- just to stay sharp."

Practice was in the cool of the morning, while Sunday's race will be run in the heat of the afternoon. But McDowell said that's not the only issue to which drivers must acclimate themselves this weekend.

"With a couple of different series running, there's a lot of different rubber on the race track right now," McDowell said. "It's one of those weekends when you've just got to get a good feel in the car and have some adjustment. In the race last year, we had a rainout, practice was cool and then the race was sunny -- and the cars were really different from practice.

"You definitely have to stay on top of the race track. As you get about 80 or 90 laps into the race, the track will start to rubber up. And you'll pretty much know what you'll have by then -- and you can really start honing in on how far you missed it or how close you are."

At first glance, Iowa appears to be a slightly larger copy of Richmond International Speedway, but McDowell said it doesn't seem that way when you get onto the track.

"There are some characteristics that are similar, but Turn 1 feels very different with a bump, and Turns 3 and 4 feel flatter," McDowell said. "I don't know if those are true statements, but that's what it feels like.

"It has a short-track feel to it in the race, but you're going fast enough that you feel like you're at a big track."

David Gilliland jump-started his faltering career with a surprising victory at Kentucky Speedway in 2006. Landon Cassill nearly fell off the radar screen before James Finch took what seemed like a huge gamble by putting him in his Cup ride midway through 2010.

And Michael McDowell will race this weekend with a focus not only on the situation at hand, but with one eye to future possibilities.

"You never know where your break is going to come from," McDowell said. "You never know how long you have in this sport. Landon was willing to do things that people weren't willing to do. And I think that's one reason why I'm still in this sport, as well.

"Not everybody wants to go start-and-park a car. Not everybody wants the pressure of getting in subpar equipment and missing a race because their ego may not be able to take that.

"To stay in this sport, you've got to stay current with the cars and what's going on, and the only way to do that is to be here every weekend. In whatever capacity you can do that, I think is important. But when you get an opportunity like this, it changes everything, for sure."