Rewind three races real quick.
Say somebody told Michael McDowell that he would kick off the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season with three consecutive top-10 finishes, all while knowing he had a career-high four last year over the course of the entire 36-race schedule.
“That they’re crazy,” McDowell said.
Well, then, consider the hypothetical person crazy because McDowell did indeed just notch his third top 10 in as many races. His No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford placed sixth on Sunday in the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That comes after his eighth-place result at the Daytona Road Course one week back and, oh right, his first-ever win in the Daytona 500 two weeks ago. All were personal bests on each layout.
“To make a big jump like we did, I wouldn’t say it’s a complete, like, unbelievable shock, but it’s pretty close to it,” McDowell said. “We have definitely outperformed where we thought we’d be, especially on the mile-and-a-half.”
He’s not alone. The 10 frontrunners were a mix of names and teams.
William Byron, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, won by a dominant 2.777 seconds over Tyler Reddick in the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. The victory marked only Byron’s second of his four-year career, while Reddick’s runner-up showing matched his career-best mark.
Martin Truex Jr. crossed third in his usually dominant No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Kyle Larson was fourth in Hendrick Motorsports’ new No. 5 Chevrolet after only competing in four races last season. And Kevin Harvick’s most-wins-in-2020 No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford ended up fifth.
McDowell, Ryan Newman (No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford), Kurt Busch (No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet), Alex Bowman (No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet; new number for Bowman) and Kyle Busch (No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota; two-time champion) completed the top 10.
“Definitely seeing a lot of guys running up front today that we don’t normally see,” Truex said. “But I think it’s just the box that we work in is so small and the longer we have the same rules package the closer everybody is going to get.”
There were 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks last season. There are nine scheduled for this year.
“I think one of the biggest things for us is there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of development — no new chassis, new parts, new pieces,” McDowell said. “We used to fall so far behind, but now I feel like we’re able to build on what we had in the past and make our cars a little bit better each time we come to the race track without changing all the fundamental pieces and kind of starting over and having to re-engineer everything. It’s kind of simplified the process for us a little bit just to keep building on what we have and try to make it better.”
Next up for the Cup Series is another 1.5-miler, too. The Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube is set for Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET (FOX, PRN, SiriusXM). Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford driver and 2018 champion, Joey Logano, is the defending race winner. He was 25th at Miami despite leading the field to green.
Two weeks later, it’s another intermediate oval at Atlanta Motor Speedway (technically 1.54 miles).
Miami was really just the start.
“It is a different race track and it is worn out, but you’re still going to maybe not compare it directly to Vegas, which is very fast and high grip, but you’re definitely going to be looking at Atlanta or some of these other mile-and-a-halfs that are getting a little rougher, getting a little more worn out,” said Chris Buescher, driver of the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. “So, yeah, there’s definitely things that will apply. Not 100 percent of it, but at the end of the day, there’s a lot that you can learn from these track types, even though speeds are very different from beginning of a run to the end of a run.”
Buescher’s 19th-place outcome was not reflective of his Miami performance. Buescher led a second-best 57 laps compared to Byron’s 102. The two split the stage wins, with Buescher coming first in Stage 1 and sixth in Stage 2. Byron was fourth then first in each 80-lap segment, before ultimately taking the checkered flag 101 circuits later.
Though Byron was a repeat victor, this year’s first two winners were first-time Victory Lane visitors. Dating back to last season, there have been 10 different winners in the last 13 races.
“We’ll see if it continues,” Truex said. “I still think the strong teams will end up being the teams to beat when all is said and done.”
Maybe. And McDowell acknowledged that, too. There’s a reason the Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske entries tend to be favored. They’ve proven to be consistently better.
Still, everybody loves an underdog story.
“The one thing about this 34 team is we race our guts out,” McDowell said. “And if we have a 25th-place car, we’re going to race our guts out and finish 23rd. And if we’ve got a 10th-place car, we’re going to race our guts out and finish eighth. We just come into it with an open mind and just do everything we can to get the most we can.
“Obviously, if we keep this streak going and 10 races from now we’re still running in the top 10, I’ll probably feel a little bit different about it. I’d tell you, yeah, we’re definitely going to do this every week. But right now, we’re going to take it one week at a time.”