Michael McDowell was the first postseason-eligible retiree from Sunday night’s Cook Out Southern 500, his race ending after a Lap 31 crash at Darlington Raceway.
McDowell lost control of his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford after close racing through a repaved portion of the track with Erik Jones in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet. McDowell’s car scrubbed the outside wall exiting Turn 2 before careening into the inside wall on the backstretch, leaving it with heavy damage. He was unhurt, checked and released from the track’s infield care center.
“I’m not really sure,” McDowell said when asked for his version of events. “The 43 kind of got everybody jammed up. I think he started on the front there without (fresh) tires, which is a tough spot to be in and I just went three-wide underneath him and just got into the patch with my left-sides just a little bit low. I got loose enough into the wall and that was about it.”
McDowell, who qualified for the 16-driver NASCAR Cup Series Playoff grid by winning the season-opening Daytona 500, had said during the postseason’s media day that his team would have to be aggressive to advance through the elimination format. His early exit placed him last in the 37-car field for the playoff opener.
“I’ll have to see the replay, but just heartbreaking for everybody on this Front Row team,” said McDowell. “We had high hopes coming into the playoffs and this is not how we wanted to start it.”
McDowell sits last on the 16-driver playoff grid, 20 points below the elimination line with two races remaining in the Round of 16. His plight was actually helped by the misfortune of other title-eligible drivers, who failed to pad their cushion in the points. Chase Elliott, William Byron and Kyle Busch all retired early in separate crashes.
Two events remain in the opening three-race round — Saturday at Richmond Raceway and Sept. 18 at Bristol Motor Speedway. The four lowest-ranked drivers will be eliminated at the end of the Round of 16.