Editor’s Note: This is the first in the series of season reviews for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs drivers.
Driver: Michael McDowell
Car: No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang
Crew chief: Drew Blickensderfer
Final 2021 ranking: 16th
Key stats: 1 win, 2 top fives, 5 top 10s, 26 laps led
How 2021 ended:
McDowell struggled as the regular season came to a close with one top-20 finish (Michigan) in the final seven races. Those woes carried over into the playoffs with three finishes outside the top 20 in the Round of 16 — including a crash 30 laps into the playoffs at Darlington — leading to his elimination. He averaged a 20.5 finish on the season — a career best, but worst among all the playoff drivers. He was eliminated alongside Tyler Reddick, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola.
At the season-opening Daytona 500, McDowell won his first-ever Cup Series race in 358 starts. Heading into the race, the odds of him winning were 66-1 (via BetMGM). McDowell didn’t lead during the entire 200-lap event until the very end. The veteran driver grabbed the lead in a wreck-filled last lap that saw Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski crash running 1-2. McDowell beat out reigning champion Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon for the win to become the eighth driver to earn their first win in “The Great American Race.” He also scored Front Row Motorsports’ third Cup victory.
Other season highlights:
• Three straight top 10s to kick off the 2021 season — first time in his career he had three straight top 10s in the Cup Series.
• Finished third in the GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. This was his second and last top-five finish of the season as he finished behind Brad Keselowski and William Byron.
• Five top 10s and 16th-place finish in the standings were both career bests in the Cup Series for McDowell.
Stat to know:
His three-race streak of consecutive top-10 finishes to open the season was a career first for McDowell and set him up very early on to surpass his previous season-best of four top 10s in 2020.
“This sport is so challenging and it’s week to week, and you’re only as good as your last race. So when you have a struggle and a difficult weekend, and you come to the office to do autograph requests or sign pictures, when you keep signing that same picture of you in Victory Lane at the Daytona 500, it’s a good reminder that when you’re struggling, it’s worth it.” — McDowell on the perspective he carries on a week-to-week basis.
McDowell will be back with Front Row for the 2022 season and he tested the Next Gen car for the organization at Charlotte last month. McDowell will continue to be a threat for wins and top fives on superspeedways and a sneaky factor on road courses with six of those on the Cup schedule for 2022. He will not have his crew chief back though as Drew Blickensderfer has left Front Row to pursue other options.