Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Michael McDowell finds Next Gen boost, carries momentum into Road America

Road America has a special place in Michael McDowell’s heart. Six short years ago, he earned his first NASCAR national touring win at the historic venue in a Xfinity Series race for Richard Childress Racing.

This year, McDowell returns to Road America with loads of confidence. Through the opening 17 races of the 2022 Cup Series season, the 2021 Daytona 500 champion already has a career-high six top-10 finishes and is on pace to set a new personal benchmark when it comes to best average finish, currently at 17.1.

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Many folks in the garage may be surprised by McDowell’s success this year. But he’s not too far off from where he anticipated running this season.

“I’ve been waiting for this Next Gen car, and the reason I feel that is I felt really confident at what I was doing with the cars that we had and extracting the most out of it and, more than anything, just confident with how it’s going with everything,” McDowell said in a media availability on Wednesday. “I felt like we were gonna be in a position to do what we’re doing. It wasn’t a big shock to me.”

“I think what’s been surprising has been the consistency of it. I knew that there would be moments that if we hit right and we have all the same parts and pieces that we were gonna be able to contend.”

The consistency has come at a variety of race tracks. The No. 34 team, led by first-year crew chief Blake Harris, backed up its Daytona 500 win from last season by finishing seventh in the Great American Race this year. Then, McDowell went two months before picking up his second top-10 result on Easter at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Race.

Including Bristol, McDowell has been on a tear, with five top-10 efforts in the last nine races. He was running inside the top 10 at Nashville before a late caution flew and dropped him to 13th in the finishing order. His other top 10s have come at Talladega, Darlington, Charlotte and Sonoma, while also leading a career-high 34 laps at Gateway. 

“We’re covering all of them and I think that’s probably what’s most impressive is that we’re able to do it more consistently now and the next step for us is to be able to do that throughout the entirety of this season, and that’s the question mark that we don’t know,” McDowell said of his top 10s. “I believe that we can, but the big teams always seem to, in the past, develop a little bit quicker and a little bit more than the smaller teams.”

Jerry Freeze, general manager of Front Row Motorsports, says he is pleased with McDowell’s on-track success. He recalls McDowell emphasizing this year, because of the Next Gen car being compared to a sports car, where his driver has a chunk of experience.

“He kept telling us that it was going to suit him because of his road-racing background and maybe the new cars align to some of that thinking with the transaxle and other components,” Freeze said in a statement to NASCAR.com. “I don’t know if it’s been all the reason for the success, but Michael enjoys this car and we really saw it at Sonoma. Hopefully, we see the same at Road America this weekend, too.”

Last time out on a road course, McDowell, arguably, had the best run of his career, being a mainstay inside the top five.

Entering the weekend 21st on the playoff grid and 97 points below the cutline, McDowell knows it will likely take a win over the next nine races to make the postseason. But don’t count him out. In the Cup Series’ return to Road America last year, McDowell finished 30th, but in two road course races this year in the Next Gen car, the No. 34 car has an average result of eighth.

“Road America is my best track, so with as well as we’ve been running and as well as we ran at Sonoma, we have to highlight this as a weekend that we’ve got to try and get a win,” McDowell said. “But it’s not our only shot and that’s nice. We’re not quite where we need to be to be legitimate contenders for wins every weekend on ovals, but we’re pretty close.”