‘Hardly a Cinderella story’: Indy win, playoff ticket highlight McDowell’s rise with Front Row

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Michael McDowell woke up Sunday morning with a nervous feeling, an eggshell-walking vibe that spoke to how much potential he and his team had entering the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. It was also telling that McDowell was mildly disappointed the day before in qualifying fourth — one of his best starting spots of the year.

But his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford kept showing up atop the charts — both the single-lap speed and 10-lap averages in practice — and McDowell’s confidence grew. Hence, the apprehension on race-day morning.

“I think I have a race-winning car here,” McDowell recalled thinking, “and I’ve just got to go do my job and not look like an idiot.”

There was no Sunday afternoon idiocy and no late-race lunacy to derail his hunch. McDowell went to bed Sunday evening as a winner at the famed Brickyard, having driven the race of his life in the Verizon 200. He had led 54 of 82 laps — setting a personal best — and scored his second Cup Series victory to go along with his triumph in the 2021 Daytona 500.

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This win felt different — for the journeyman driver who first broke into NASCAR’s big leagues in 2008; for Travis Peterson, the first-year crew chief who challenged his driver to buck the industry norm in hiring him; and for his Front Row Motorsports organization, which had achieved its three previous Cup Series wins by capitalizing on right-place, right-time scenarios but has gradually blossomed into a scrappy mid-major team capable of busting up postseason brackets.

McDowell’s victory was his first in 2 1/2 years but didn’t feel like an upset.

“To basically dominate the weekend is hardly a Cinderella story,” said Jerry Freeze, Front Row’s longtime general manager. “We’ve been fortunate. This is the fourth Cup win that Front Row Motorsports has had, and I think you could say that the first three, circumstances kind of played their way into being in the position to get the checkered flag at the end, but this one was just a real butt-kicking, and so I’m especially proud of this win.”

The triumph also helped reduce any stress about McDowell’s recent weeks on the bubble of the Cup Series Playoffs. The postseason appearance is the second in McDowell’s career and the third for Front Row, which joined NASCAR’s top series in 2005 and labored just to qualify and run full races in some of its earliest efforts.

But McDowell also dispelled the underdog narrative of Sunday’s win, touting the team’s road-course strength in the era of the Next Gen car with statistical proof.

“Is it a Cinderella story from a lot of different aspects? Maybe,” McDowell said. “But off of pure performance, like, I feel like we’ve been nailing it and having a shot at it. But I also look at it as, like, we’re going up against some really big teams with a lot of resources, and to do what we did today is pretty awesome.”

Michael McDowell executes a smoky burnout in the No. 34 Ford after winning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course
Alejandro Alvarez | NASCAR Studios

McDowell was quick to credit Peterson for his share in the team’s turnaround and for what he saw in the former RFK Racing engineer when he interviewed for the job in the offseason. The conversation over lunch between driver and crew chief was direct, and McDowell was honest in revealing who some of the other candidates were, including some with longer tenures atop the pit box. Peterson was matter-of-fact about why he deserved at least equal consideration.

“I can’t speak to how I convinced him, but I do remember making one comment to him about why do guys keep hiring experienced crew chiefs instead of taking a risk on a guy who knows what his potential could be,” Peterson said. “I do feel like that might have resonated with him because he liked that comment, and he felt that about himself at times throughout his career.”

McDowell recognized that passion in how the two interacted and in how Peterson reacted when tested. He needed an engineering-minded multi-tasker with a strong work ethic and believed he’d found one. Now two-thirds of the way through their first season together, they’ve continued to challenge each other in their approach.

“All I was doing was just to see if he had the fire because if you don’t have fire, you’ll never make it at Front Row Motorsports. You just won’t,” McDowell said. “You have to be a fighter because it’s hard. You’ve got to do a lot more stuff than most of the people around you have to do, and you’ve got to put in more hours, and you’ve got to be willing to do more with less. So I was just seeing if I could piss him off a little bit, and he was fiery, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted somebody that was fiery. I met with five or six guys, and I left that lunch like this is my guy. If I can get him, this is my guy. I just felt it in my gut, felt it in my heart. “

Not only was Peterson his guy, but Front Row was his team. The organization exercised its option to keep McDowell and teammate Todd Gilliland in the fold next season, renewing their contracts just four days before the Indianapolis event.

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The Bob Jenkins-owned team had won just three times before Sunday’s victory. Two were on superspeedways — McDowell’s Daytona win and the team’s breakthrough with David Ragan at Talladega Superspeedway in 2013 — and one came on a fog-shrouded day at Pocono Raceway in 2016 when Chris Buescher emerged as the victor of a weather-shortened event. He squeaked into the playoffs by reaching the top 30 of the points standings, an eligibility requirement at the time.

Front Row today is much better than the top 30 team of yesteryear. McDowell’s Indianapolis victory clinched the No. 34 group’s playoff ticket automatically, but the 38-year-old driver said they planned to still keep tabs on the team’s stature in the standings, using it as a measuring stick for how consistent the organization has been this season.

“We started off with a team that it was just an accomplishment to make the field for a race, and it’s just kind of grown from there, just incrementally,” Freeze said. “That’s what Bob Jenkins, he kind of challenged us with that from the start, let’s just get a little bit better from year to year to year, and I feel like we’ve accomplished that.”

So has McDowell, who enters the postseason field for the second time in a three-year span but as a greater threat to contend. The playoff pressure had taken a toll in recent weeks on the No. 34 team, which had slipped below the provisional elimination line with a strategy misfire at Richmond and front-end damage at Michigan. But McDowell said he saw opportunity in the moment.

“I wasn’t so much thinking about the must-win of the playoffs, I was thinking of the must-win of you might not ever get another chance like this where your car is that good. You’d better make it count,” McDowell said. “Like I said, I felt that this morning. I felt that pressure and that angst. Then the race started, and that angst went down, and I just got laser-focused on what I had to do and felt like I had all the things to do it.”

McDowell also has a distinctive claim now, visiting Victory Lane at Daytona and Indy — two long-revered venues in the motorsports world.

“You only get rings for certain races,” McDowell said. “I got the two best rings you can get.”