Michael McDowell. (HHP/Jacy Norgaard)

McDowell After Elimination: ‘We’ll Keep Fighting’

BRISTOL, Tenn. — Michael McDowell stood on pit lane at Bristol Motor Speedway last Saturday night, one of just four drivers that had been eliminated from the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.

McDowell was disappointed but had reason to be proud.

His sixth-place finish in the September 16 Bass Pro Shops Night Race at the concrete, high-banked short track was perhaps the best short track race of McDowell’s career. His No. 34 Love’s/Delo Ford from Front Row Motorsports ran with the best but fell just short of grabbing a top-five, finishing just behind Joe Gibbs Racing Rookie Ty Gibbs.

It was his best finish since dominating the Verizon 200 at the Brickyard on August 13 when the veteran driver led 54 laps in the 82-lap contest on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. That victory put the 2021 Daytona 500 winner in an elite category of drivers who have won both the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR Cup Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But racers are racers and in 2023, McDowell and Front Row Motorsports have proven they are racers, capable of running with the best and winning races. That is why despite the accomplishments of this season, when he made the 16-driver NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, he left Bristol 16th in the standings and below the cutline.

He could share his disappointment with defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano, 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick and this year’s Daytona 500 winner Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

“Just qualifying in the top-five and running in the top 10 all night, and we were closer to the top five most of the night, was a really good night for us,” McDowell told SPEED SPORT on pit lane after the Bristol Motor Speedway race. “It was a very un-Bristol-like race. There wasn’t a lot of drama up front. There wasn’t a lot of beating and banging. 

“We probably needed a little bit more of that to have a legitimate shot because there were a few cars that were super quick. The 20 (Christopher Bell) and the 11 (winner Denny Hamlin), those guys were really fast. I don’t think we had the speed to run with them, but we were close.

“Best short track we have put together. Our short track program this year as a whole has gotten better. Not super shocked by that tonight. Disappointed we didn’t advance, but we knew it would be a tough road tonight with a must-win situation.

“We’ll keep fighting.”

Both McDowell and Front Row Motorsports took a major step forward in 2023. That is one reason why McDowell continued to smile, even in disappointment.

“If you look at the big picture, I’m happy where we are at as a race team and the improvements we made,” McDowell told SPEED SPORT. “No doubt, for sure. Running up front, all year long more often, leading more laps, putting ourselves in more position, for sure, I feel good about that.

“The tough part is we probably had enough speed this year to advance out of that first round and we did a lousy job those first two races doing what we needed to do to do that.

“All of that being said, still a great effort. I’m really proud of everybody. This is something we can build on, build some momentum off this race, and keep pushing hard.”

McDowell was surprised that the list of drivers that didn’t advance was an impressive group.

“When you are in the playoffs, your weaknesses are exposed because everybody is so good,” McDowell continued. “It’s not what we wanted, but still happy as a group.”

McDowell wheels his No. 34 around Bristol Motor Speedway. (HHP/Chris Owens)

McDowell was asked if he felt the like mid-major college basketball program that wins its conference tournament and gets into the NCAA College Basketball Tournament. There is joy and celebration, but unfortunately, their time in the spotlight is quickly over by getting eliminated in the first round.

“I hate that part of it because we didn’t do what we needed to do,” McDowell continued. “If we had been at our max potential and no mistakes and we didn’t make it because we weren’t fast enough, it would be, ‘Hey, we gave it a great effort.’

“We gave it a great effort, but with the problems we had in the first two rounds, we dug ourselves in such a hole, it was impossible tonight minus a win.”

In the 10-race NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs with cutoff points after every three races, there is little margin for error.

He was involved in a big crash on the frontstretch on lap 332 and finished 32nd in the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on Labor Day Weekend.

The next weekend, McDowell finished 26th in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

That put the driver from Phoenix, Arizona in a “win or go home” situation at Bristol.

“Knowing that you had to win, anything short of that, you feel bummed out and disappointed,” McDowell said. “But it was a great race for us. Probably one of the best oval races, short track races, we’ve every run as a group.

“There are a lot of things to be happy about, but still disappointed with how we performed this first round. 

“Tonight showed what we can do.”

The highlight will be McDowell’s victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He heard from a lot of the NTT IndyCar Series crew members and team managers that he worked with earlier in his career as an open-wheel racer.

He also loved sharing the combined IndyCar/NASCAR Weekend with the winner of the IndyCar race at IMS – Scott Dixon.

“It’s funny you said that because I got a text from one of the Chip Ganassi Racing guys saying, ‘That was a very Scott Dixon-esque performance. Managing the race and doing all the things you needed to do.’

“I watch IndyCar, Formula One, and Scott Dixon, man he is so good. So good at managing the race, making fuel mileage, managing tires. Even when he is running fourth or fifth, by the time the end cycles around, he is in position to win. He is so good at doing that.

“The old guys still have something, which is good. IndyCar and Formula One used to be a young guy’s sport, but it’s nice to see those guys with a little more experience run well.”

When McDowell returns to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next year, he will be greeted by a 30-foot-high banner featuring himself as the defending winner of the NASCAR Brickyard Weekend.

“That is cool,” McDowell said. “Hopefully, they use a picture that was a good angle of me. It’s such a historic place.

“There are four or five race tracks that have that historic feel to it and two of them are Daytona and Indianapolis.

“To have won at both of those is really pretty cool.”