Glendale’s McDowell builds momentum in NASCAR Cup Race 1 at St. Louis

Don’t watch now, but Michael McDowell is warming up.

Although June is just getting started, NASCAR is fully engrossed in a summer mood. In the space of a week, there were rising temperatures, fireworks on and off the track and watermelon celebrations courtesy of Ross Chastain.

What do Arizonans do when the grueling summer months arrive? They’re adapting, and that’s exactly what McDowell is doing at NASCAR’s top tier in 2022. The Glendale native and his No. 34 team have realized something recently, compiling four top 10 finishes in their last six starts in Cup Series.

“I feel like we have a better handle on the setups and the different approaches that we need to take, McDowell told The Republic. “It feels good to finally have some momentum and confidence ahead of a fun few weeks here, where we think we should be really strong.”

Things didn’t start well for McDowell at the start of the year, only managing one top 10 finish and two lead laps in eight races. However, everything is going as the 2021 Daytona 500 champion expected at this point in the season.

Not only is the 37-year-old going through the tribulations of learning an all-new car with a smaller team, Front Row Motorsports, but he’s also developing a relationship with new team boss Blake Harris – who the new boss team called a “week by week” development.

“This team has a lot of things we’re up against,” Harris said. “Lack of information, lack of support. In many areas we make educated guesses about a lot of things from week to week and that’s why it’s kind of hard for us to necessarily leave one place and go to the next and think that we we understood everything.

“I think overall we outperformed at times that maybe we shouldn’t have had. Even on our bad days, we’ve often passed a few cars from some of the bigger organizations with a lot more support than we have.

For a team like Front Row Motorsports, one of the main selling points of the seventh-generation production car was the reduction of the competitive gap between powerful teams with an abundance of resources and mid-level teams with few resources. assistance from equipment manufacturers.

In 14 races, McDowell has already equaled his record of five top 10 finishes in a single season, set last year. The handful of quality finishes surpass notable stars such as William Byron, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

“I felt like this Next Gen car was going to level the playing field and give us more opportunities to show the level of team and program that we are, and I feel like we have the opportunity to do it now,” McDowell said. “I think we are getting closer to speed and if we can keep it that way there will be a weekend where we have done everything right and we have the opportunity to win a race.”

AVONDALE, AZ – MARCH 12: Michael McDowell (34) Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang GT talks took place during qualifying for the Ruoff Mortgage 500 on March 13, 2022, at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, AZ.  (Photo by Zachary BonDurant)

While teams are still figuring out the continued evolution of the Gen-7 car, McDowell and Harris also attribute their improved performance to a calmer culture throughout the store. At the beginning of the year, there was a frantic race to produce cars and a lot of uncertainty in reference to possible inventory problems.

Now the team is able to spend the time needed to improve methods to improve on-track performance, which is crucial when working with the finicky new stock car.

“The challenge has just been the novelty of it,” McDowell said. “Trying to figure out what this car needs and where it wants to be and find that window. The windows are small so sometimes you hit it, sometimes you miss it. I think the challenge comes in finding that sweet spot and I think that we focus on.

Thankfully, the feeling of being overwhelmed returns to the traditional norm of being below the playoff line for more than half of the regular season, which McDowell is used to overcoming.

Although he believes his best shot for a second career victory will come at a track like Road America or Watkins Glen, where he can show off his road prowess, he is looking forward to Sunday’s inaugural Cup race at the World Wide Technology Raceway, just 6.4 miles away. outside of St. Louis. The green flag falls on the Enjoy Illinois 300 at 12:30 p.m. on FS1.

“Gateway is a fun track,” McDowell said. “I feel like this Next Gen car is going to be really competitive there. I think you’re going to see a lot of overtaking and you’re definitely going to downshift there, maybe even twice.”

McDowell is one of the few drivers with experience on the 1.25-mile track, having made two starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and one in the ARCA Menards Series, where he finished third and led 38 laps. He was 27th fastest in the lone practice session on Friday, with a time of 33.517 seconds.

“I think anytime you’re familiar with a race track, it’s helpful,” McDowell said. “Just having that pace and knowing what you’re looking for is always good, but in the Cup Series with all the tools that teams have with simulations and everything available to drivers and teams, it is really hard to have an edge these days.

“The pressure definitely mounts in the summer months to do it and hopefully we get a chance.”

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