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Road America holds a special place in Michael McDowell’s heart. Just six years ago, he earned his first NASCAR National Tour victory at the historic site in an Xfinity Series race for Richard Childress Racing.
This year, McDowell returns to Road America with a lot of confidence. In the first 17 races of the 2022 Cup Series season, the 2021 Daytona 500 champion already has a career-high six top-10 finishes and is poised to set a new personal benchmark for best average , currently at 17.1.
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Many people in the garage might be surprised by McDowell’s success this year. But he’s not too far from where he planned to race this season.
“I’ve been waiting for this Next Gen car, and the reason I think that’s because I felt really confident in what I was doing with the cars we had and getting the most out of them and, more than everything, just confident with how it’s going with everything,” McDowell said at a press conference Wednesday. “I felt like we were going to be able to do what we’re doing. It wasn’t a big shock for me.
“I think what was surprising was his consistency. I knew there would be times when if we hit the nail on the head and we all had the same pieces and pieces we were going to be able to go against.
Consistency came across a variety of race tracks. The No. 34 team, led by freshman crew chief Blake Harris, followed up on last season’s Daytona 500 victory by finishing seventh in the Great American Race this year. Then McDowell spent two months before earning his second top 10 at Easter at the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Race.
Including Bristol, McDowell has been on a tear, with five top-10 efforts over the past nine races. He was racing in the top 10 in Nashville before a late warning flew by and dropped him to 13th in the finishing order. His other top 10s came at Talladega, Darlington, Charlotte and Sonoma, while also leading a career-high 34 laps at Gateway.
“We cover them all and I think that’s probably what’s most impressive is that we’re able to do that more consistently now and the next step for us is to be able to do that throughout this season, and that’s the question mark that we don’t know,” McDowell said of his top 10. “I believe we can, but the big teams always seem, in the past, to develop a a little faster and a little more than the smaller teams.”
Jerry Freeze, managing director of Front Row Motorsports, said he was pleased with McDowell’s on-track success. He remembers McDowell emphasizing this year because the Next Gen car is compared to a sports car, where its driver has a lot of experience.
“He kept telling us it was going to suit him because of his road racing background and maybe the new cars will line up with some of that thinking with the transaxle and other components. “Freeze said in a statement to NASCAR.com.. “I don’t know if that’s the only reason for the success, but Michael loves this car and we really saw that in Sonoma. Hopefully we’ll see the same at Road America this weekend as well.
Last time out on a road course, McDowell had arguably the best race of his career, being a mainstay in the top five.
Entering the weekend 21st on the playoff grid and 97 points below the cut line, McDowell knows it will likely take a win in the next nine races to make the playoffs. But don’t count it. In the Cup Series’ return to Road America last year, McDowell finished 30th, but in two road races this year in the Next Gen car, the #34 car averages eighth.
“Road America is my best track, so with as well as we raced and as well as we raced in Sonoma, we have to highlight this as a weekend that we have to try and get a win,” McDowell said. . “But it’s not our only chance and that’s good. We’re not quite where we need to be to be legitimate contenders for wins every weekend on the ovals, but we’re pretty close.