First Win Looms Large for Ford, McDowell at COTA

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

Is the pressure on Ford and the new Mustang Dark Horse to find victory lane at Circuit of the Americas (COTA)? Chevrolet opened up the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season by winning three races, Toyota has won the last two in their first season with the Camry XSE.

With Ford being the sole manufacturer without a win in three attempts at COTA, one of the more likely candidates to take the blue oval camp to the promised lands in Austin, Texas is road course ace Michael McDowell.

McDowell has a legitimate chance to give Ford their first win of the season since the 2021 Daytona 500 with the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix looming large on March 24.

Coming off an 11th-place day at Bristol Motor Speedway, which was preceded by McDowell matching a season-best finish of eighth for a second time at Phoenix Raceway the week prior, the Front Row Motorsports driver has to be feeling pretty good going into the first road course of the year.

Don’t let the 13.9 average finish between 11 starts at road courses in the Next Gen era fool you.

That’s largely brought down by a pair of rocky Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL attempts and Watkins Glen International last year, where McDowell led 17 laps and got a stage win before succumbing to an electrical issue. 

In total, McDowell has combined for 86 laps led, two stage wins and 54 stage points earned. The pinnacle of his road racing resume in the seventh-generation car through two seasons so far has been an emotional victory at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2023.

There’s no denying the 39-year-old has asserted himself as one of the best drivers in the Next Gen era on road courses. However, there will be a slight element of unknown going into the 20-turn track, as it will be the first road course the series competes at with the modified, aerodynamic rules package they’ve run the past two weeks.

“I think COTA is probably unique in that it’s higher speed,” McDowell said. “Downforce always comes into play. It always does. But when you’re looking at the really important corners, you’re probably 40, 50, 60, 70 miles-an-hour, right?

“So it’s not going to be as big of a swing from a downforce standpoint. I think the hope for everybody is that it does a little bit better in traffic. Because even at the road courses, there were times last year where it would be tough to pass.”

As has been the case over the past two years on road courses, it must be assumed that track position will be at a premium in the 68-lap event on Sunday, but it hasn’t been a detriment to the No. 34 team at this point.

From the time the Cup Series debuted at COTA, McDowell made a statement he and his Front Row Motorsports team would be contenders at the 3.41-mile road course in the years to follow with a seventh-place debut.

Since then, he’s finished 13th, and most recently 12th, which equates to a 10.7 average – the fifth-best among drivers with three starts.

Where things get interesting, is that McDowell never started higher than 20th in each of those races.

In 2024, McDowell is one of only five drivers to make the final round of qualifying in four races. That includes a pole at Atlanta Motor Speedway and another front-row start in the Daytona 500.

When you take into account he also earned seven top-10 starting spots through 11 road course races with the Next Gen car, it makes you wonder what McDowell could do taking the green flag from the front of the field at COTA. 

In those seven road course races McDowell started 10th or better, he scored six top-10s, including his win at Indy. Additionally, all 86 of his laps led at road courses over the past two seasons have come in those starts.

For McDowell, he sees this as one of his best opportunities to make the playoffs a second-straight season via a win. He’ll have a total of five attempts before the postseason to seriously capitalize on road course or superspeedway prowess, but the No. 34 team has also proven to be a fringe top-10 contender on a weekly basis. 

Last year, the goal was to win a race and make the playoffs again for the first time since 2021 with a brand-new team essentially. In 2024, the No. 34 bunch is ramping up expectations with a chance to get one step closer to their standard at COTA. 

“The goal this year is to win multiple races,” McDowell said. “I think that that’s a realistic goal, but at the same time, a super challenging goal. I feel like it’s something that we’ve set as a team. 

“Last year, we were able to achieve the goals that we set out, and I think we can do it again this year.”

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