McDowell executes for third pole, Ford fast, sweeps front row at Gateway

By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer

MADISON, Ill. – Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell continues to live up to his team’s namesake in 2024 after earning his third career NASCAR Cup Series pole and first at World Wide Technology Raceway in what was an afternoon dominated by Ford.

It took the 39-year-old 466 starts until he secured his maiden first-place starting spot at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this year. Since then, he’s won the pole at Talladega Superspeedway, and now the 1.25-mile non-drafting track in Gateway, for what will be his fourth front-row start of the season through 15 races. 

McDowell is also now tied with Kyle Larson for most poles in the series.

“I’m so thankful that we got practice and qualifying in,” McDowell said. “We unloaded pretty close, (but) had to work a little bit on the balance. But, you know, With this type of practice and qualifying, you just have to be close when you unload. Travis Peterson and all the guys did a great job of bringing us a fast Ford  Mustang again.

“The thing that I’ve learned with this car, and maybe it’s with experience, but I feel like in particular with this car, when it comes to qualifying, you just have to execute your plan. And I planned all week to do that.”

The plan for McDowell? Down-shift his No. 34 to third gear through Turns 3 and 4.

Last year, the 2020 Daytona 500 Champion recalls having a top-five car in practice at Gateway, but refusing to down-shift through the turns in fear of losing time. Having learned from his mistake, McDowell knew what he had to do this time around, and it paid off. 

While one may never forget their first pole, McDowell’s 138.598 mile-per-hour (32.468-second) lap around WWT Raceway could be his most crucial yet, given the difficult nature of the Illinois-based track and his position in the standings with 12 races until the postseason.

Sitting 23rd in the standings, McDowell knows he’ll likely need a win to qualify for this third playoff appearance. Having led laps in the inaugural race at Gateway and finishing ninth last year, the driver of the No. 34 pegged this as one place he could potentially find victory lane.

“It is a great start of the weekend for us, and we just got to maximize the opportunity,” McDowell said. “We got to capitalize and we have to execute. We need to win desperately to get into the playoffs, and we know that.

“We’ve seen really, really good guys and really good teams that have the speed and are so close, but everything has to go perfect,” McDowell added. “We know what we have to do. We’ve been in this spot before as far as needing to win to get into the playoffs and having speed.

“We have to rise to the occasion and I think we will. I’m counting on going and winning in the next two or three weeks and not having to worry about it.”

Seeing as how vastly different each corner is at Gateway, the brakes are under constant heavy duress, leading to a multitude of parts failures in the two years the Cup Series has been coming to the 1.25-mile track.

Hand-in-hand with the short track qualities the facility exhibits (even though the intermediate package is used there), track position has proven to be at a premium in the two trips NASCAR has taken to WWT Raceway – which is why starting up front and having the preferred number one pit stall could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Joey Logano won the inaugural Cup race at Gateway in 2022 starting from the seventh-spot, while fellow two-time champion Kyle Busch wound up victorious from the pole last year after leading a race-high 121 laps.

Logano actually paced the 30-minute practice session at 138.024 mph (32.603 sec.) over teammate Ryan Blaney (starting third) by one-one-thousandth-of-a-second. Although he did amass the best 10-lap average, he was unable to make the final round of qualifying, lining his No. 22 up 12th for Sunday’s main event.

Busch was the only Chevrolet to qualify inside the top-10, claiming the 10th-spot.

Joining McDowell on the front row is Logano’s Team Penske teammate Austin Cindric, who’s set to make his second start from the runner-up spot this season. The former Rookie of the Year has had a tough go in 2024 with only one top-10 finish through 14 starts. 

The good news is Cindric was sixth-fastest overall in practice and had the second-best 10-lap average. Additionally, the driver of the No. 2 placed top-15 in both Gateway starts and led over 25 laps in his first race there, starting second.  

“I feel strong,” Cindric said. “I thought our practice was really encouraging and I thought we made good adjustments going into qualifying. It’s been a great track for us for the last few years, so good to just be able to execute on good notes.”

The one caveat to the cars that displayed speed during practice, is the track conditions will be wildly different on Sunday. Whereas there were overcast skies with some precipitation during  the 8:30 a.m. CT session, the Enjoy Illinois 300 is being forecasted to run in complete sunlight at 2:30 p.m. local time.

What this means is the track will not have nearly as much grip as it did during practice and qualifying, making for slick conditions. 

High-profile drivers who will need to make their way through the field in order to be a contender are Chase Elliott (P17), Martin Truex Jr. (P19), Chris Buescher (P26) and Daniel Suarez (P31). Again, the Enjoy Illinois 300 from WWT Raceway is set to take place at 3:30 p.m. ET on FS1 and PRN.

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