By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
For a fourth time in the last decade, Martin Truex Jr. dominated the competition (and the headlines) at Sonoma Raceway. While the end result of the Toyota / Save Mart 350 really wasn’t even close, it was nearly impossible to ignore the vibrant, yellow No. 34 trailing the former champion in a hot pursuit all afternoon.
After scoring his second top 10 of the year at World Wide Technology Raceway, many were anxious to see what Michael McDowell could do with a little momentum going back to the west coast as a road-course racing specialist.
His weekend in wine country began the same way it ended in 2022: third-place – which doubled as his season-best effort last year and highest starting spot through 16 races in 2023.
From the drop of the green flag to the time the checkers waved, McDowell’s presence was known. While the 38-year-old walked away his second-straight top-10 finish, it should’ve been a much better day.
The No. 34 team led by Travis Peterson had their Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang well equipped from the start, but it really came alive during long runs, which played perfectly into their strategy with only two cautions and no stage breaks.
Not only was McDowel one-of-four drivers to earn points in both stages, he completed all but one lap running inside the top 15 – second-best next to Truex, who was a mainstay up front the entire race.
Where the wheels – more specifically, lug – fell off was on pit road.
Each time McDowell made his way into the pits, he’d lose a considerable amount of spots. According to Bozi Tatarevic at Racing America, the No. 34 team had the 30th-ranked average pit time (12.416 seconds) and was nearly 2.5 sec. off the pace from the No. 8 crew’s best average time in Sonoma.
The nail in the coffin came during the money stop, when McDowell entered the pits third and wound up restarting 13th with 15 to go after a lug got away from the team during service.
“We were in a good spot there,” McDowell said post race. “Felt like we had enough speed to run with the No. 19, so when that caution came out, I got real excited. As we rolled off pit road there, we lost a lot of spots, unfortunately.
“I feel like we did a decent job recovering from 13th to seventh, but not what we had for today. I feel like we had a top-two car. I wish we were standing on the front straightaway doing burnouts, but thankful to come out of here with a top 10 after what could’ve been a disastrous last pit stop there.”
Although McDowell isn’t carrying a trophy into the off week, things appear to finally be trending in the right direction.
Entering this season, the 2021 Daytona 500 Champion was dealt the task of trying to replicate career-best numbers from one year ago. However, many fail to realize McDowell is working with a brand-new team (excluding his spotter) and a crew chief in the midst of his first full-time role in the NASCAR Cup Series.
While McDowell may not be lighting up the stat sheets on a weekly basis, there’s been an evident uptick in performance at Front Row Motorsports between years one and two of the Next Gen car, which was designed to tighten the competitive gap.
Over the last handful of weeks, you can tell there’s more comfortability in the No. 34 camp. Specifically, there was a noticeable shift in performance after a flashy effort in the All-Star Open at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Since then, McDowell has led in three of the last four races and is riding back-to-back top 10s into the break. Additionally, at this point in 2022, he was 20th in the standings. He currently sits 19th only 14 points back from a spot in the Round of 16 with 11 races remaining in the regular season.
“I’m proud of everybody at Front Row Motorsports,” McDowell said. “We had a really fast Ford Mustang. Just building some momentum now, and everyone knew we were here this weekend.
“We’re close, man. Just didn’t go our way. A lot more fight left in us. We’ll take the top 10, take the good weekend, build on it, and hopefully get to victory lane.”