By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
BRISTOL, Tenn. – Michael McDowell and the No. 34 team left it all out there on the hallowed grounds of The Last Great Colosseum in what was a masterfully executed Round of 16 finale in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs.
Entering the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway, McDowell openly vocalized a must-win mentality, sitting 40 points out of a transfer spot as the lowest-ranked driver in the postseason standings.
McDowell and crew chief Travis Peterson understood the task at hand from the time they unloaded their No. 34 Ford Mustang on Friday afternoon. After wrapping up practice turning the second-most laps, the team fine-tuned the car to where the Arizona-born driver could throttle his way to a fourth-place starting spot – tying his second-best qualifying effort of the season.
From the drop of the green flag, not only was McDowell a constant top-five presence all night, he was by far and away one of the best drivers in the field, in a race where almost every championship-eligible driver struggled mightily.
While McDowell was unable to win his way into the Round of 12, he walked away sixth for his seventh top-10 of the season. The 2021 Daytona 500 Champion finished ahead of 11 other playoff drivers, including champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano, who were non-factors the entire evening.
Not to mention, McDowell was statistically one of the most successfully consistent drivers in the field, posting an average running position of sixth in the 500-lap gauntlet – third-best only behind race winner Denny Hamlin and pole sitter Christopher Bell.
Although the No. 34 team had the speed to contend for the win, they needed the race to be a bit more climactic in order to gain track position and get creative with strategies.
“We knew we had to win tonight,” McDowell said. “We didn’t quite have the speed to do that, but I’m still really proud of the effort to come out here and run as strong as we did. We put ourselves at least in a fighting-chance position.
“We needed another late-race caution and the front row to do a little beating-and-banging, and a little bit more drama for us to have a legitimate shot at it. I felt like we were a fourth to seventh-place car all night, so not enough, but I’m still proud.”
Make no mistake, the No. 34 team has had speed throughout the Round of 16. McDowell was able to qualify inside the top-10 of all three races in the opening set, but was met with misfortune from the beginning.
A crash in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway relegated McDowell to a 32nd-place finish and a deep points hole in the first race. The team then followed that up with a 26th-place outing at Kansas Speedway in a mistake-heavy day.
Sixteen points – that’s how many points McDowell amassed between Darlington and Kansas. That’s also exactly how many points he missed out on the Round of 12 by.
It may be tough for McDowell not to get caught up in the “what ifs” of the 2023 playoffs, but he was able to take much solace in performing as one of the best in show at Bristol.
“It’s hard,” McDowell said. “On a normal given weekend you’d be like, ‘That was a great run,’ and it was. But tonight we needed a win, so anything minus (that) was a little bit disappointing … but we went out and we legitimately ran in the top-five-to-10 all night long. To have that much speed, to run there all night, it does say a lot for our race team.
“We needed to do that in all three races and we didn’t. This is only our second time making the playoffs, so it’s a learning process. We’re not the only ones that made mistakes in this round. It’s just unfortunate we lost so many points in that first race at Darlington with that crash. It really put us in a tough spot.”
McDowell’s biggest motivator throughout the night, and really all season has been first-year crew chief Peterson.
Since joining Front Row Motorsports, Peterson has blossomed into one of the brightest minds in the garage area with a calculated-and-calm demeanor that mirrors the likes of master strategists such as Cliff Daniels.
While the successful rapport that continues to develop between McDowell and Peterson was on full display in Bristol, there were also two other sources of inspiration for the rookie crew chief’s outstanding night atop the pit box.
Serving as the team’s secret weapon, Peterson was the lead engineer for the RFK Racing No. 17 when Chris Buescher won this race last year. More importantly, four days earlier the 32-year-old welcomed a baby girl into the world.
He may not have been able to clinch a playoff berth in the next round, but it ended up being one of the best weeks of Peterson’s young life and career.
“We were really fast tonight,” Peterson said. “We had a real chance at it (but) we just needed a few things to go our way. A better pit stop here, a better restart there – [something] to get to that top-two-or-three and I think we would’ve had something for them. It just didn’t play out right.
“We needed not to drop the ball so bad these last two weeks and tonight wouldn’t have even been a question as fast as we were. Overall, it was good. If we keep doing this until the end of year, we’ll be able to finish top-10 in points and that’s going to be our goal.”
Although unable to advance out of the first round, the events that transpired at Bristol were the culmination of how far both McDowell and Front Row Motorsports have come. Since joining forces in 2018, FRM has gone from being a 25th-place team, to contending for top-10s on a weekly basis.
Beginning with the monumental Daytona 500 victory in 2021, McDowell has earned the organization two wins, 24 top-10s and two playoff appearances in three years. At 38 years old, the Arizonan is proving age is only a number, as he seems like he’s just getting started.
“The fight’s not over for us,” McDowell concluded. “This is what our potential is. This is where I think we can run. We’ll learn from it and we’ll be ready for next year when we get another opportunity at it.”