By Cole Cusumano
Hot off the heels of one of the most progressive years in recent memory, there’s set to be infinite storylines to look out for in the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season — including the emergence of competitiveness from Front Row Motorsports and Michael McDowell.
The 36-year-old had a career year after scoring his most top-10s in a single season (4), posting his best average finish (20.9) en route to his highest placing in the standings (23rd). All of this in addition to making the No. 34 team’s presence known by virtue of frequently competing among the top-15 cars.
McDowell attributes a majority of the Ford Performance team’s upswing to the alliance with Roush Fenway Racing and sport-wide implications related to COVID-19. He believes Front Row Motorsports was able to catch up to other organizations due to the freeze on parts and chassis development. This in turn allowed them to budget accordingly by working off existing data and resources, as opposed to spending on new parts and cars.
While they may not be shattering the record books, 2020 was without a doubt a win for the good guys. With the Daytona 500 looming, this season is all about keeping pace with last year and taking Front Row Motorsports to the next level.
“I think that from the team’s standpoint, goal number one is to win a race and that just does so much for us as an organization,” McDowell told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “Whether we win a race or not, we still have goals that we need to achieve.
“To finish top-20 in the owner’s points would be a big goal for us — we finished 23rd last year, so if we can move up a couple spots that would be awesome.”
The lofty task at hand will be challenging, but the opportunities will be plentiful for McDowell in 2021. The Arizona native expressed his excitement for the upcoming season with the revamped schedule that includes seven road course events. He isn’t feeding into the assumed sky-high expectations with these additional events, though, despite shining there in the past.
“It increases the pressure, but I’ve learned over the last 12 years that even though you’re a good road racer, that doesn’t mean anything when you get to the Cup level, because everybody’s so good and you still have to have a great race, good pit stops and a competitive car,” McDowell said.
Astonishingly, McDowell matched or surpassed his career-best finish at eight different tracks. Three of these came in the form of top-10s at Pocono Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway — a trio of venues McDowell is not accustomed to capturing success at.
“We need to keep that going at places we were strong, but we need to recapture some of that momentum we had at superspeedways — which adds to that opportunity of winning a race too,” McDowell said. “We didn’t lack speed [at superspeedways], we just weren’t able to execute and get to the end.”
The driver of the No. 34 reflects back to The Great American Race, where he restarted eighth with five laps remaining and was only able to muster up a 14th-place finish. He also restarted inside the top-10 at Talladega with three to go in the Spring.
As for where McDowell feels his best opportunity lies in 2021? Road America on July 4. He earned his only NASCAR National Series win at the 14-turn track in 2016 and has led a collective 58 laps there.
Until then, he’ll look to improve upon his 14th-place finish in the Daytona 500 on February 14 at 2:30 p.m. ET on Fox. Before that, he’ll look to lock in his starting position with the qualifying on February 10 at 7:30 p.m. ET and the Duels at 7 p.m. ET the following day, both on Fox Sports 1.