Despite working with a brand-new crew chief this season, Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports have once again put their strength on display at World Wide Technology Raceway.
Though, this year’s Enjoy Illinois 300, the second race for the NASCAR Cup Series at the 1.25-mile facility, featured some substantial differences for the driver that hails from Phoenix, Arizona.
The first, and most important difference was that McDowell and the No. 34 Fr8Auctions team were able to bring home a result that was indicative of the team’s on-track performance Sunday, finishing ninth.
For long-time supporter Fr8Auctions, it’s the fifth top-10 finish while adorning a NASCAR Cup Series entry, four of which have come in the company’s last seven races as a primary partner for McDowell and Front Row Motorsports.
While McDowell did a masterful job holding his position inside the top-10, some serious credit belongs to first-year crew chief Travis Peterson, who made several intuitive decisions to place the 2021 Daytona 500 winner at the front of the field.
Starting Sunday’s 300-mile contest from 21st, McDowell drove into the top-20 early in the race’s opening stage, working his way as high as 18th by the conclusion of the race’s opening 45-lap run.
At that point, Peterson made his first alternate strategy call of the race, putting two tires on the No. 34 Ford Mustang to gain McDowell some track position – an asset that proved to be crucial in last season’s event at Gateway.
However, within seconds of the restart, McDowell’s entire net gain was erased when contact from Ross Chastain sent the Front Row Motorsports driver spinning in the first corner, causing minor damage to the No. 34.
“We kind of learned last year that track position is super important,” McDowell said after the race. “Taking two tires was an option last year, so we knew it’d be one this year. We did it early on and got track position, but we got spun out. So, we went all the way to the back, and then we put four on, and then you’re just buried back there.”
Attempting to make a recovery, McDowell spent the entire second stage trying to claw his way back up the running order, but with track position at a premium, even getting back inside the top-25 was a struggle.
In the final stage, the narrative quickly changed for the NASCAR Cup Series veteran, jumping from outside the top-20 to a position inside the top five – a result of back-to-back two-tire strategy calls from Peterson.
Making back-to-back two-tire strategy calls, the team’s final four-tire pit stop occurred prior to the halfway point of the race, meaning the left-side tires are believed to have recorded 145 laps around WWT Raceway – equivalent to 181.25 miles.
“We had to go for it again, put two on, and just left two on. We never took four again,” continued McDowell. “There were a lot of laps on the left-side tires, but track position was super important. We had a great Fr8Auctions Ford Mustang, so I knew we could hold our ground.”
With a solid top-10 finish at Gateway, McDowell surges to 20th in NASCAR Cup Series points, remaining a manageable 35 points below the post-season cutline, which is currently occupied by Daniel Suarez.
The good news for McDowell and Front Row Motorsports? Of the final 11 regular-season events, three are held on road courses, where McDowell has historically shown strength, with a fourth being NASCAR’s first-ever street race in Chicago.
Those four wildcard races, coupled with the biggest wildcard of them all, Daytona International Speedway, could leave the Front Row Motorsports team to be considered sleepers to advance to the postseason.