By Toby Christie (Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie)
There was a sense of feeling that when Michael McDowell announced he was moving to Front Row Motorsports at the end of the 2017 season, that the 33-year-old Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series veteran would have his best season to date in 2018. That didn’t quite come to fruition but McDowell and the No. 34 did put out a formidable effort in their first season together.
The season started off strong in the 60th annual Daytona 500. McDowell started The Great American Race from the 22nd position, but he is seemingly always a factor at restrictor plate races. While others charged toward the front in the early stages the racing got ultra-frantic. McDowell played it cool and as a big crash ensued on lap 60, the driver of the No. 34 stayed in contention.
Now it was time to mix it up.
However a second “big one” would occur on lap 102, and this time McDowell would be minimally involved. McDowell soldiered on and actually finished in the top-10 in both Stage 1 and 2.
McDowell would end up losing a lap in the race after having to make an addition trip on pit road during a green flag pit sequence, but when the race’s third “big one” occurred on lap 200, McDowell was awarded the free pass.
In overtime, McDowell charged to a ninth-place finish.
“We had our ups and downs that is for sure. I am thankful to get stage points. It takes a top ten finish and makes it like a top-five,” McDowell said. “We had a fast Love’s Travel Stops Ford. Unfortunately we had a little mishap on pit road. [Bayne] was coming out of his box as we were coming in. There was no way I wasn’t going to hit him, so we had to come back through and lost a lap. Thankful to get out of Daytona with a top-10. We brought a fast Ford. Showed good stage. It was a really good run.”
McDowell suffered from four 24th-or-worse finishes in a row after Daytona, which included a blown motor in Las Vegas. What looked to be a potential break out year, looked to be spiraling into mediocrity.
McDowell snapped out of it with a solid 14th-place finish at the challenging 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway.
Then came Bristol. McDowell was fast all week long in practice. And in qualifying the Arizona native put down a strong ninth-place qualifying effort. The mood around the garage was that McDowell may be on the verge of at the very least a really good run, and possibly a trip to victory lane.
Then on lap four disaster struck. McDowell’s car snapped lose and he triggered a nine-car melee. His race would end at lap nine with a disappointing 38th-place finish.
McDowell would close out the season by scoring top-20 finishes at Charlotte, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, the Roval and Phoenix.
McDowell would finish out the year 26th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship standings, but he would make Front Row Motorsports history. McDowell’s season-long average start of 23.0 is the best that any driver has ever recorded over the course of a season for the team.
Now it’s on to 2019 for McDowell and FRM.
As it stands it looks like there will be little, to no changes on tap within the team. Although crew chief assignments and sponsors haven’t been officially announced, it seems very likely that Love’s Travel Stops will be on board for another season. It also seems likely that K-LOVE radio stations which followed McDowell to FRM will be back for a few races as well.
As far as the crew chief position goes, it would seem likely that Derrick Finley would remain atop the pit box as well, although the addition of a third FRM team with a rookie Matt Tifft driving the all-new No. 36 could cause the team to shuffle some crew chief pairings.
There are a couple of interesting things to keep an eye on for this team.
First, how will they adapt to the changing of the Ford body from the Fusion to the Mustang? Basically every Chevrolet team struggled in transition from the SS to the Camaro ZL1.
Second, will the new aerodynamic and engine rules that are supposed to create a pack-stylish form of racing at 1.5-mile speedways help this team have a shot at elevating performance from a top-15 to 20 contender to being a more frequent member of the top-10?
Those are key things that will make or break the season, but regardless look for McDowell and company to build on their 2018 campaign which showed signs of speed from time-to-time.