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Analysis
NASCAR Cup Indianapolis

McDowell's Indy Road Course win 'hardly a Cinderella story'

Michael McDowell had already earned a win in the NASCAR Cup Series’ biggest race, but his victory Sunday provides the opportunity for a career-defining season.

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang

Wins have been hard to come by in McDowell’s journeyman Cup career but his shock victory in the 2021 Daytona 500 put him in Victory Lane on NASCAR’s biggest stage.

McDowell and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team qualified for the 16-driver playoff field for the first time with that win, but his best finish in the final 10 races was 16th (twice) and he ended up last in the playoff standings.

While he entered Sunday’s race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course without a win this season, he has been running much more consistently.

McDowell was still in contention to make the playoff field on points with three races remaining in the regular season, but Sunday changed all that.

He picked up the first stage victory of his career in Stage 1 and emerged from the final round of green flag pit stops with the lead over Chase Elliott – something he never relinquished for the final 30 of 82 laps.

It was a dominant, emphatic victory that not only solidified McDowell’s spot in the 2023 playoffs but shows he and his FRM team plan to be much more than participants in the championship battle.

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang

Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images

“To basically dominate the weekend is hardly a ‘Cinderella’ story,” said FRM’s general manager Jerry Freeze. “We’ve been fortunate, this is the fourth Cup win that Front Row Motorsports has had, and I think you could say that the first three, circumstances kind of played their way into being in the position to get the checkered flag at the end.

“But this one was just a real butt-kicking, and so I’m especially proud of this win.”

Freeze should be.

Not only did FRM bring a car that showed speed all weekend, but McDowell had to fend off a couple of the Cup Series’ best road course talents to seal the win.

Not to mention, the race was filled with a contingent of international stars, including three-time Supercars champion Shane van Gisbergen who shocked the sport with a win in the Chicago Street Race last month in his series debut.

“I don’t know that we’re quite there as a top-10 team. I do feel like every weekend we’re a solid top-15 team if we just execute our race,” Freeze said. “If you give (McDowell) the same car that these other guys have, he’s going to really show that he can get it done.

“I think the way the rules have changed and with the Next Gen car coming in, it’s really kind of played in that mid-sized teams’ favor that if you’re doing the right things, you can be competitive.

“We’ve just got to keep on investing in those areas to try and improve our team and become a more constant top 10 threat, and when making the playoffs isn’t such a big story, it’s maybe expected.”

McDowell, 38, is under no illusion there have been some circumstances that have contributed to the unusual playoff scenarios this year – namely missed races by drivers Elliott and Alex Bowman – but he “100 percent” believes he’s in a better position than in 2021.

“I think today was more special for me than the 500. Not that it was bigger than the 500 – I don’t want anybody to write that. It’s not bigger than the 500,” he said.

“The 500 is the biggest race you can win, but it was more special to me because of how we did it. We dominated the race. We had the fastest car, and we executed.

“That’s what dreams are made of.”

How far can he go in the playoffs?

And does McDowell dare think of the possibility of contending for a series title?

“We have the building blocks to do it. We have the foundation to do it. We just need a few more things to do it,” he said.

“Until we have more support, it's going to be hard to make it a championship-contending team week-in and week-out, but I think we have the building blocks to go in that direction.”

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