NASCAR: Michael McDowell follows up win with strong comeback

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 21: A general view of the start of the NASCAR Cup Series O'Reilly Auto Parts 253 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

McDowell’s Daytona defense got off to a brutal start, but he recovered to set a new landmark in his NASCAR Cup Series career.

The phrase “what have you done for me lately” makes the professional sports world go round. The greatest achievements can be quickly disregarded with poor follow-ups.

NASCAR’s Daytona 500 seems to situate its winner in a compromising position. Eternal motorsports glory accompanies the Harley J. Earl Trophy, but the race’s status as the opener to the NASCAR season put pressure on the winner to keep the good vibes going. Some winners never regain that swagger. A decade ago, for example, Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner of the event at 20 years and a day…he never visited victory lane again and last ran a full Cup Series season in 2017.

Michael McDowell is the latest winner of the prestigious race, executing a last-lap pass for the lead as a fiery pile-up erupted behind him in the wee hours of last Monday morning. The victory likely propelled his mid-budget Front Row Motorsports team into a playoff spot and McDowell spent the past week on a victory tour, appearing on nationally-aired talk shows like Fox & Friends and Live with Kelly and Ryan.

There quietly seemed to be a foreboding sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop for McDowell and the No. 34 Ford. After all, McDowell had been winless in the 357 races prior to last week’s win. Only Michael Waltrip, the winner of the star-crossed Daytona opener in 2001, had raced longer before visiting victory lane for the first time. His FRM equipment has never been able to consistently run with the circuit’s larger names. Save for a brief playoff appearance by Chris Buescher in the 2016 playoffs (earned through a rain-shortened win at Pocono), McDowell’s 23rd-place posting in 2020 was the best standings finish for an FRM vehicle.

Sure enough, McDowell’s day appeared to be headed south right from the get-go when NASCAR returned to Daytona on Sunday to the Cup Series’ O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 on the facility’s road course. Living up to his team name, McDowell’s performance from last weekend on the oval afforded him a starting position in the front row next to defending circuit champion Chase Elliott. But issues during the pace laps cost McDowell his steering, causing chaos in the first turn of the race that ate at his tires. The tire later fell off of the No. 34 entirely, bringing out the first caution flag of the day.

“We had a flat tire there coming to the green. I knew something was wrong,” McDowell said in recalling the incident, per quotes provided by Ford Racing Performance. “I should have just pitted, so I screwed that up and that hurt us a little bit.”

But, over the course of the 70-lap event, McDowell would go on to live up to the name many of his respectful competitors bestowed upon him after his Daytona victory: a grinder.

After all, McDowell has maintained consistent work in the Cup Series despite working with less-than-stellar equipment throughout his career. It’s led to some dubious history, including the record for the most last-place finishes in Cup Series history. But McDowell, a man of strong faith, continued to work with the hands dealt to him. It paid off over two events at Daytona.

“He’s been grinding his whole career and he finally won one and it’s the biggest race ever,” Joey Logan, a fellow Ford driver and road course race runner-up said of McDowell. “I’m ecstatic for him and he should be over the moon (about the win).”

Over the rest of the road course race, McDowell avoided trouble and used some strong strategy in conjunction with crew chief Drew Blickensderfer to create something out of nothing. As several contenders faded, McDowell worked his way back into the top ten and eventually brought the No. 34 Ford home in eighth-place. It marks the first time that McDowell has earned consecutive top ten finishes in his Cup career, which began with Waltrip’s race team in 2008.

McDowell’s name also appears alongside some elite company, and not just through his victory last week. He is one of three drivers to earn top ten finishes in each of the first two 2021 races (joining Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Preece) and is one of only three to finish in the top ten at each of the two races held at Daytona’s road course (Hamlin and Logano).

“Pretty much everything that could go wrong went wrong today, but this is what our team is all about. Front Row Motorsports, we grind it out and we fought hard,” McDowell said. “We just kept the fight in it and ended up with another top 10, so it’s pretty crazy how that all went down.”

“It was another great run.  I’m really excited to keep this momentum going.  We’ve got to clean it up a little bit, but not a bad night altogether.”

McDowell and the rest of the NASCAR Cup Series returns to action next Sunday afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags