NASCAR: Denny Hamlin avoids playoff chaos, finally earns a win in 2021

Denny Hamlin got the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs off to a strong start, capturing his first win of 2021 as other contenders faltered.

The Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway is no longer considered NASCAR’s “throwback” race, that honor instead being bestowed to the legendary track’s spring event. Sunday night’s winner, however, provided perfect throwback vibes as a victory lane staple finally got to hoist another trophy.

Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, finally earned his first race of 2021, holding off championship favorite Kyle Larson to win the opening race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Hamling stood atop the regular season standings for most of the year, but his lack of victories allowed Larson to take over.

As several other playoff contenders dropped out due to on-track incidents, Hamlin stayed out of trouble and held off a furious last-lap push from Larson to secure the win, his fourth at “The Track Too Tough to Tame”. Hamlin also earned automatic advancement to the second round of the Cup Series playoffs, which began with 16 drivers on Saturday night. The bottom four in the playoff grid will be eliminated after the upcoming race at Bristol on Sept. 18.

Non-playoff driver Ross Chastain finished third, while Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.

FedEx Toyota finally delivers a win

Hamlin winning the regular season title seemed like a certainty, as he sat atop the points standings for nearly six months despite failing to visit victory lane. Entering last season’s playoffs, Hamlin and the No. 11 group had won six races before appearing amongst the championship-contending quartet in Phoenix. He maintained general consistency throughout this season (he remains the only driver in the Cup Series that has run and finished all 27 races) but saw his points lead evaporate thanks to Larson’s five victories in his return to the circuit.

The streak finally ended on Sunday night at a familiar locale. He needed no guidance toward victory lane, as he earned his fourth career victory at the legendary Darlington. That breaks a tie with Harvick for the most amongst active drivers and he becomes the eighth driver to win at least four times at a locale that has hosted NASCAR events since 1950.

Hamlin won the first of two 115-lap stages and was running second before some late damage at the end of the latter shuffled him to fourth. The No. 11 crew earned a chance to set up Hamlin for a victory when pole sitter Ryan Blaney’s spin at lap 318 of 367 brought out the caution. Hamlin beat out Chastain for the lead and then secured it for good on the restart.

“We had so many opportunities earlier this year to win races…For us, it certainly is significant,” Hamlin said of his win. “I’m not going to downplay the significance of it. It’s not just another win. This one is big for us and our team and the momentum.”

The No. 11 team now has a pair of consequence-free opportunities to tinker with their Camry before the playoff field is sliced down to a dozen.

“We didn’t have the playoff points that certainly we wish we had going into these playoffs,” he continued. “There was no room for error. And now to punch our ticket to the next round, we get to go out there and focus on getting through that second round, which I think is probably the most dangerous.”

Drive Stuck at Five

Eager to earn another win, Larson gave Hamlin everything he could handle on the final lap. Catching up to the No. 11 by running close to Darlington’s famous wall, eventually getting too close for comfort on the final lap. His No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet crossed the start/finish line in a shower of sparks but managed to finish second.

“We got to the white, and I was like, well, I haven’t been able to gain on him now, I’m going to try something,” Larson said with a smile, admitting he went for the video game-style finish. “Honestly got to his bumper too quick. I was hoping he was going to run that diamond to kind of be safe and I could skirt to his outside, but gave (him) everything I had.”

Larson nonetheless owns a healthy 80-point lead above the 12th spot occupied by Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman, a lead built through a series-best five victories and the 15-tally bonus offered to him through winning the regular season title.

Ross Is Boss Amongst the Remainders

Chastain missed out on the Cup Series playoffs but nearly disrupted the postseason party on Sunday night. His No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was leading at the time of Blaney’s spin after a strong green flag pit stop situated him in front of Larson with 67 laps to go.

Chastain and his teammate Kurt Busch are looking to send CGR out on a strong note. The team is set to shut down its NASCAR operations at the end of the season, having sold its assets to Trackhouse Racings (where Chastain will drive the No. 1 Chevrolet next season). Busch, the current driver of the No. 1, is seeking his second Cup Series title. He led 13 laps on Sunday and finished sixth to establish a 26-point lead ahead of the cutoff.

“This McDonald’s car, I think it was the fastest car here tonight,” Chastain said. “It’s humbling to come with this CGR group these final 10 races here, a place where my career kind of took a totally different trajectory three years ago and to have people like Clover and the Moose (Fraternity) and Advent Health on board supporting me and still letting me race three years later, it means the world. I’ve just got to clean up some more, though.”

Lady in Black Scorns Playoff Drivers

Darlington lived up to its reputation as The Track Too Tough to Tame, claiming the vehicles of several playoff drivers…

  • Larson’s runner-up finish salvaged a brutal night for Hendrick Motorsports: Bowman made contact with the wall at lap 16, damaging teammate William Byron’s car in the process. Byron’s No. 24 Chevrolet failed to finish after a blow tired put him into the wall at lap 200, dropping him to 34th in the final running order and 15th in the playoff standings, nine points behind Reddick and Bowman’s cutoff. Bowman’s No. 48 Chevrolet finished the race in 26th, four laps down.

 

  • Defending series champion Chase Elliott, another HMS rep, was not immune to the struggles. His No. 9 Chevrolet was forced to make another stop after clipping a tire being held by a crew member from James Davison’s No. 53 stall at lap 28. Like Byron, a downed tire ruined Elliott’s day, as contact with Christopher Bell cost him his steering and relegated him to 31st.

 

  • Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell’s quest to shock the NASCAR world in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford was derailed by when he got loose coming out of Turn 2. His subsequent meeting with the inside wall pushed to dead last in 37th. Now 22 points away from advancement, McDowell may need another surprise victory to keep his Cinderella run alive.

 

  • Kyle Busch got loose in Turn 2 while racing Austin Dillon for the 12th position, putting his No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into the wall. A disgruntled Busch immediately went to the garage area and finished 35th, pitting him two points behind the cutoff.

 

  • Truex, the winner of May’s Darlington event, undoubtedly earned his top five finish. An unscheduled pit stop to fix a loose wheel put him a lap down before a late speeding penalty on pit road possibly cost him a chance at the win. Such a strong finish put Truex in third place, 36 points ahead of the cutoff.

 

  • Blaney finished 22nd after his spin.

Ware Released After Carbon Monoxide Scare

Cody Ware retired from the race early after reportedly showing symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. His No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet was previously involved in a stage one incident with teammate Davison and spent an extended stay in the infield care center. Ware was in good spirits on Twitter after the race and thanked both the Darlington medical staff and well-wishers.

What’s Next

The second leg of the Cup Series’ opening playoff round comes at the short track at Richmond Raceway, where drivers will compete in the Federated Auto Parts 400 Salute to First Responders (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). This will be the second visit to Richmond this season, as Bowman earned his first victory in the No. 48 Chevrolet, passing Hamlin on a restart with 10 laps to go in securing the victory. Kyle Busch is by far the most accomplished driver at the track, earning six Cup Series wins (his last in September 2018).

For full results, click here.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Three drivers to watch in Sunday’s GEICO 500

On Sunday, the NASCAR Cup Series heads to Talladega Superspeedway for the second restrictor-plate race of the season. The event will run 188 laps around the 2.66-mile circuit, totaling a 500-lap race. Coming off a second-place finish at Richmond last week, Denny Hamlin will lead the field to green with last week’s winner Alex Bowman rolling off fourth. Here are three drivers to watch in Sunday’s GEICO 500.

Michael McDowell (+5000)

Fresh off a Daytona 500 victory, Michael McDowell is one of the biggest names to watch this weekend. He’s always ran well in restrictor plate races, totaling 4 top-5s between Daytona and Talladega. McDowell finished fifth at Talladega in fall of 2019 and he always seems to run up front in restrictor plate races.

After three consecutive top-10s to open up the season, McDowell’s struggled of late. He hasn’t finished better than 12th since Homestead-Miami in February and has fallen to 9th in the playoff standins and 17th overall. Expect McDowell to get his dream season headed back in the right direction with a strong finish on Sunday.

Ryan Blaney (+800)

Ryan Blaney has proved himself as a strong restrictor plate racer of late. He’s won two of the last three races at Talladega and has two other top-10s to his name at the track. Additionally, Blaney has 4 top-10s at Daytona, including a second place finish in the 2020 Daytona 500.

Blaney’s gotten off to a strong start this season, winning at Atlanta and sitting fifth in points standings. He has just two other top-10s, however, stage points have boosted his points position. Blaney should have a good car on Sunday and should contend for the victory.

Aric Almirola (+1200)

Aric Almirola is one of the best restrictor plate racers in the sport, but he doesn’t have much to his name for it. His two Cup Series victories have both came at superspeedways, and he has a combined 12 top-10s between Talladega and Daytona. Most recently, Almirola won the fall race at Talladega in 2018, beating out teammate Clint Bowyer for the victory.

2021 has been a complete trainwreck for Almirola, and he’d like to turn things around on Sunday. Sitting 27th in points, Almirola finally picked up his first top-10 finish of the season last week at Richmond with a 6th place finish. The whole season will change for Almirola if he can pull out a victory on Sunday, and he should be in contention to do so.

 

NASCAR: Michael McDowell follows up win with strong comeback

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

NASCAR: Michael McDowell scores upset victory at the Daytona 500

A daring last lap pass allowed Michael McDowell to secure his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in his 358th career start.

Michael McDowell hadn’t won in any of his first 357 NASCAR Cup Series starts. He was more than likely willing to wait a few extra hours brought up by rain.

In the wee hours of Monday morning, McDowell’s pass of Joey Logano on the 200th and final lap of the Daytona 500 allowed him to earn his first career Cup Series victory. His No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford led only the final lap but now goes down in history as a winner of NASCAR’s most prestigious race. It’s the first time mid-budget FRM has visited victory lane since Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened summer race at Pocono in the same No. 34 car in August 2016. The victory also allowed McDowell to clinch the Cup Series playoff spot that comes with the win.

“Don’t give up. I think that’s what it’s all about…keep fighting hard. That’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, it’s the moral of everyday life. It’s the moral of our raceteam. You just never know what’s possible,” McDowell said about his upset victory. “I always knew if you just kept grinding , everything will line up…I’m just thankful to everyone who made it possible.”

McDowell, 36, has been racing at the Cup level since 2008, thrown into one of Michael Waltrip Racing’s original Toyotas after strong years of open-wheel racing. Years of struggling to gain traction followed, forcing him to take on several odd jobs and low-budget rides. A culmination of bad luck and poor equipment has led McDowell to take over the dubious record of most last-place finishes in Cup Series history (34).

But throughout the tough process, McDowell kept a strong sense of faith that never wavered. Even when he was languishing in “start-and-park” rides, taking over microbudget cars built solely to earn a last-place purse, he was confident that the elusive victory was eventually coming. Now, he takes home a title in one of auto racing’s most renowned events.

“Even when I was start and parking, I knew Id’ be able to have a shot at it…I never lost hope in that,” McDowell said. “I really think every weekend, this is the week it’s going to happen. I know that sounds crazy.”

The prowess of McDowell and FRM at superspeedway races was well documented. FRM’s first Cup victory came at Talladega in 2013, when David Gilliland pushed David Ragan to the triumph on the final lap of the Aaron’s 499. McDowell himself was a staple in the top percentiles of many superspeedway events at both Daytona and Talladega, previously earning a top-five in the Great American Race back in 2019. This time, however, he was ready to close the deal.

Drivers played things mostly conservatively after the 2021 edition of “The Big One” took out several contenders on lap 15. That incident took out 16 contenders on its own, including McDowell’s FRM teammates Ragan and Anthony Alfredo. Ragan was temporarily ending his retirement to drive the No. 36 Ford while Alfredo was making his Cup Series debut in the No. 38. Other notable names involved in the accident included top qualifiers Alex Bowman and William Byron, as well their fellow 2020 playoff drivers Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney, and Kurt Busch. The incident started when contact from Christopher Bell sent Almirola spinning, triggering the big wreck. A red flag period of over five hours ensued when lightning storms visited the area.

Despite some close calls from there on out, drivers mostly kept to themselves in single-file racing for a majority of the final segments, working together in manufacturer-based alliances. McDowell lurked with his fellow Fords for a majority of the race and earned bonus points with a seventh-place finish after the second stage. The Ford group took the lead after final pit stops around lap 170, with Joey Logano taking the lead from Denny Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver seeking an unprecedented third straight Daytona 500 victory.

Even as the laps dwindled away, drivers kept the single-file pace, a situation prolonged by the fact that only 15 cars were scored on the lead lap. But when Logano took the white flag, McDowell teamed up with Brad Keselowski to hunt down Logano for the win. The two made it up there, but, after disconnecting, Penske teammates Logano and Keselowski made contact, triggering a fiery wreck that also engulfed the cars of Kyle Busch, Austin Cindric. and Bubba Wallace. The caution came out with McDowell barely ahead of the Chevrolets of Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon. Harvick avoided the carnage of his fellow Fords to finish fourth, while Hamlin rounded out the top five.

“I don’t know Michael very well at all, but he certainly has stuck around over the years and battled hard throughout the course of his career…I respect it,” Elliott, the defending Cup Series champion said of McDowell’s win. “I’m happy for him. Hope he enjoys it.”

The NASCAR Cup Series will remain in Daytona for another week, as proceedings now move to the circuit’s road course next Sunday for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 254 (3 p.m. ET, Fox). This race will be the first of a record seven road course events on the 2021 docket. Elliott has won each of the last four races on such tracks and nearly won the exhibition Busch Clash all-star race held on the course on Tuesday night but lost out to Kyle Busch after late contact with Blaney.

Race Notes

  • McDowell earning his first career victory in his 358th career start. Only Michael Waltrip (463) endured a longer winless streak to opening his career, ironically winning the Daytona 500 two decades prior.

 

  • Despite missing out on history, Hamlin let his Daytona dominance be felt with wins in each of the first two stages and leading 98 of 200 laps.

 

  • In his official debut for 23XI Racing, Bubba Wallace ran in the top ten for most of the day and even led a lap before a late vibration in his tires forced him to pit road, creating a 16th-place finish

For full results, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

NASCAR Cup Series Preview 2021: Front Row Motorsports

Veteran endeavors and rookie debuts will lead the way from Front Row Motorsports’ 2021 NASCAR proceedings.

2021 Front Row Motorsports Driver Chart
Driver Car No. Crew Chief Primary Sponsor(s)
Michael McDowell 34 Drew Blickensderfer Love’s Travel Stops
David Ragan (part-time) 36 Derrick Finley Select Blinds
Anthony Alfredo (R) 38 Seth Barbour DUDE Wipes/MDS Trucking

History

Despite relatively conservative settings, Front Row has been one of the Cup Series’ modern staples, regularly fielding cars since 2009 after first arriving five years earlier. The late John Andretti was the first full-time driver of the car, with names like David Gilliland, Josh Wise, and Brett Moffitt all assuming the titles in years since. Renowned part-time names include Terry Labonte, Jeff Green, and Joe Nemechek.

Front Row earned the ultimate triumph in the spring of 2013, when Gilliland pushed David Ragan to a victory at Talladega, allowing FRM to sweep the top two sports. Three years later, the team made a brief appearance in the NASCAR playoffs, earning a spot when Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened summer race at Pocono.

2020 in Review

2020 was a breakout year of sorts for FRM, as the team earned a personal-best seven top ten finishes between Michael McDowell and Rookie of the Year contender John Hunter Nemechek, their best being the former’s seventh-place posting at Indianapolis. Nemechek had respectable efforts but he left at the end of the year to take over one of Kyle Busch’s Tundras in the Camping World Truck Series.

“Last year, we feel like we made a pretty big gain just from overall competitiveness and speed in our race cars,” said McDowell, whose 23rd-place finish in the standings was FRM’s best posting since Buescher reached the playoffs. “I feel like we have the potential to be more competitive this year than we even were last year, but you just never know until you get to the racetrack.”

Meet the Drivers

Michael McDowell

Experience: 13th full season
Career Cup Victories: 0
2020 finish: 23rd
Best standings finish: 23rd (2020)

It’s a shame that McDowell’s season was mostly remembered for his get-together with Bubba Wallace at the All-Star Open event at Bristol in July. Having worked with low-budget teams for most of his career, McDowell put up the best numbers of his Cup Series career, earning a career-best four top-ten finishes, each of them coming away from superspeedways. Prior to that, McDowell had one such result, coming at Homestead in the 2016 finale. This season will be his fourth in the No. 34 Ford.

“It’s a lot of fun because on those good days where you sneak out a top 10 or a top five you really feel like you’ve accomplished something,” McDowell said of competing with a mid-budget team. “Then you obviously have those ups-and-downs, on those days where you run twenty-something you can kind of brush it off and get ready for the next week. But just seeing the steady progression for us is what I think is the motivator. Last year, you always have high expectations, but when you actually go out there and perform we started to feel like, ‘Hey, we can do this. We can run 15th every week and we can beat two or three of these big teams and do it on a weekly basis.’ So that was a lot of fun and very rewarding and hopefully, we can keep that going into 2021 as well.”

Even McDowell’s crash with Wallace at the Open led to some good in the end. The pair auctioned off the bumper from Wallace’s downed No. 43 for the non-denominational Motor Racing Outreach, a religious organization that provides service and worship opportunities for drivers on the NASCAR circuit. Such an endeavor raised over $20,000.

David Ragan (part-time)

Experience: 16th season
Career Cup Victories: 2 (Last: Talladega, spring 2013)
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: 13th (2008)

Ragan will once again briefly end his retirement to run the Daytona 500, doing so last year in a collaborative effort between FRM and Rick Ware Racing. Daytona is the site of Ragan’s other Cup Series victory, which came in July 2011 in Jack Roush’s No. 6 Ford. Ragan finished fourth in last season’s 500, his first top five since subbing for an injured Kyle Busch in 2015.

Anthony Alfredo (Rookie)

Experience: 1st season (No prior Cup Series starts)
Career Cup Victories: N/A
2020 finish: N/A
Best standings finish: N/A

Alfredo already has a lot to prove, even before he makes his first Cup Series start. Choosing the Connecticut native to take over for Nemechek in the No. 38 was a surprising decision considering he hasn’t run a full Xfinity Series season yet. He has some short track success to his name, finishing in the runner-up slot in the CARS Late Model Tour with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team.

“It’s a huge step for myself and my career and to be competing against childhood heroes of mine, guys who have been racing not only in their career but in this series since before I was born or maybe one years old. I think guys like (Ryan) Newman have been in the series since I was one or two, so there are a lot of veterans out there and I know that they have a tremendous amount of experience in general in racing, let alone just this level, so I’m looking forward to learning from them.”

“It’s going to be a challenge to compete with them on a regular basis, but that’s what probably has me most psyched about this year.”

Alfredo did show some strong potential while sharing Richard Childress Racing’s Xfinity ride with Myatt Snider and Kaz Grala. He earned top tens in five of his first nine starts (including a fourth at Homestead) and closed his tenure out with a third-place showing at Texas. The No. 38 will be one of two Rookie of the Year contenders on the Cup Series level, squaring off against Chase Briscoe and Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 Ford.

Outlook

Contending at non-superspeedway events might be a tad too much to ask for from FRM’s perspective, but putting a car in the top 20 in the standings is a realistic goal.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Front Row Motorsports announces 2021 lineup

Michael McDowell returns to the No. 34, while Connecticut native Anthony Alfredo joins after a standout debut in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Front Row Motorsports announced its plans for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season on Wednesday. The low-budget team will retain veteran Michael McDowell for its No. 34 Ford, while Connecticut native Anthony Alfredo will take over its No. 38 machine. FRM will also run a third car, the No. 36, at the Daytona 500, which will be piloted by David Ragan.

Alfredo, 21, joins the team after a strong debut on the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Richard Childress Racing. John Hunter Nemechek drove the car last season, earning three top-ten finishes. Nemechek and FRM parted ways shortly after the 2020 season and will return to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to drive a Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

Sharing the No. 21 Chevrolet with Myatt Snyder and Kaz Grala, Alfredo made 19 starts, finishing in the top 20 in all but four of them. He would save the best for last with a third-place finish at October’s Texas event, one of two postings in the top-five (the other being a fourth-place at Homestead in June). Despite running a part-time schedule, Alfredo finished 18th in last season’s Xfinity standings, second-best amongst those who did not a full-time slate (behind only Daniel Hemric one spot ahead). Alfredo also has experience with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports, finishing in the runner-up slot on the CARS Late Model Tour in 2017.

“This is really an unbelievable moment,” Alfredo said in a statement on NASCAR.com. “When you start out racing karts as a kid, you dream of making it to the sport’s top level. I want to thank Bob Jenkins and everyone at Front Row Motorsports for making this dream a reality. I know the challenges ahead, but I’m here to work hard and prove myself.”

Alfredo will compete for the Cup Series’ Rookie of the Year Award. He’s currently set to battle fellow 2020 Xfinity competitor Chase Briscoe and the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford team for the title.

McDowell, 36, will return for his fourth season with FRM. Last season, he posted the best numbers of his Cup Series, earning a team-record four top-ten finishes and placing 23rd in the standings. Drew Blickensderfer will return for his third season as the No. 34’s crew chief.

“Michael has really solidified his place as our veteran leader,” team Bob Jenkins said in the statement. “He brings a wealth of knowledge and experience that has helped us continue to grow our program.”

Ragan retired from full-time racing after the 2019 campaign but will run the season-opening Daytona 500 in an FRM machine for the second straight season. The 35-year-old brought home FRM’s first Cup Series victory in 2013 at Talladega and placed fourth in last season’s opener.

Debuting in 2005 and opening up full-time racing four years later, FRM has gained a reputation as one of NASCAR’s stronger low-budget teams. The team made a surprising appearance in the 2016 Cup Series playoffs, earning a spot when Chris Buescher won a rain-shortened race at Pocono.

In addition to their Cup Series reveals, FRM also announced that Todd Gilliland would return to his role in the team’s Truck Series entry. Gilliland, 20, earned four top-five finishes en route to a playoff appearance in the No. 38 truck last season. His father drove for Jenkins and FRM at the Cup level for six full seasons, notably sitting on the pole for the July 2014 race at Daytona and finishing second behind Ragan at the aforementioned Talladega triumph.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Michael McDowell set a record no one wants to beat

An early crash in Sunday’s Pocono 350 earned McDowell and the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford a place in NASCAR Cup Series infamy.

History was made from each of the most extreme sides of Pocono Raceway’s Sunday scoring monitors.

Denny Hamlin’s win in the NASCAR Cup Series’ Pocono 350 not only put him in sole possession of 19th-place on the premier circuit’s all-time wins list, but also tied him with Jeff Gordon for the most wins at the 2.5-mile triangle. Conversely, the 40th and final car in the running order, that of Michael McDowell, set a Cup Series record for the most last-place finishes.

McDowell, driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford, ironically came in the final position for the 34th time, breaking a tie with Joe Nemechek. He was running 25th on the 15th of 140 laps when his right rear tire went down, putting him into the wall. McDowell had previously scraped the wall while battling the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott for position. The Front Row team immediately determined the damage was too great to carry on, relegating McDowell to the fateful finish.

The timing of the historic accident couldn’t be more unfortunate for McDowell and the underfunded No. 34. Save for a surprise playoff appearance in 2016 (brought upon by a weather-induced win by Chris Buescher in the No. 34), FRM has not placed a car within the top 20 in owners’ points since joining the series on a full-time basis in 2009. McDowell and rookie teammate John Hunter Nemechek (Joe’s son and driver of the No. 38 car) have placed their Fords in respective 22nd and 23rd positions in the current postings.

Saturday’s first half of Pocono’s Cup Series doubleheader was historic in a brighter sense for McDowell. He drove the No. 34 to an eighth-place finish, earning his career-best result at a track other than Daytona or Talladega. Consistency has been the name of the game for McDowell and the No. 34 team in 2020. Prior to the crash, the car had posted top 20 finishes in four consecutive events, as well as seven of the past nine. McDowell is currently on pace to set a career-best finish in the Cup Series standings, having previously come home 26th in 2016 and 2017 (doing so with FRM in the latter).

Though his name is etched in NASCAR infamy (a history eloquently documented by a website known as LASTCAR), McDowell has had his share of auto racing accomplishments. He took home 2004’s championship honors in the open-wheel Star Mazda Championship (now known as the Indy Pro 2000 Championship), one year after scoring Rookie of the Year honors in the ARCA series. McDowell also earned a win at the NASCAR Xfinity Series level in 2016.

Fortunately for McDowell, he has a long way to go to set the all-time record for last-placements across NASCAR’s three national series. According to LASTCAR, that dubious mark is held by former Xfinity Series champion Jeff Green, who has been relegated to 121 such finishes.

McDowell and the Cup Series returns to action next Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Big Machine Vodka 400 Powered by Florida Georgia Line (4 p.m. ET, NBC).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

NASCAR: Two Underrated Drivers Had A Big Saturday

NASCAR, Christopher Bell

Yesterday featured the opener to a big weekend of NASCAR. Starting at 9:30 am est the Trucks roll-off, then the Xfinity series goes off after them, and then the finale of the weekend is the second cup race. The first day was a big one for two underrated drivers.

Christopher Bell Finished 4th

Bell has been a highly touted rookie. Coming off a master class in the Xfinity Series last year, Bell was handed a ride and expected to fare well. Although Tyler Reddick has stolen a lot of headlines, Christopher Bell has had some speed. Piloting the 95 machine, Bell was fast at Pocono and parlayed that into a top 5 finish. Bell took over the Leavine Family racing ride from Matt DiBenedetto in order to gain cup experience before likely jumping up to a ride at JGR. His speed yesterday will make him one to watch later today. At the very least though, his success Saturday is a strong building point for the long haul.

Michael McDowell Finished 8th

Whereas Bell is a rookie with high potential, McDowell is the underdog for a team with lesser equipment. At 35 years old, McDowell is likely in the back 9 of his career starting at 18. It’s always entertaining when he has success though. McDowell is a guy people like to see succeed because he’s counted out often. Today was a good day for the 34 team and they took advantage of good pit strategy and a fast car in order to get to the front of the field. It was a good race for the Front Row team and hopefully, they can continue to replicate that success.

It’s always encouraging to see two underdogs succeed and hopefully, they continue to have success. For Bell, success could nail a top tier ride for 2021. For McDowell, success could change his career trajectory.