Since NASCAR implemented their current formula that ranks winning drivers above the field, it has only taken one win to insure a driver is part of the Round of 16. It doesn't matter if that win comes in a rain-shortened race or in a lottery such as we most often see on the carburetor-restricted superspeedways of Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
There is a caveat, however. The regular season points' leader is guaranteed a slot even if he has not yet won, and if there are more winners than there are available berths in the playoffs, the tiebreaker used is driver points. The 2021 season is the closest we've come to seeing the tiebreaker used with 14 playoff eligible winners in the first 26 races.
McDowell may have felt relatively comfortable in the first half of the regular season, but as his results began to slip following the Pocono Raceway doubleheader, any sense of ease must have become strained.
He drew the No. 1 position in the Daytona 500 when Brad Keselowski spun teammate Joey Logano into a multi-car accident that swallowed much of the lead pack. McDowell was close enough to the front that he held the lead when the caution light shone, and his first career victory was enough to lock him into the playoffs.
That momentum was aided with an eighth-place finish the following week on the Daytona International Speedway road course and it helped him stay with the leaders at Homestead-Miami Speedway the following week. He finished sixth in the Dixie Vodka 400 to earn his third straight top-10.
Apart from Homestead, most of McDowell's success was predictable and that helped make him one of the better values at his level. His path to the major leagues came on road courses with a heavy background in Trans Am. As such, he is frequently one of our dark horse contenders on the twisty tracks and that paid dividends with a seventh at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA).
His other top-five of 2021 came in Talladega 1. There is no asterisk next to that third-place finish and none is needed as Front Row Motorsports regularly has a great record on plate tracks. If you are prone to keeping a tickle-file, bettors and fantasy owners will want to earmark those two course types in 2022 because traders occasionally give good odds on weekends following a modest showing by McDowell.
While McDowell didn't make it out of the Round of 16, (following an accident-induced 37th-place finish at Darlington Raceway, a 28th at Richmond Raceway, and a 24th at Bristol Motor Speedway), that did not diminish the accomplishment of this team. McDowell has earned two or more top-10s in four of his last six seasons and should be able to repeat that feat in 2022.
Three Best Tracks *
Charlotte road (19.5 in 4 attempts)
Daytona (22.6 in 24)
Sonoma (26.2 in 9)
Three Worst Tracks *
Auto Club (34.5 in 11)
Atlanta (33.7 in 14)
Richmond (32.8 in 24)
Victories: Daytona 500
Top-fives: 2 (.056)
Top-10s: 5 (.138)
Top-15s: 7 (.194)
Top-20s: 18 (.500)
2021 Finishes at or above rank = 31 (86.1%)
* Active tracks with three or more starts