MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Front Row Motorsports has long been viewed as a scrappy team in the NASCAR Cup Series — largely a two-car effort with steady results that would occasionally pull off an impressive, uplifting run … and perhaps even an upset win.
Those middle-of-the-road finishes are quickly surging, though. And while no, neither of the team‘s two chartered entrants have cracked into Victory Lane this season, there’s no mistaking — Front Row is clearly on the rise.
The shining standout so far has been sophomore Todd Gilliland, the primary driver of the No. 38 Ford who found out in the offseason that “primary” would be a better descriptor of his role than “full-time.” In the last six races, Gilliland has collected five top-15 finishes, a stretch that includes three top 10s — already besting his rookie season total of two.
But not to be forgotten is his veteran teammate and Front Row‘s sixth-year incumbent Michael McDowell. The 2021 Daytona 500 champion, McDowell enjoyed a career year in 2022, notching or tying bests in every major statistic last year except wins and final ranking. For all the glory that shined on his bright yellow No. 34 Love‘s Ford last season, the Arizona native is off to a better start this year in some respects: His average finish through 10 races is 18.8, as opposed to 20.3 through the same number of events in 2022.
Ryan Bergenty, first-year crew chief of Gilliland’s No. 38 Ford, served as McDowell’s car chief in 2022. The Connecticut native previously worked at other winning organizations such as Furniture Row Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing. But since joining FRM in 2021, he’s seen a considerable change in mentality within the relatively small shop, one that has opened the door to more success.
“It’s a little bit of a culture shift,” Bergenty told NASCAR.com. “It’s not one person but I think a group of people that came in over the last couple months and year and a half that have just changed the culture. And now the level of expectations from the ground floor up has changed.”
GLORY TO GILLILAND?
Gilliland’s rise to recent relevance nearly goes against the odds. His rookie season featured flashes of excitement — leading four laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course and exiting with a career-best fourth-place finish before fighting for the lead at Watkins Glen through wet-weather conditions all stand out — but those were exceptions to his norm, punctuated by an average finish of 23.2.
His average finish now sits at 19.0 after two handfuls of races this year, an improvement he credits to crew chief Bergenty.
“I think my second year of experience has definitely been better,” Gilliland said. “I feel like I show up more prepared and even started the year just in a more correct headspace. I didn’t really know what I was getting into last year. But I certainly think Ryan and his leadership on this team has been a huge, huge benefit for us. It’s a lot of the same guys working on the car, but he’s elevated everyone to another level, just pushing everyone — me included, right? He sends me stuff all the time about just constantly getting better and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
That dynamic has become an important piece of the puzzle as Gilliland and Bergenty figure out how each ticks. In the past six weeks, Bergenty said he feels the two have crested their “honeymoon phase of learning each other,” with Bergenty “a little more brash around the edges” and pushing Gilliland “as hard as I think he can handle.”
“In my head this year, it’s just been lion mode,” Bergenty said. “You go to the race track, and it’s you vs. everybody, right? That’s just how it is and so you just have to have that mindset that you’re there to attack, you’re there to be aggressive. You’re there to be the best, right? And I just pushed that weekly and weekly and weekly with him.
“Are we getting to the point where we’re consistently contending for wins? Absolutely not. But are we consistently better than we’ve been? Yes.”
Gilliland’s performance has improved despite unusual circumstances, discovering this offseason that he would be moved from the No. 38 Ford for six races this season in place of 2022 Craftsman Truck Series champion (and Gilliland’s groomsman) Zane Smith, a situation Gilliland said has been tougher to navigate than he expected.
His lone race outside the Front Row umbrella so far came with Rick Ware Racing at Phoenix, finishing 32nd in the No. 15 Ford. The experience wasn’t fun for Gilliland, he said, as he had just three races with Bergenty and was trying to build momentum. But his return to FRM sparked his current six-race hot streak, including a 10th-place Talladega finish with FRM’s part-time third car, the No. 36 Ford. There wasn’t a conscious moment that motivated the 22-year-old or changed his preparation.
“I was doing all this stuff before,” he said. “But I don’t know, it definitely seems like stuff has clicked since then. So for better or worse I guess, that’s a good turning point for us. But yeah, it is really tough just going forward knowing that there’s going to be more races that I have to miss when we’re on a roll right now.”
Still, Gilliland has made it his top priority to improve as a leader for his No. 38 team — even if he is only a second-year Cup driver.
“Last year, there really wasn’t that person on our team that was like, go out and be vocal and push each other,” Gilliland said. “I (would) get out, I’m like, ‘Man, I could have done better. But I think everyone else knows they could have done better, too. So we’ll just move on.’ Where Ryan really gets to it and figures it out when we have something go wrong. So I think that’s the biggest thing. For him being the type of leader he is, I think it’s a great opportunity for me to learn from him and definitely be a lot better from that.”
MCDOWELL REBUILDING — AND SUCCEEDING — AGAIN
Given his recent surge in the No. 34 Ford, it might be easy to forget McDowell has been a part of the Cup Series since 2008. From Michael Waltrip Racing to Phil Parsons Racing to Leavine Family Racing, he was the definition of a journeyman driver, plugging along and piecing together his NASCAR career.
That, in part, made his 2022 season so special. While he didn’t record another victory, the consistent success he found with crew chief Blake Harris and Co. radiated — two top fives, 12 top 10s, 67 laps led and a 16.7 average finish, all career bests.
So when Harris and other members of his No. 34 team announced plans to move elsewhere for 2023 — namely Harris to become crew chief of Alex Bowman’s No. 48 car at Hendrick Motorsports — McDowell was faced with a decision.
“As it started to fall apart or people started making their announcements, I got to a place where I was like, ‘Man, I don’t want to have to do this again,’ ” McDowell told NASCAR.com. ” ‘I don’t want to have to start over and build from the ground up.’ You know? And I was pretty bummed out. I really was. Just what we had with the group that we had last year, I’m like, ‘Man, we’re just never gonna get that again.’
“It’s just hard to get good people clicking, working together, common goal, hanging out together, going to dinner together, like being around each other, enjoying beating the big teams and doing things that people think we shouldn’t do. Like we just had it going on. And when all the people were gone, I’m like, I just don’t know what we’re going to do or how we’re going to do it.
“So I had a pity party for about three or four days where I just bummed out, over it, ready to be done. Not looking forward to trying to reassemble and redo it. And then I just … got over it. And I’m like, well, we’re not going back to sucking. That’s not happening. So we’re gonna find the right people. And we’re gonna do it just like we did last year, just like we did the year before. It can be done. We’ve done it. And so, get over your pity party, and get after it.”
On came Travis Peterson to serve as crew chief, moving over from his role as an engineer on the No. 17 Ford for Chris Buescher at RFK Racing in 2022. In all, McDowell and a lone mechanic are the only returning members from the No. 34 team that excelled in 2022.
The numbers are favoring this particular rebuild for McDowell. He has one top 10 through 10 races as opposed to three last season, but he sits four positions higher in the points standings with a realistic chance of qualifying for the playoffs on points without a victory.
“I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done and the people that we have,” McDowell said. “I think we ended up in a great spot people-wise and running well. And I really do believe that we are just scratching the surface of what we can do. There’s a lot of variables in NASCAR and a lot of things change and we’re still small. I mean, you see it walking around (the shop), we’re still small. And it’s still a daunting challenge to go up against the big teams. But I feel like we can, and I feel like we have the right people to do it. And so I’m proud of where we’re at and I’m excited about where we could potentially go with what we have.”
WALLS COME DOWN
Front Row trudged into 2023 after essentially losing and rebuilding half of its team. Thus far, it’s succeeding.
McDowell and Bergenty had their own heart-to-heart conversation before the season began, McDowell said as Bergenty was discussing the culture shift working through FRM.
“Trying to figure out what we’re going to do moving forward to get better, whether that’s the 34, 38 or as a group,” Bergenty explained. “And we did, we sat by the fire for a little bit and, not really hashed anything out, but we just talked about a bunch of things. And obviously, I’m good friends with Blake and he left to go to the 48. And so there was just some opportunities for I think the company, for myself, for all of us and what’s best moving forward and I think we made all the right decisions, because I mean the results are getting closer to where we want.”
To Bergenty’s point, the culture is changing at the small Mooresville shop — but there is not a culture shock. Each of the program’s teams have sniffed success — including Smith’s title run last year in trucks off the same shop floor. They are now in the business of redefining the organization’s success, finding ways to sustain it and augment it.
Part of that transition starts by tearing down walls to communicate more effectively.
“I think the biggest thing is we kind of grouped everybody’s different areas of expertise,” said Peterson, McDowell’s first-year crew chief. “They brought engineering in with me, they took the car chief side with Ryan, and then our ability to work together has never been stronger as far as the two cars. We literally knocked down walls in offices and me and Ryan sit together, the engineers sit together, and we just kind of open communicate, and we’ve probably made a more concerted effort to be as close as possible.”
It should come as little surprise that Bergenty initiated the wall removal himself.
“The funny thing was upstairs last year, the two offices were separate,” Bergenty said. “So the first thing I decided (since) I’m staying here, I took a Sawzall and cut the wall down — literally cut the wall down between the two offices so now it’s one big office. So the engineers mingle. Travis and I’s desks are right across from each other and so he’ll be like, ‘Hey, I’m thinking of this from a car production standpoint,’ and I’m able to apply my experience and skill sets there and then he does vice versa when it comes to engineering and stuff. So we just we understand and complement each other the best we can.”
McDowell has seen multiple iterations of Front Row over his tenure. The shift this year, he believes, is the work that has gone into making the No. 38 program as competitive as McDowell’s No. 34 team.
“I think that that rotation and restructure of people has helped the overall program, and then bringing the 38 and elevating the 38 to where it’s at now, I think has overall helped all the teams,” he said. “And so that was a big focus in the offseason was the 34 is in a good spot. How do we get the 38 to that level? And that wasn’t on Todd.
“I mean, we knew that we had areas that we had to improve and get better from a process and a procedure standpoint. It wasn’t so much that my car was getting extra attention or different setups as it was each individual team processes were a little different. And so just more organizationally coming up with those, ‘This is how we’re going to build cars. The cars are gonna be built at this spec. This is the process, the schedule, the timing of how you do it.’ Implementing a few more checks and balances and quality control areas to make sure that when the 34 and the 38 left for the race track, they’re as close as they can be within reason of what the crew chiefs and engineers want to do setup-wise.”
McDowell emphasized that his belief in Gilliland as a driver hasn’t shifted just because the results are now showing up.
“(Gilliland’s) effort’s always been there,” McDowell said. “He’s always been committed to being here at the shop and the meetings and digging in and the simulation and all the things that we’re doing, so none of that has really changed from my perspective. I think it’s more of just getting the cars and the group around him to get the results, and then once you start getting the results, that’s what builds the confidence. You can’t just fake it. You can’t fake confidence.
“But once he went out there and had a good run and saw the potential, then he put together another one and then he’s put together another one. Now he’s on a roll.”