Michael McDowell's spirits high despite 'rough few weeks,' series of DNFs

CONCORD, N.C. — Michael McDowell is ever the optimist, even in the face of adversity. That’s as evident now as any other time in the middle of a six-race skid that has produced four DNFs in the past six races.

Three consecutive early exits have contributed to a 31.2 average finish over the past six weeks, dating back to the March 24 race at Circuit of The Americas.

“Yes! Get you some of that,” McDowell laughed during a Tuesday media availability at the NASCAR Productions Facility after being reminded of the stretch.

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A veteran of the sport with 476 Cup starts behind him, McDowell knows the ups and downs of motorsports well. The downs are obvious right now, but context helps: In two of the past three races — at Texas Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, respectively — McDowell was racing for the lead at the time of crashing out, including in the final half-mile on Talladega’s 2.66-mile high banks. The third was a hub failure last weekend at Dover Motor Speedway.

Wrecking from first or second place is typically as effective on the results sheet as wrecking from 31st, but there were positives to take from these scenarios nonetheless.

“No doubt, it’s been a rough few weeks, right?” said McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 champion. “Some of them have been my self-inflicted wounds. Some of them have been our self-inflicted wounds from a team and preparation and parts standpoint. Last weekend in Dover, we had a right-front hub break, and that’s a spec part. That’s a sealed part. We just found out today … it only had one race on it, had no damage. It wasn’t out of mileage, so nothing to indicate that we did anything wrong. It was just a failure. And so sometimes you have failures, right? And so it’s just been a rough stretch.”

McDowell has often described himself as analytical and put that analysis to work Tuesday, dissecting why he crashed at Texas — “100% my fault.” With an opportunity to take control of the race at the end of Stage 2, McDowell was racing in the outside lane against Ross Chastain before his No. 34 Ford snapped loose over the Turn 3 bumps and was sent careening rear-first into the SAFER barrier. Then came a long discussion regarding the Talladega finish as he tried to block the advances of Brad Keselowski in the closing moments, how those runs evolved and how the race changed when the outside lane lost momentum.

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“If you stay in your mind about it, it can mess you up. But I don’t,” McDowell said. “I mean, if I break it down analytically and I think about it, I can give you good excuses for all of them. Excuses don’t produce results in racing, and we all know that. But having answers is important, if that makes sense. So if you replace that word ‘excuses’ with ‘answers,’ we have an answer to why these things happened. And so we’re not in a panic of, ‘Aw man, we just we don’t have speed or we can’t do that.’ We have speed and we can run in the top 10 and we have the speed to do that. We just have to have everything cleaned up a little bit.”

Michael McDowell spins in the tri-oval on the final lap of the NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega in front of Brad Keselowski and Tyler Reddick.
Michael McDowell spins in the tri-oval on the final lap of the NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega in front of Brad Keselowski and Tyler Reddick.

That mental clarity and leadership from both McDowell and second-year crew chief Travis Peterson are keeping the team on the right path despite sitting 29th in points with 15 races remaining in the regular season.

“If we can dig ourselves in a hole in four weeks, we can probably dig ourselves out of a hole in five or six — but the hole is getting mighty deep,” McDowell said. “But to be honest with you, that hasn’t been my mindset or our approach all year. Our mindset and approach has been we need to win a race.

“Now, this year is different because I don’t think you have to win a race to make it in, based on how many races Denny’s won and (Kyle) Larson and William (Byron) and those guys are going to win. It seems like we’re not going to have 17 winners this year, so I don’t think you have to (win) from that standpoint. But our mindset has been to try to win races.

“And it’s easy to get double-minded, right? So if you go back and you’re like, ‘Oh, if you just play it safe and you play it safe and you play it safe, we would’ve had a fourth, fourth and fifth. And adding that all up, you’re like, ‘Oh, we could have probably pointed our way in.’ But there’s so many more weeks left where that can go wrong. And there’s only so many opportunities that you have in the Cup Series to win races. And so I think that when you have a shot at winning races, you’ve got to be aggressive and go for it.”

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Up next is Kansas Speedway, where the NASCAR Cup Series will hold the AdventHealth 400 on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN Radio, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). McDowell has never scored a top-10 finish there in 25 starts, his best result a 13th-place finish twice (2017 with Leavine Family Racing and in 2021 with FRM). He qualified seventh in last year’s playoff race, but ultimately finished 26th.

Perspective is key, though. And that past experience keeps McDowell’s head up despite whatever the numbers say.

“I’ve been here before and I’ve also been on the flip side of it,” he said. “I’ve been on the flip side where it’s like you’re running 20th all day. Somehow, you steal a top 10 and you’re like, ‘I’m gonna leave as fast as I can before they figure out that we stole this one.’ And then the next week, it’ll happen again and the next week. We’re like, ‘holy cow, we just stole three top 10s!’ And so I’ve been on the other side where it feels like you can’t do anything wrong. And I’ve been on this side where you just can’t put it together for the life of you, right?

“And whether it’s circumstances or failures or whatever it is. … we’ve just got to break the streak.”