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Michael McDowell Inside Playoff Cutline After Atlanta Fourth-Place Run

The driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang is building momentum as the NASCAR Cup Series marches toward the Playoffs.


hero image for Michael McDowell Inside Playoff Cutline After Atlanta Fourth-Place Run

Michael McDowell is on a charge right now. The driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang entered the Quaker State 400 at Atlanta Motor Speedway 10 points behind the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs cutline.

After his best finish of the season, and his fourth top-10 in the last five races, the 38-year-old now finds himself inside the cutline by three points. McDowell's first top-five finish of the 2023 season didn't come easy though.

McDowell's race started from the 20th position, but in the opening laps of the race, McDowell was making moves.

After snagging an eighth-place finish in Stage 1 of Sunday night's race, banking three Stage Points in the process, McDowell found trouble on his first pit stop of the event.

While exiting his pit stall, McDowell collided with Martin Truex Jr., who was caught in a two-wide battle on pit road with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Christopher Bell on the tight pit road.

The collision sent Truex spinning, and it caused significant damage to the right front fender of McDowell's No. 34 machine. The right side aerodynamics are the most sensitive aero spot on NASCAR race cars, and it appeared that McDowell's chance at contending for a solid run may have come undone.

However, the draft proved to be a great equalizer.

McDowell, who has shaped himself into a well-rounded racer over the last few years, is a very skilled superspeedway racer as evidenced by his 2021 Daytona 500 victory. The Arizona native kept slicing and dicing his way through the pack, and skillfully avoided several accidents along the way and by the end of Stage 2 on Lap 160, McDowell again found himself in the eighth position.

With a total of six Stage Points now in his back pocket, McDowell and Peterson went to work on strategizing a path to a potential victory.

While McDowell never quite reached the lead of the race, a decision was made to pit at Lap 94, and remain on the race track in hopes that rain, which was approaching the speedway, would arrive before they needed to make an additional pit stop.

As the race continued to unfold, several competitors would be sidelined due to on-track incidents, while just about every other competitor would have to make pit stops. This cycled McDowell to the front of the field, putting him in striking distance of the lead. But the fuel tank was running empty.

Fortunately, for McDowell, the weather rolled in at the perfect time as a lightning strike at Lap 185 halted the race, and it would never resume. As a result, McDowell would be credited with a solid fourth-place finish after a hard-fought race.

After the race, McDowell credited his crew chief for the bold strategy, which paid off. And he was thankful to be in a position to battle for a win.

“I think Travis did a great job of maximizing our track position when we needed to," McDowell explained. "Obviously, that pit road incident with Martin took us out of the track position we needed, so we had to get a little bit creative there. I’m thankful to be able to recover, but really wish I’d have held those guys off at the end. We had a shot on that restart, obviously, starting on the front row. I thought I executed the start pretty well, but just couldn’t quite get clear of AJ like I needed to, but it didn’t work out. We were close, though.”

It wasn't until after the race that McDowell finally got a chance to see just how badly his right front fender had been damaged on pit road earlier in the race.

Photo Credit: John K Harrelson, NKP, Courtesy of Ford Performance

Michael McDowell Bolstering Playoff Hopes

It's been an incredible season for the Front Row Motorsports team, and it truly feels like McDowell and crew chief Travis Peterson are hitting their strides in NASCAR's Summer stretch.

Over the last five races, McDowell has an average finish of 11th, and he and the No. 34 team are really stringing together some solid results.

When you look at the makeup of the remaining seven races before the start of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, you start to sense that a McDowell Playoff berth by way of points is a very realistic possibility.

Another superspeedway race -- Daytona International Speedway -- serves as the regular season finale. McDowell also has two more road races -- Watkins Glen and the Indianapolis Road Course -- down the stretch.

Richmond Raceway is also in the seven-race stretch to the Playoffs, where McDowell finished sixth earlier this year, which was his best finish of the year prior to Sunday's effort at Atlanta. As is Pocono Raceway, where McDowell finished sixth in last year's race.

With how well McDowell has performed at those five tracks, McDowell's path to the Playoffs will likely rest on his performances at New Hampshire, the site of this weekend's race, and Michigan. Both are tracks that McDowell has failed to record a top-10 on over the course of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

Here is the No. 34 The Pete Store Ford Mustang that Michael McDowell will compete in this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

McDowell and Team Hopeful Entering New Hampshire

McDowell knows this weekend's result is crucial to his Playoff hopes, and he's hopeful that he can turn in a good result with the improvement his Front Row Motorsports team has made at short tracks this season.

“New Hampshire has been a struggle for us," McDowell admitted. "If anything, it’s a bigger Martinsville. At Martinsville, we’ve had speed, but it hasn’t correlated to New Hampshire all the time. I will say this. Our short track program this year is a lot better than what it was last year. I feel at Richmond and Phoenix we closed the gap quite a bit. So, I’m optimistic about New Hampshire. I go there optimistic every year, but it’s no doubt that it’s been a struggle for us in years past. Hopefully, we hit it right this weekend.”

Peterson, who is in his first season as a crew chief at Front Row Motorsports, feels with how well the team performed at similar short flat tracks like Richmond and Phoenix this year, a good run is certainly within reach.

“This is a tough track to compete at for sure, but I’m feeling positive about our short track program," Peterson said. "We ran well at both Richmond and Phoenix this year so there is no reason we can’t perform the same at New Hampshire."

McDowell and the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team will take their The Pete Store Ford Mustang to the track in the Crayon 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday, July 16th. The race will be broadcast on USA Network with television coverage beginning at 2:30 PM ET. PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will provide the radio broadcast of the event.

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