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Michael McDowell Records First Top-Five of 2024 at Sonoma After Stellar Rebound

After being punted into the tire barriers at Lap 41, Michael McDowell rebounded to finish second at Sonoma, scoring the first top-five of 2024 for Front Row Motorsports.


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It’s great to be disappointed with second, but that’s the way this playoff format is. A win is so important, and we came up short.

Michael McDowell, driver of the No. 34

When fighting for a spot in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, a runner-up finish doesn't accomplish much. Sure, it's an incredible point-scoring opportunity, and it's definitely a momentum builder, but when it comes to securing a place in the post-season -- nothing.

That's no reason to be disappointed, though, especially for Michael McDowell and Front Row Motorsports, who managed to place the No. 34 Love's Travel Stops Ford Mustang in second place, after crashing into the Turn 8A tire barriers on Lap 41.

With an unusually high volume of cautions during the first half of the event, McDowell was cycled to just outside the top-20 when said incident occurred, having just brought his car to the attention of his crew less than 10 laps prior, as the team executed what they believed to be the winning strategy.

“The first stage went well for us, just kind of executing our plan and our strategy, but unfortunately, when we got towards the back on that restart and they piled up in the essses we just got drove into and into the barriers,” McDowell said after the race. “That really hurt our track position because then we had to come back down pit road and fix the damage and that kind of killed our chances of restarting up front when it did cycle out.”

McDowell would spend the duration of the race's final stage climbing out of that hole, created by the mid-way accident, working on the same strategy outline as the race leaders by putting early in the fuel window and working on the defense -- rather than Larson's offense.

With 23 laps remaining, Larson, having just exited pit road with 13-lap fresher tires, drove around McDowell for a spot inside the top-10. From that point on, the Front Row Motorsports driver rode behind the No. 5 and followed him into the top five.

As Larson, Truex, and Buescher began racing for what would be the victory, McDowell found himself in fourth, taking massive chunks out of his delta to Larson, slicing a gap of more than six seconds in half, before the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion acquired the lead.

“I was pushing pretty hard. I don’t know how much more I could have got,” said McDowell after the race. “I needed him to battle with [Truex] a little bit more and [Buescher] because when he came out on new tires, he was just quicker than us. I couldn’t hold him off, but I knew in the long run we could probably balance out and have a little bit of speed. Our long run was our strength, so I don’t know. I have to go back and watch it, but it’s a shame.”

It's not a victory, and it doesn't put McDowell into the Playoffs, but the recovery is a sign of something much bigger: the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team, led by crew chief Travis Peterson, has all the elements of a playoff-caliber effort, and a lot of momentum heading into the Summer.

“Yeah, definitely,” McDowell replied when asked if the result was a boost of momentum. “It’s great to be disappointed with second, but that’s the way this playoff format is. A win is so important, and we came up short.”

After missing out on a season-defining victory, it’s simple to dwell on the what-ifs, like what if that crash never happened, or what if Larson had to race harder with Buescher and Truex at the end of the race? Would any of that of mattered?

But, the loss shouldn’t be the focal point of competition meetings at Front Row Motorsports this week, considering the team just recorded its first top-five of the year, while also collecting top-10s for both the No. 34 and No. 38 teams.

And, as far as the Playoffs are concerned, McDowell has been adamant in his belief that he and Front Row Motorsports are in a must-win situation. At 93 points below the cutline, that may end up being true, but with 10 races left in the regular season, there's an opportunity for that gap to be made up with some stellar results.

Todd Gilliland, McDowell's teammate, is pretty much in that same boat, just six points further behind the bubble than the driver of the No. 34, but with the team's newfound Tier 1 support from Ford Performance, the entire organization has seen a major year-over-year increase in speed.

That will continue to work to FRM's advantage in the final 10 weeks of the regular season, as the manufacturer continues to make strides towards becoming regular winners in the NASCAR Cup Series, on a variety of different track types.

Though, with an ultra-competitive field and a heavyweight battle for the final spots in the Playoffs on points, there’s no doubt that McDowell is taking the role of the underdog in a David versus Goliath-type fight.

But, by no means is that a foreign concept for the two-time Cup Series winner...

Photo Credit: Aaron Giffin, TobyChristie.com

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