Michael McDowell knows what he’s up against as NASCAR’s playoff series begins, and he’s determined to hold nothing back over the next few weeks as he strives to keep his surprising championship challenge going.
“We’re taking the approach of just being as aggressive as we can on the track, strategy, everything, because we realize for us to advance, we’re going to have the three best races of our careers,” McDowell said. “If you’re not in that top 10 and challenging in the top 10 those first three races, it’s going to be hard to advance.
“There’s always the chance that somebody has some misfortune, crash, whatever it might be. But that’s only going to be one or two guys — and you’ve got to beat four. So, our approach is just to be super-aggressive. Every point. Every spot. Every lap. Knowing that we have an uphill battle, that really is our only approach. So we just have to go for it.”
McDowell is this year’s playoff underdog, and that’s an understatement. Front Row has the smallest budget of any team in the postseason and three Cup Series wins in its history. But this is the team’s second postseason berth after qualifying with Chris Buescher, who won a weather-shortened race at Pocono Raceway in 2016.
McDowell earned his first career win at Daytona in February in his 358th start. He is the longest of long shots to make the Championship 4, and some might even dismiss the No. 34 team’s chances of advancing out of the Round of 16.
“It’s humbling and very special for our team and myself,” said McDowell of his playoff berth. “But I feel the pressure every week to perform. You want to get the best result you can, and then obviously ramping up into the playoffs, it’s definitely more pressure for sure. Everything counts and matters. You don’t get a re-do in the playoffs, so you have to make every race and every opportunity count.
“But at the same timing, knowing that we are the underdog we have one strategy, and that is to go all out. If that means we make a mistake and end up not (advancing) because we went all out, that’s our only approach. I think some of the other teams that have that top-five speed every weekend, they could come out of Darlington, and maybe they’re 15th or 20th and feel they can go to Richmond and run fifth and be fine. We have to execute at a very high level all three of these races to advance, so we get to be aggressive.
Darlington, Richmond, and Bristol are the three races McDowell and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer must tackle. McDowell finished 27th at Darlington and Richmond earlier this year, and he was 10th in the Bristol finishing order on the concrete last fall.
McDowell said he doesn’t plan to study points or make a game plan for the first round.
“Obviously, when you get done with the race, you’ll look at it, but for me, it’s just more about having the best races we can,” McDowell said. “We have to crush it in order to move on. So, I’m not thinking too much about if this person does this or that. We’ve just got to have three great weeks, and that’s our best chance at having an opportunity to move forward.”
The highest McDowell has finished in points is 23rd, which happened last year when he put together what then was a career year in the Cup Series. McDowell will eclipse that with a guaranteed spot of 16th or better in points, and he’s already bettered his career-high in top-10 finishes (five).