INTERVIEW: Blake Harris, shining in stealth mode

Front Row Motorsports

INTERVIEW: Blake Harris, shining in stealth mode

Insights & Analysis

INTERVIEW: Blake Harris, shining in stealth mode

By

Blake Harris is one of the most unassuming guys in the NASCAR Cup Series garage.

Harris is calm, collected and very soft-spoken. He is the type of guy many likely walk past without realizing who he is, and probably prefers it that way.

No ego. No flash. Harris is straightforward and damn good at what he does. And this was on display in 2022 as he guided Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell to a career year, doing so not by a little but with significant gains seen by the No. 34 team in many statistical categories.

But if you ask Harris about his rookie season as a crew chief, he passes on the opportunity to pat himself on the back. Harris describes it as a “really good” season overall for him and the team.

“Getting to work with Michael has been a huge thing, to have a veteran guy that’s been around a long time,” Harris tells RACER. “But to come into a new group and company and connect with everybody took all the rookie (stuff) out of it pretty quickly. I felt pretty early on that we were one unit and pulling in the same direction.

Harris did feel his team overachieved in some areas but was disappointed at not winning or making the playoffs. McDowell finished 23rd in the standings for the second time in three seasons, making it three straight years of being on the good side of the chart by placing inside the top 25.

The individual numbers, however, were more impressive. Harris and McDowell earned 12 top-10 finishes and an average finish of 16.7. Both are improvements from McDowell’s previous high of five top-10 finishes and a 20.5 average finish.

McDowell also doubled his single season laps led with 67 (up from 33 in 2018), and led the series in completing the most laps at 9,380.

“I think I played a decent role in the team’s progress,” Harris says. “I don’t know that it’s always on the box or the calls during the race. A lot of it has been the speed we’ve had in our race cars, and the setups at times. There have been some cool things we’ve done strategy-wise where I felt we jumped some of the bigger teams, and that’s fun because we’re racing against a lot of guys who are really smart and have been doing it a long time.

“I think the most important part for me this year is the people that Front Row has gotten access to because of how we ran and the people who came on board and allowed all of us to grow. To see some of those guys who didn’t believe and understand where the potential was and give them that each week, walking in the shop after another top 10 finish or just running in the top 10… Even with Michael, there have been places he thought he wasn’t that great, and we’d run in the top 10 and top five. It’s been fun to be a part of that.

Harris (left) was a rookie crew chief this year, but one that came armed with a wealth of experience and ideas. The result was a career year for Michael McDowell (right) – and a call from Hendrick Motorsports for 2023. Chris Owens/Front Row Motorsports

“I’m really proud of our accomplishments this year for both teams. There have been times we did things on the 34, and the 38 has jumped up and was competitive as well. For Todd’s (Gilliland) first year to help that group and the company, to be a part of that has been a big deal.”

Harris is a protege of James Small and Cole Pearn, considered two of the best in the business. He spent time with both at Furniture Row Racing with the No. 78, going from when 30th was a good day to shocking the industry with a championship triumph, then at Joe Gibbs Racing when Martin Truex Jr. moved there upon Furniture Row’s shuttering.

Going from bigger teams with higher expectations to the Front Row and another veteran like McDowell was the perfect situation for Harris in his first year. Front Row has nowhere to go but up, and Harris and McDowell have very similar demeanors as both are dedicated to their craft and not easily rattled.

Becoming a crew chief had been his goal since entering the sport 17 years ago, and he’s picked things up from those he’s worked with along the way. For example, Harris didn’t feel uncomfortable leading a team or making decisions because at a place like Furniture Row, when Harris worked closely with Pearn, it was leadership by committee.

“Coming into this wasn’t any different to me,” Harris says of working at Front Row. “I don’t think I’ve changed anything from when I was a car chief (to becoming a crew chief). I don’t think I consciously put a lot of effort into becoming a different person in a leadership role.”

Harris was given the freedom and confidence by McDowell and others to do things as he saw fit. Front Row also needed an evolution of its processes and car builds, which Harris could bring after having done things differently in his previous workplaces.

It was one year and done for Harris at Front Row, but he undoubtedly left the team better than when he arrived. And now, Hendrick Motorsports has snatched Harris up to be Alex Bowman’s next crew chief.

It feels like a natural fit for Harris to work with a bigger team with bigger expectations, and he and Bowman both have dirt backgrounds to bond over.

“I think the group and people we’ll have around, the resources, the preparation time, it’ll just be completely different and the thing you have access to,” Harris says. “I’m really looking forward to that. At Front Row, we expected to try to compete in the top 10 and in certain places, we knew we were going to be good and tried for the top five. At Hendrick, it will be to try to win every week.

“That will still be week-to-week managing expectations. We’re going to go to tracks where Alex has had good success in the past and places he might not be statistically the best. I don’t know the number changes as far as expectations for me, but the preparation and how you go through the process, I don’t see that being any different.”

MX-5 Cup | Round 1 – Daytona | Race Highlights

More RACER