Michael McDowell’s not a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver you see a whole lot about in pre or post race interviews or features. But he and the single car race team he drives for at Levine Family Racing are looking to do more with less.
While the first few weeks of the 2017 Cup series were dry, and the weather agreeable to track activities, Friday, March 31 at Martinsville Speedway was overcast, and rain altered track schedules, and ultimately, cancelled practice. As McDowell and I spoke in the corridor of No. 95 hauler, a light rain fell outside and weather was the first point of discussion.
“It’s kind of miserable for the guys in particular, having to go through tech and push the car in the rain,” McDowell said.
McDowell’s first Cup start was at Martinsville Speedway in the 2008 Goody’s Cool Orange 500, so nine years later, the track had a little more meaning.
“It’s always fun to go back to where you made your debut. It was a great race for us last year, and short tracks are typically good for us at Leavine Family Racing. Tracks like Martinsville, Bristol and road courses, we circle on our calendar. We have a legitimate shot at running in the Top-15 and Top-10 this week, so that’s really exciting for us,” he said.
“Just because it’s your first race, you have so many memories and obviously it’s a milestone in your career, so when you come back, you remember that. It feel like a long time ago — 2008,” McDowell said.
Coming to Martinsville year after year, McDowell said the biggest thing he’s learned is patience.
“It’s a long race,” he said. “It’s a hard fought battle. It’s an all day thing.”
There has been a lot of talk about the number of mile and half tracks on the circuit and discussion about short tracks not being represented enough in the Cup schedule. But McDowell says while Martinsville works well, other tracks of similar size may not be able to handle NASCAR in 2017 and beyond.
“For whatever reason, Martinsville produces good racing,” he said. “Even with so many cars on a small track it still seems to work out pretty well. I don’t know how other short tracks would play in. I’m not sure how a small facility would be able to handle a big size race.”
McDowell says that he likes short tracks, and while he didn’t grow up racing them, they’re a lot of fun.
Racing and Winning in Xfinity
In 2016, running part time in the No. 95 for LFR, McDowell also got the opportunity to race a single race in the Xfinity Series for alliance partner Richard Childress Racing (RCR). RCR had an opening in the car for Road America, and McDowell’s name came up in a meeting as a possible driver. He took full advantage of the opportunity, where he celebrated his first NASCAR victory, leading the last 24 laps before ultimately ending up in Victory Lane.
“I’d been really close there in years past. It was fun to close out a chapter,” he said. “It was great and I got to do it with my buddy Justin Alexander as crew chief and obviously with our RCR alliance it’s worked out really well.”
Splitting Seat Time
While in 2017, LFR has a charter and McDowell has a full time ride in the No. 95, that was not the case in 2016. McDowell split time with Richard Childress’ younger grandson, Ty Dillon.
“There wasn’t really any advantage for me last year,” he said. “Just because when Ty did drive the No. 95, it was all RCR stuff so it didn’t evaluate our equipment or our people because it was a mix of our people, their people, their equipment and our hauler.”
McDowell said the only real advantage was filling out the schedule on the sponsorship front.
With 2017’s season, NASCAR introduced stage racing, splitting each race into 3 sections. McDowell said it has not had much effect on him as a driver, other than giving a nice little break within the race.
“We haven’t really been near the points to try a strategy or anything to get there,” he said.
McDowell celebrated a 10th place finish in the 2016 Coke Zero 400, one of the many 1.5 mile tracks on the Cup schedule, but despite that good finish, McDowell said mile and halfs haven’t traditionally been the races they target. He said they have in fact struggled on mile and half tracks until seeing some success at the end of 2016.
“A lot of that was having Todd Parrott on board and getting better cars,” he said.
In general, he said the races they target are short tracks like Martinsville and Bristol. Road courses and restrictor plate tracks are the other places McDowell says the team focuses on getting good finishes.
“But now you can throw in the mile and halfs. Things have to go our way for sure, but we’ve been right around that 18th to 20th as it plays out — not necessarily finishes but where we feel speed is.”
Talking Danica Patrick
As a result of having that 18th-20th place car in terms of speed, McDowell often finds himself racing around a lot of the same drivers week in and week out. One that’s often around the No. 95 is the No. 10 driven by Danica. Asked about he keeps things from elevating to the level of the post-race skirmish earlier in the year with Joey Logano and Kyle Busch.
“Well you can’t fight with Danica,” he said. “That’s a no go zone. She can probably take a swing at you, but you definitely wouldn’t want to hit a girl so that’s off limits.”
McDowell found it hard to find the right words to describe racing with and around Patrick.
“She’s grasping for air,” he said. “She gets frustrated and often says things that probably are not accurate.”
But McDowell says there’s not a whole lot of communication outside of the car. He said at Auto Club Speedway Patrick tried to wreck the No. 95.
“I’ll give her the opportunity to say something but if she doesn’t say something, she just has one coming,” he said.
We’re not trying to start anything here at ClosetNASCARFan.com, but driver’s memories are long and so is the season.