Michael McDowell, driver of the No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang Dark Horse for Front Row Motorsports, is the last Ford driver to win a NASCAR Cup Series road course race when he took the checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway one year ago. He stopped by the infield media center at Sonoma Raceway to talk about this weekend’s event on the freshly paved surface.

MICHAEL MCDOWELL, No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang Dark Horse – WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE CHANGES TO THE WALL? “Visually, it looks different but it didn’t change anything as far as what you could see around the corner, kind of what your targeting and aim for, so that part of it was fine. I think the only concern as far as racing is just being side-by-side if somebody doesn’t leave you room and pinches you down into the wall. For the most part, all of us yesterday were trying to give ourselves a little bit of room off of it, which I think that will be the trend. You’ll see guys probably get a bit more aggressive trying to get closer if there’s more grip down there, but there’s so much grip on the new pavement that you’re not having to get super, super close like you would kind of looking for new asphalt because it’s all new asphalt. But there is concern, for sure, if you’re inside somebody and they run you tight and you’re all the way up against the wall what could happen.”

IS THERE LESS INCENTIVE FOR THE DRIVER ON THE OUTSIDE TO PINCH SOMEBODY DOWN BECAUSE THEY MIGHT JUST BOUNCE OFF THE WALL AND COME BACK INTO THEM? “Yes and no. I think more than anything it gets jammed up in there. Like, when somebody does get in too deep and kind of runs into the side of somebody it kind of stacks everything up. I think the biggest concern for the inside car is less about getting into the barrier as it is just clipping your tire and bending your toe link there. Obviously, you’re not gonna make heavy contact with it, but it’s only gonna take a little bit to grab the tire and kind of rip it out of your hands, so I think you’ll just come off the brake and the guy on the outside will have to give you a little bit of room.”

WHAT ABOUT THE NEW SURFACE. HOW IS IT OVERALL? “We saw some tire wear concerns yesterday, but nothing that’s not pretty typical for road racing. The asphalt and the surface itself, I mean obviously it’s way faster but still feels like Sonoma, still feels like you’re fighting the same things you always fight, it’s just everything is a little bit better and you’re just going a little bit faster. The brake zones, you can challenge a bit more. Less bumps, obviously, and then the drive side of it, you’ve got a bit more drive but you’re still fighting the same things you were normally fighting, you’re just going a lot faster doing it. I think there will be opportunities to pass. I think there will be opportunities for the tires to fall off, too – maybe not as extreme as we’ve seen here in the past where you’d lose two or three seconds over a run, but I think if you lose a second or a second-and-a-half, maybe even two seconds on the high end, then you’ll see comers and goers through the field,. I think your long run speed will still matter. It’s not gonna be as important as we’ve seen in years past, but it’ll still be important.”

HOW MUCH VALUE GOES INTO TODAY’S QUALIFYING GIVEN THERE IS ONLY ONE MORE ROAD COURSE RACE AFTER THIS ONE? “A ton. These are opportunity weekends for us and we know that, but I think what I’ve learned over the last few years in particular with having faster cars and being in contention more often is just go out there and do your job and don’t overthink it and don’t put too much extra pressure on yourself, and I think we have a car today that will have a shot at the pole. It’s hard to tell from practice just because not everybody was on the same page as far as what they were doing with tires and whether they were making a mock run or a race run, and then you throw in the mix of everybody having a night to digest the data, work through the setups and make changes today, it’s gonna be a very different racetrack and guys are gonna have different race cars today, too. But, yesterday I felt like we were close. We had speed to contend and we just have to put ourselves in position, no different than we did at Indy. We felt strong there. I think we qualified fourth or fifth, so we weren’t sitting on the pole, but felt like we had a strong car and then obviously in the race it worked out that way, too. You just have to do it. You’ve just got to put yourself in position and hope that you execute all day long and everything goes your way. Today is important, for sure, and Saturdays in qualifying in particular have been very important all year. We’ve seen it with this car in particular that it matters quite a lot, so everywhere we go it’s important to qualify well and I’m proud of that effort that we’ve had this year. I don’t know the exact number, but I think 10 times we’ve made it to the second round this year, so that’s pretty good. We just have to capitalize on it on Sunday when it counts.”

HAS IT GOTTEN TO THE POINT WHERE TEAMS ARE PLANNING IN STRATEGY MEETINGS FOR FEW IF ANY CAUTIONS, OR DO YOU STILL LEAVE YOURSELF OPEN IF THINGS HAPPEN AT A RANDOM TIME? “That’s a great question. I think we’ve seen less cautions, for sure, but you remember last year we didn’t have stage break. Those stage breaks potentially add cautions because everybody is bunched up again. You have restarts. You have mixed strategy too, so you’ve got old tires and new tires, so it can create some drama that would create some cautions. I think though that this year even though it might not totally make sense for everybody is you would think this slick surface and the fall off would be a recipe for more cautions, but I feel like the new asphalt and a lot of grip and having to challenge yourself and charge really hard will cause more mistakes. I think there will be more mistakes tomorrow because you’re just pushing qualifying laps every lap and you’re trying to get the most out of it and it’s easy to overstep it. It’s kind of like what we talked about with Bristol with the tire fall off. Typically, to be good here in the race you have to run 80 percent and at 80 percent you’re not really making mistakes, you’re just trying to take care of the tires and drive straight off the corner. Tomorrow, you’ll be running at 100 percent every lap, and I think that any time you do that, there’s a good chance that you’ll make more mistakes.”

HOW HARD IS IT TO JUST DO YOUR JOB TO GO EVERY WEEK AS THE SEASON WINDS DOWN AND YOU NEED A WIN TO GET INTO THE PLAYOFFS? “It’s a mix of both. When I say just go do your job and don’t put any extra pressure, I think that’s just for me personally because I already put so much pressure on myself. I’m already there every week, and so I think your preparation and your planning and what you’re gonna do for the weekend intensifies, but like today, I’ve seen it too many times with myself – not saying this is a general thing, but if I just go out there and run the lap I know I can run, it’s usually OK. If I go out there and I overthink it and I push myself beyond what I’m capable of, I’ll make a mistake and be four or five spots worse than I would have been if I just would have done my job well. That’s more of the approach for me. It’s not that I don’t feel the pressure, I feel the pressure today to go out there and make the second round and have a shot at the pole and anything less than that will feel like we missed the mark. I just have learned with myself that I have the car to do it, I just go out there and do my job and it’ll be fine and not make any mistakes.”

IS IT THE SAME KIND OF PRESSURE FOR THE RACES COMING UP IF YOU DON’T WIN THIS WEEKEND? “Yeah, I feel that every week. I felt like last week was a big miss for us, qualifying on the pole and having a shot to win that first stage and then it turning out to be a not so great day was a big miss for us. I feel that pressure every weekend and I think that’s great that our race team is in a place where we can legitimately feel like we can challenge at most of the racetracks, if not every racetrack. So, Iowa, to me, is no different than this weekend. You go in with the same mentality of right now I would say we’re in a must-win. Mathematically, we’re not, but I feel like we’re in a must-win scenario and so you just take that approach every weekend. If your car is good enough to do it and you’re in the right position at the right time as we saw with Austin Cindric last week, you just have to put yourself in position and he did a great job of executing all day long. It looked like he wasn’t gonna win the race and he comes around the last corner to take the white flag and now he’s locked into the playoffs. You can’t overdo it. You just have to take what you can get and put yourself in position week in and week out and hopefully it goes your way one time.”

CAN YOU EXPLAIN WHAT TURNS 2-4 ARE LIKE AND HOW THE NEW PAVEMENT CHANGES IT? “If you haven’t had the opportunity to walk the track, the elevation going up to turn two on TV and even visually does no service at all because we walked it yesterday and you’re huffing and puffing by the time you get to the top of turn two. It’s a very steep hill. In the race car, it’s a heavy loading spot and you’re carrying a lot of speed, but that hill actually helps you decel and slow down a little bit, so you’re playing with the brake pedal constantly to keep the roll speed in it, but not get the car upset as you’re trying to brake and you have lateral load into it, and then you get to the top of the hill at turn two and it just falls off. It falls down and off camber it feels like, so as soon as you crest that hill, it feels like you lose all the grip and you just start to slide to the exit. We saw a couple guys slide all the way off there yesterday, so as you accelerate there and just trying to get the power down, that’s the biggest difference between last year and this year in that section is turn two, when you crest the hill, you can get back to wide-open, where last year on the old asphalt you were barely able to get to wide-open even on that straightaway part because you’re just spinning the tires so much. But then as you go over the crest and then load down into three, it’s a big compression load and before you get there you have a fairly big rise and that rise feels like a rollercoaster where you get light and when you get light the tires are light too. You don’t have a lot of grip, so you feel like you’re hanging on and then you load into the compression and you’ve got a ton of grip and a ton of speed. All of that is as you go through three and head to 3A. Once you start the turn for 3A, the exit is blind. You cannot see where the exit is, so muscle memory and just visual memory, you’re just trying to place your car in the right spot with the right momentum so as you get to the top of the hill, you’re not too far out wide and in the dirt there. It’s a fun racetrack from that standpoint, a lot of elevation and a lot of blind corners, but different sensations, too, as you crest hills and as you load into corners. It’s a fun racetrack.”

WITH THE RETURN OF THE STAGE BREAKS AND THE NEW SURFACE DOES PIT STRATEGY CHANGE AT ALL? “I think the stage breaks really take out all of the strategy in these races. There are two options. You flip the stage and you pit early and try to win the race, or you run the stage out and you score stage points. Those are the only two options that you have here. That’s what’s unfortunate about the stage breaks being in is it really limits your options, so, for us, we’re trying to win the race, so with two to go we’ll pit every stage and we’ll put on four tires and try to put ourselves in position to win the race at the end. I’m sure there will be some guys that are running 10th or 15th and don’t have a shot at winning the race and they’ll try to score as many stage points as they can and salvage the day, but that’s what’s unfortunate about it. The best cars don’t get the reward of those stage points with stage breaks.”

DO YOU THINK NASCAR WOULD EVER DO SOMETHING LIKE INVERTING THE FIELD TO MIX UP THE SLOWER AND FASTER CARS? “No, I don’t think so. I don’t really see that being anything that would be beneficial unless you had heat races that kind of determined that and those heat races would have to pay points for it to all work out, too. I think when you get to the pinnacle of motorsports or pinnacle of stock car racing or open wheel racing, when you get to the highest level it should have the purest form of sport in it, and so the fastest cars should be up front and have the shot. I think any sort of gimmicky things like that take away from it. It would be like the Olympics are coming up. If you take Usain Bolt and say, ‘Look, you’re gonna crush everybody. We know you are, so you have to start eight seconds back because that’s how much you’re gonna beat everybody by, so let’s at least make it a race and make it fun for the fans.’ That’s not a race. The winner doesn’t win. That’s just gimmicky and I don’t think motorsports should be like that. I think it should be pure.”

HAS THE SHIFTING CHANGED AS FAR AS WHAT GEARS YOU’RE PULLING THROUGH THE COURSE WITH THE NEW ASPHALT? “Not much. I think the shifting is pretty similar other than one or two spots where you can go either way, where before you couldn’t. But, for the most part, it’s about the same. Going down into turn four, you’re much closer to the rev limiter, so some guys are taking that upshift and going back down. Some guys are running it out on the rev limiter. It’s right in-between, so you know the engine man is not gonna be happy if I just lay it on the limiter here. For longevity in the race, that’s a concern doing that every lap. The valvetrain doesn’t love it, so there are a couple different spots where you’re in-between, but for the most part it’s almost the same.”

WHERE IS THE OTHER PART? “Down the esses going into turn 10. That was also one of those areas where you could just keep it in fourth and be right at the limiter and now with so much speed you pretty much have to take fifth, so just a couple of those spots where you’re carrying a bit more speed and just got us over that threshold.”

Ford Performance PR