THE MODERATOR: We’ve now been joined by our race winner in today’s Verizon 200 at the Brickyard here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, and that winner is Michael McDowell, driver of the No. 34 Horizon Hobby Ford for Front Row Motorsports. Congratulations on that win. Indy is a little bit of an extended celebration. Tell us a little bit about experiencing that with your family.
MICHAEL McDOWELL: What a special day. Yeah, it’s unbelievable, honestly. To win the Daytona 500, there’s not a lot of things that can top that.
But this is a close second, and to have my family here with me, it’s very special.
Obviously they couldn’t be there at Daytona, and that was tough. But at the same time, we’ve been building and building at Front Row Motorsports and felt like we would have another opportunity to win a race, and I’m not going to lie, we cherry pick as a family which races we go to. We go to the ones that we think we can win, and we talk about it. We do, we talk about it as a family, like all right, we’re all going to be there, this is the weekend.
If it didn’t happen this weekend, we’d go to Watkins Glen and say all right, guys, this is the weekend.
To have it all come together, it’s super special.
- You did, in fact, prove Denny Hamlin wrong, as you said you would, on Twitter.
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, so I’ll be honest, I don’t get on there a lot, and I typically don’t let things bother me much, and it’s not that it bothered me, but what he put out there was just inaccurate.
Chase Elliott is the best road racer in the Cup Series. We know that right now. He has the most wins, so you can’t statistically say that he’s not the best. He is the best.
It was not a dig at Chase. All I was doing was looking at the stats. He’s not going to gain 40 points on us on the road courses.
Now, he could win. I would have agreed with him on that. He could win for sure, which obviously he was close today.
But I felt like if we just go out there and do what we do on the road courses, we’re going to run fifth in each stage, we’re going to finish fifth in the race, and he’s maybe going to gain five, seven, eight points. There’s no way he’s going to make up 40 to us on the road courses.
So that’s all I was saying, but you know how it happens. It’s not how it comes off.
But yeah, it was more in fun, right, with him, and I talked to him walking into the drivers’ meeting today. I was like, man, I was so mad when Chase Elliott out-qualified me yesterday just because I was going to send a tweet out to him if I outran Chase in qualifying, but then he got me that last lap and qualified third and we qualified fourth, and I’m like, well, I’d better not say anything because he did beat me.
I wasn’t thinking about that on the racetrack today, but I’m glad that you brought it up. Maybe he should have me on Actions Detrimental tomorrow and we can talk about it.
- You qualified for the Playoffs in 2021 with a win at Daytona; with how well this team has run this year and being in the playoff picture already coming into this weekend, does this victory to clinch a playoff spot feel maybe even better or more impressive to you, doing it this way than compared to 2021?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: A hundred percent, yes. Pointing our way in would be and will still look at it that way if we end up being able — we’re in, right, but we’re going to look at the points because pointing our way in was something we took a lot of pride in, if we could do that as a team, because it shows how consistent you are and it shows your performance.
But it’s no secret that this year is unique because you’ve had drivers that haven’t run all the races, and so we’re not sitting here saying, oh, man, look at us. We’re saying, this is our shot, because of those circumstances. Because some of the top guys haven’t won yet, and some of those guys missed races, it’s opened up the window for us to have a shot.
Now, doing what we did today, I feel like is what we needed to do because I felt like no matter what, there’s going to be somebody that wins from behind there, and I’m glad that that somebody was us. We were below the cut line and we won, and now we’re that person.
Yeah, I haven’t let the Playoffs set in yet because winning here has been so cool. I think tomorrow or Tuesday when we think about Watkins Glen and we think about how we don’t have to just crush every element, that we can just go there and go for the win and have fun, which I think we can do, it’s going to be a big relief.
But right now I’m not feeling that — I haven’t got to the Playoffs yet. I’m just enjoying today so far.
- Daytona was a speedway race. We know how those are characterized, but to come here on a road course and beat them the way you beat them today, what does that say as a statement?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: I think it just shows how strong our team is. It’s one thing if you’re restarting sixth here on a green-white-checkered, you fire it in there and you steal a win. That’s not what we did today.
What we did today is we had the fastest car and we won. I think it says a lot for our race team and what we have been able to do and what we’ve been able to build on.
This Next-Gen car has really helped us on the road courses, and last year we were close. We weren’t a race winning car, but I felt like we were a top 3 to 5 car, and we’ve just built on that and built on that and built on that.
At Sonoma I think we had a shot at it before we hung that lug on that last pit stop. There wasn’t a lot of people talking about it, but we were the only one that could run with Martin and felt like, hey, we’re pretty close. If we execute and do everything right and hit it right, maybe we can actually go and contend.
But yesterday was just different. When I unloaded yesterday, I felt like, yeah, we’re going to be contenders.
If you just look at practice, we were the fastest in practice, fastest five lap, fastest ten lap, fastest average, and I woke up this morning nervous. I really did. I don’t normally wake up nervous. I was anxious, feeling like, I think I have a race-winning car here, and I’ve just got to go do my job and not look like an idiot.
Thankful we were able to do it.
- The narrative for this is going to be this is like a Cinderella victory. In your estimation is this a Cinderella win?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Absolutely not. I think we’ve been the fastest road course car since this Next-Gen car over the average of it, and I think statistically it’ll show that. I think if you just look at the average finish and you look at average running position, we’ve been a top 5 car every single road course race since this Next-Gen car has come in.
Is it a Cinderella story from a lot of different aspects? Maybe. But off of pure performance, like I feel like we’ve been nailing it and having a shot at it.
But I also look at it as like, we’re going up against some really big teams with a lot of resources, and to do what we did today is pretty awesome.
- What’s the last few weeks been like for you?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Stressful. Yeah, stressful for sure.
The last two weeks haven’t gone well, right, so Richmond, and we had a good car and just we went for it on strategy and it backfired, which hasn’t happened. Travis has done a great job with strategy, and we have stolen top-10 finishes more than once this year by his great strategy calling.
I would say it if he’s in the room; Richmond was not his best day on strategy calling. We took a 10th place car and ran 20 with it. That’s not what we needed to do as far as playoff points go.
Then at Michigan had damage early and we just gave up so many points.
The last two weeks have been stressful, but even leaving Michigan because a lot of those guys had bad days, when we were only down 3, I thought, well, this is still great because we’ve got three great tracks coming up that I feel like we’ll be able to out-point the guys that we’re racing.
But then when Daniel put it on pole yesterday, I was like, oh, man. And Ty was fast in practice, and that’s what I anticipated. I anticipated it was going to be a dogfight between all of us if we had to do it via points.
So I’m glad that we don’t. This definitely relieves some pressure going into the next couple weeks.
- Michael, Travis talked about when you guys had a meeting to determine — when you had your interview with him, and he said that one of the things he mentioned was that I guess you referenced hey I’m going to be talking to other people, and he said he remembered he thought there was an older crew chief, a more experienced crew chief. His comment was, in essence, why wouldn’t you take a chance on a guy without the experience. He said that that line or if I’m phrasing it right, resonated with you and kind of made an impact. Do you remember that, and how so and why?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, so I have a lot of freedom and flexibility at Front Row Motorsports, obviously, and so when I met with Travis, I met him for lunch, I had a pretty short list of guys that I felt like could do the job.
It’s not just do the job, it’s a different fit at Front Row Motorsports. You have to be able to do more than one thing. There’s a lot of crew chiefs in the Cup Series that are really good car guys, and there’s a lot of crew chiefs in the series that are really good engineers. We have to have both. We can’t have just one because we don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough depth to just be laser focused on one area or another.
When I lost my lead engineer to Penske, I knew we had to have an engineer-minded crew chief because we just didn’t have two people to fill the spot.
When I met with him after coming off of Blake, who was a car guy, very little engineering experience, I’m like, oh, this is the opposite of what I just had and had success, but this is what I need.
All I was doing was just to see if he had the fire, because if you don’t have fire, you’ll never make it at Front Row Motorsports. You just won’t. You have to be a fighter, because it’s hard. You’ve got to do a lot more stuff than most of the people around you have to do, and you’ve got to put in more hours and you’ve got to be willing to do more with less.
So I was just seeing if I could piss him off a little bit, and he was fiery, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted somebody that was fiery.
I met with five or six guys, and I left that lunch, like this is my guy. If I can get him, this is my guy. I just felt it in my gut, felt it in my heart.
I think that for us, our dynamic is really good. We work really closely together. He challenges me and I challenge him. Neither one of us are offended, which is a big part of it, because I can be fairly offensive. Y’all don’t get to see that side of it, but behind closed doors and in meetings I am fiery.
I think that’s what it takes to take it to the next level, and he has that. That’s cool.
It’s been a good combination.
- You referenced with the Daytona win certainly because of COVID protocols, things were different in Victory Lane, family wasn’t there. What was Victory Lane like with family and people and your crew guys? I’m wondering if it was a whole new experience for you.
MICHAEL McDOWELL: It was, yeah. It was a whole new experience, and Daytona was — it’s still awesome, and I think you and I talked about this, I didn’t want anybody to feel like, oh, poor me, he didn’t have his family, and he just won the biggest race. So I didn’t want that to be the story.
But what people don’t understand is we have traveled to Daytona every single year for 16 years. That’s the first one they’ve missed, and so for the first one that they miss to be the one that I win, it was like, oh. But we didn’t fixate on it. I told my kids, there’s going to be another one. There’s going to be another one.
Winning in the Cup Series is so hard, you just never know. It was definitely special today.
I mean, this is special. Indianapolis is special. Even the kissing the bricks, and I got a ring — you only get rings for certain races. I got the two best rings you can get.
All that stuff is just so neat. It’s just humbling, and I’m thankful and grateful.
Yeah, it’s just a dream come true. It really is.
I think today was more special for me than the 500. Not that it was bigger than the 500. I don’t want anybody to write that. It’s not bigger than the 500. The 500 is the biggest race you can win, but it was more special to me because of how we did it. We dominated the race. We had the fastest car, and we executed. That’s what dreams are made of.
To do it like we did it today I think is super special.
I’m sorry that it was a boring race for the fans. (Laughter.)
- Michael, you talked about boring race for the fans. On that, maybe not on it so much, but 77 laps of green flag racing today. Did you expect that going into the race, and how did you have to change your strategy to do so?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: We did expect it. We were hopeful for it. We really were because we knew we had a good long run car. Without having the stage breaks, there’s the potential for that. We saw it at Sonoma, too, minus a late-race caution. But that thing was going to go green the whole time, too.
So it’s like capitalizing on opportunities. We knew this year that no stages was going to create opportunities for us because we’ve always had to be in a must-win situation, and so we’ve never taken stage points at the road courses. We’ve always pitted with two laps to go because we need the track position, we need to put ourselves in position to win.
We were always racing track position with the stage breaks.
We knew this year out of all the years that if we just had a fast car, execute, we’re going to run so much better than we would with the stage breaks because even today it was a perfect example of you can build a lead, and when you pit, you’re not going to lose five spots if you have a hiccup. You’re going to lose one because you built a three- or four-second lead over the car behind you.
We knew there was a lot of opportunities without stage breaks, and with this running as green as it did today, it played into our wheelhouse for sure. But I was thinking about it those last 15 laps.
I wanted them just to give me the gap every lap because I was trying to manage tires. I didn’t want to be pushing so hard that one, I make a mistake, or two, that I used it up too much and then we have a late-race caution and then Chase Elliott gives me the business.
I didn’t know how much he was saving behind me. I didn’t know how hard he was pushing.
So yeah, for me, it was just trying to be a little bit strategic of not pushing too hard but not letting him get close enough.
- You have a road course win here at Indianapolis and the buzz in the garage area is next year you’re going back to the oval?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Lame.
- There’s the answer. What are your thoughts on that?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: You know me, I’m biased. I want to run on as many road courses as we can, but I do understand the prestigiousness of running the Brickyard and being on the oval, and I do think that this Next-Gen car is going to put on a good race. It’s going to put on a better race than our previous generation car here.
I understand wanting to go back to the oval. All I’m asking is can we do both. Can we run the oval and the road course? Is that a possibility?
But yeah, we’ll see what happens. They don’t ask me, just so you know.
- Back in 2004 you won the USF2000 championship, and you’re even in the USF2000 Hall of Fame as a road racer. How much of your early road racing skill really helped you get to today?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: I think it helped a lot. But what’s hard about it, and I was thinking about it when SVG came in and waxed us, is it’s been 16, 17 years since I’ve run road course cars full-time.
Even though I have that experience, it’s a long time ago, and I’ve raced a lot of ovals and created a lot of bad habits doing that, and I don’t mean bad habits, but you understand what I’m saying, for road course racing, different habits.
I think that it helps, and I think that this Next-Gen car probably was what I needed to be able to show what I could do. It’s not just because it leveled the playing field. That’s part of it. The other part of it is it’s very similar to what I raced before going into the Cup Series with the Daytona Prototype as far as the floor on the car, the downforce, the sequential shift, all those things.
I’ve been really comfortable in this car since it’s unloaded, not just on the road courses but the ovals, as well.
It’s played into my wheelhouse, but I don’t think it’s a huge advantage anymore because I’m not doing much of it.
Now, if I was running five or ten races a year in other forms of road racing, then I think it would be helpful, but I’m an oval guy that has road course experience, because it’s so long ago, yeah.
- Obviously family is very important to you. You have a big family. You’ve given a home to some members of your family. If you could just talk about that as being the foundation of your character.
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Well, just so you know, my plan was never to have five kids. That’s crazy. It’s a lot of kids. I don’t know if anybody has got a lot of kids, but five is a lot.
But the Lord had different plans. So when we had our son, I was like, this is perfect, one kid, we can manage this on the road and still travel and I was driving the bus and all that.
Then we just felt called to adopt, and we started that process, and it took a long, long time and a lot of road blocks and a lot of different things happened over those — took seven years for the adoption to go through.
In those seven years my wife was like, I think we should have more kids, and I was like, no, that’s a bad idea. We were struggling and barely making it, and I’m starting and parking and driving my motor home and not doing anything well.
But looking back now, it’s the greatest thing we’ve ever done. We have a big family. We have great, healthy kids, and it’s kind of who we are. When we get on the plane and we take half the plane, people look at us like we’re crazy, and I know that. I know we’re crazy. We are. You should see all the stuff we have to bring. But it’s who we are. We travel as a family and we stay together as a family.
This sport is tough on families, and you know that. You guys live it. You’re here every weekend, and you’re away from your family. You don’t have them come and travel.
So being that I can, we just made it a priority.
- By celebrating with your family, how do you celebrate? Are they all going out to Dairy Queen tonight and you’re going to run up a big bill at Dairy Queen?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Well, depending on how long this goes, they’re going to make me stop at Cookout on the way home because that’s what my kids always want. Cookout is open late. Now, this is not a Cookout plug because I don’t get any endorsement deal from them, but it’s where my kids want to go when we get home.
Hopefully it’s still open, and that’s probably where they’ll want to stop, and they usually get milkshakes there, and it’s going to be late, and they’re going to be wound up, and then they’ve got school tomorrow, which is not going to be fun. This is going to be a tough little grind.
I’m thinking about the victory right now and not thinking about what 7:00 a.m. is going to be like getting home late and getting everybody’s backpack and lunch ready to go, but we’re going to make it happen.
- When you told your family, there will be another one, how much conviction was there, because as you’ve mentioned these are tough and hard to come by? Did you really believe there would be more to come?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: So y’all are going to think I’m crazy, which I am; I’m borderline crazy. But I believed in all my heart that there’s going to be way more. I always have. I know it sounds crazy. Even when I was start-and-parking, I’m like, there’s going to be a day I’m going to win races and win championships, I know it. I feel it.
My mindset hasn’t changed from that. It’s just been a rough road. It’s been tough. I mean, it just is.
I won’t allow myself to think anything else because why would I be here. It’s just, when you’ve dedicated your entire life to something, to suck at it is not an option, and it’s just taken me more years than I’ve wanted to not suck at it.
- What is the ceiling, because when you re-upped with this team, a lot of people were disappointed for you, only because they wanted to see you be at a mega team. Can you build this into a mega team in the tenure that you’re here?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: That’s a loaded question. It’s tough. It’s tough to answer because we have limitations, and some of those limitations I can’t control. I can’t.
But at the same time, all it’s going to take is a little bit more support and a little bit more funding, and I think we can. Are we there today? No, we’re not there today.
We have the building blocks to do it. We have the foundation to do it. We just need a few more things to do it, and without getting into the nuts and bolts of everything, my owner Bob Jenkins still spends a lot of his own money to do this, and he loves it. He’s excited. He’s over the moon today. This is a great day for him.
But until we have more support, it’s going to be hard to make it a championship-contending team week in and week out, but I think we have the building blocks to go in that direction.
When you look at like Trackhouse, it gives me a lot of confidence that it can be done. You’ve just got to put the pieces together and have it there to do it.
I think we’re close. I think we just need a little bit more in every area, and we could put that together.
- You had been on the bubble for so long, and then last week at Michigan, I’m just wondering what went through your mind because you just had an absolutely miserable day —
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Miserable day.
- It was so tough to watch from the press box because you were trying to fight and claw, but it was beyond your control.
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, yeah. Michigan was tough because we had a really fast car in practice. That’s one of the places that I feel like separates the big teams and the small teams.
In practice I was like, hey, we’ve got a top 10 car. That’s hard to do at Michigan. Then we got that nose damage, and whatever happens and how it bent the front bumper, there was no support there, so every time we’d fix it and get it to pop out, as soon as you’d get up to top speed the whole thing would cave back in, and it was like I had a parachute. There was just nothing we could do. We tried fixing it six or seven times. We did everything that we could possibly do without going behind the wall, which wasn’t an option, and so yeah, it was just super tough.
But I felt thankful leaving there. With as bad of a day as we had, to only be minus 3, I felt, we’ve still got a fighting chance.
But yeah, it was tough. But it made us just feel more doubled down for this weekend, of like, we have to go and run like we should run, and we’ve got to score a lot of points.
That first stage, like my mind was about getting the lead and never giving it back the rest of the day. Like that’s just what I was planning on doing.
I had a car that could actually do it, which was awesome.
- You’ve been here since the Chase began and this format of it. When you look from ’12 to ’20, the competition is just out of this world. It didn’t used to be like that. You would know who the top 16 were going to be, and there might be some wild card guy. It’s not like that anymore. How badly did you know that you had to win to secure a spot?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: So I didn’t feel like coming into this weekend that it was a must-win. I didn’t feel like that. But after seeing how fast my car was yesterday, in my mind it was a must-win, not because of the Playoffs but just because you don’t get opportunities like that in the Cup Series that often.
Somebody might hit on something next week and be dominant, and we could be flogging it, tongue hanging out and running fifth. It’s just what we have. But today we had a race-winning car.
I wasn’t so much thinking about the must-win of the Playoffs, I was thinking of the must-win of you might not ever get another chance like this where your car is that good. You’d better make it count. Like I said, I felt that this morning. I felt that pressure and that angst.
Then the race started, and that angst went down, and I just got laser focused on what I had to do and felt like I had all the things to do it.