Michael McDowell Finally Captures Elusive First NASCAR Win

To say Michael McDowell’s career in NASCAR thus far has been a struggle would be an understatement. The Phoenix, Arizona native has had to deal with driving for a brand new team on multiple occasions, as well as drive for several underfunded teams. When presented with the rare opportunity to drive for an established team, he has faced with terrible luck. But on Saturday at one of his favourite, but most trying racetracks, McDowell redeemed his earlier mishaps. He re-wrote the script, this time with a favourable ending.

Michael McDowell Finally Captures Elusive First NASCAR Win

Early Racing Career

McDowell has always been considered a strong road course racer. His prowess began when he was eight where he began karting. After ten years, he accumulated a World Karting Association championship as well as back-to-back International Kart Federation championships. From there, he moved on to racing some open wheel followed by the Grand-Am Sports Car Series where he became the youngest driver with a podium finish in a Grand-Am race and the first driver since Mario Andretti to race an open wheel and Sports Car Series race in the same weekend.

Stock Car Career

McDowell loved road racing but needed a new challenge, which came in the form of stock car racing. In 2006, he joined the ARCA Racing Series and collected two top-5s and three top-10s in only five starts. The following campaign was even better. He had  four wins, 11 top-5s, 15 top-10s as well as Rookie of the Year honours. He just missed winning the championship. McDowell finished second behind series legend Frank Kimmel. But for a while, it seemed the luck had run out there.

NASCAR

McDowell was signed by Darrell Waltrip to drive for his truck team. After just a single race was signed by his brother Michael Waltrip to drive for his new race team Michael Waltrip Racing. He had three Busch (now XFINITY) Series starts with a best finish of 14th. McDowell stayed on with the team and was promoted for the 2008 season to drive the Aaron’s 00 Toyota.

In his Sprint Cup Series debut, he suffered a flat tire at the end of the race and finished 26th. Then came the incident McDowell is infamous for. In a qualifying lap at Texas, McDowell lost control of his car when a sway bar broke, sending the car directly towards the wall at upwards of 185 mph. He hit the wall and the car was sent into a barrel roll, toppling end over end eight times before coming to a rest, thankfully on its wheels. McDowell miraculously walked away.

After the season, however, his contract was not renewed and McDowell was forced to sign with smaller teams, which did not run the full race schedule due to budget constraints. McDowell was unable to showcase his true potential because he could only run a couple laps before his team called him in to the garage to save the limited equipment they had and make it last for a full season.

Joe Gibbs Racing

In 2011, Joe Gibbs offered McDowell a handful of XFINITY Series races. The most frustrating was at Road America, where he grabbed the pole. It seemed like such a promising start to a potential line of great follow-up opportunities in the near future, and perhaps even a full time competitive Sprint Cup ride. Alas, while leading, McDowell missed a corner and spun. He finished 12th in a race he probably could’ve – or even should’ve – won. To make matters worse, McDowell was called upon late in the season to replace a suspended Kyle Busch for one race. This was a tall order and appeared to be too much as he struggled all race long, including missing the entrance to pit road, resulting in a 33rd place finish. It was a frustrating end to a great opportunity.

But Joe Gibbs called him back the following season for select XFINITY Series races. McDowell turned in a few strong performances, capped by a second place finish a Road America where he led four laps. While he ran mostly Start-and-Park in the Cup Series that season, it was his results in the XFINITY season that impressed. McDowell had two top-5s and five top-10s making it his best career NASCAR season.

2013 Season

The situation the following year was much of the same as 2012. McDowell drove with a Start-and-Park team in the Cup Series. He also got a select few races with Joe Gibbs in XFINITY, where he could compete for wins. The season began strong in Sprint Cup as one of the few races he was able to run the race in its entirety was the Daytona 500. McDowell not only finished on the lead lap but grabbed his first Cup Series top-10, with a ninth place run.

At a race at an XFINITY Series race at Mid-Ohio, it appeared McDowell might grab that seemingly unattainable first NASCAR win. The weekend began strong with a lightning fast qualifying speed, enough for the pole position. At times, he seemed to have the dominant car and even led for eight laps. But on the final restart, McDowell could not keep pace with fellow road racer A.J. Allmendinger and finished a solid but disappointing second place. 2014 was an up and down year.

Leavine Family Racing

He joined a new team, with Leavine Family Racing but mostly finished in the back. The one real bright spot was a career best seventh in the Coke Zero 400. In XFINITY, he stayed on with Gibbs. Every race he seemed to have a great car but circumstances put him in the wrong place at the end. He finished with a seventh and a second in two Iowa races, and an eighth at Kentucky. McDowell took the 2015 XFINITY Series off. He kept busy with a growing family as well as growing the Leavine Racing Team with more competitive runs.

McDowell Finally Captures Elusive First NASCAR Win

While he only has a single top-10 at Daytona to show for it, 2016 has been a much-improved year for McDowell and Leavine Racing in Sprint Cup. Through 23 races the team has averaged a 21st place finish. They are doing a good job of staying out of trouble and finishing the race. Since his Leavine team has a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, McDowell was offered to race Saturday’s XFNITY race at Road America for RCR. With previous success (and previous heartbreak) at the track; he came more determined than ever to try and get the monkey of his back.

Though he started second, this was his race to lose. McDowell stayed near the front all day. He put the number two Rheem Chevy out front for 24 of the final 25 laps to grab the checkered flag. His teammate Brendan Gaughan made a hard charge at the end. However, McDowell held everyone off at the end. He finally grabbed his first career victory in 297 career starts across all of NASCAR’s top series.

Celebration

In Victory Lane, McDowell emphasized how thankful he was for the opportunity. One of the nicest people in the NASCAR garage, McDowell has never taken any opportunity for granted and as a devout Christian, has always prayed and thanked God before and after every race. McDowell knows better than anyone how quickly it can all be taken away, and how in an instant his car can break and head straight for a wall at full speed with no way of stopping. This is a race McDowell will not soon forget. But for now he has to set his excitement aside and focus for the rest of the Sprint Cup season. There is a lot of work still to be done but after so many years of struggling, the hard work put in is starting to pay off.

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