McDowell: Atlanta an ‘Opportunity Race’ for Possible Playoff Berth

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

HAMPTON, Ga. – Michael McDowell is no stranger to success on the superspeedways and with Atlanta Motor Speedway now in that category, he is hoping to be in a position to strike when the checkered flag falls on Sunday’s Quaker State 400.

The winner of the 2021 Daytona 500 is in the midst of one of his best seasons in recent years, even though he has yet to score a win thus far. Through the first 18 races of the season, McDowell has captured one top-five finish and seven top-10 finishes, giving his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team added confidence coming into Atlanta.

“I feel good,” McDowell said. “You know, I think it’s a bit of a hybrid. I don’t think it’s a true superspeedway in the sense of Talladega and Daytona, but it has a lot of the same characteristics. So, there is that opportunity to get the big pack and to make moves. Harder to make moves though. The track feels much narrower even though it’s not. Just the shorter radius around here, it feels much more condensed and tighter.

“All in all, I think that this is an opportunity race and we want to maximize every opportunity we get, so we’ll see. I think now that we’ve had a race here and get a little information, a little data and make the cars drive a little bit better, I think it’ll be racier this time than it was the first race.”

McDowell added that Atlanta being the first repeat track on the 2022 schedule and having a notebook to look back on will help him and his team as they look ahead to Sunday’s race.

“It’s great for us because we really missed the set up the first time. It was such an unknown this race because we didn’t get to do that test. So we didn’t know if it was gonna be superspeedway, or if its gonna be a mile and a half. We were just figuring out this new car. So we missed it pretty badly. I’m hoping that this being the first race that we come back to, that we will hit it. And the car will drive much better.”

Of his seven top-10 finishes, six of those have come in the last 10 races, including a third-place finish at Sonoma, showing the speed gains the team has made with the debut of the Next Gen car this season.

In addition to Atlanta, McDowell noted that there are other races that he has circled between now and the end of the regular season as tracks that could provide the team with the same success they have found elsewhere.

“It’s been a good stretch here for us,” McDowell said. “The road courses have been good, but we’ve also been good at the shorter tracks, Nashville, Gateway, even Charlotte. So, we’re making good progress at Front Row. Our cars are having speed everywhere that we go. So that’s fun.

“We’ve got big races coming up. Obviously, we talked about Atlanta being an opportunity race. Indy as well, Watkins Glen, Pocono. Those are great tracks for us. Minus New Hampshire, which I hope that this Next Gen car is gonna change my overall view of New Hampshire. It’s always been a difficult track for us and Front Row. So hopefully we can get it right.

Asked about what has been the key for their performance gains this season, McDowell noted that several different things have factored into being able to run well through the first half of the year.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” McDowell said. “I don’t think it’s just the Next Gen car. I think that’s a variable that is definitely helping us, but our team has made great progress over the last few years. And we’re just trending in that same direction from last year. Building on that momentum, bringing on Blake Harris was a great addition to our program and we just are clicking.

“I think that the Next Gen car kind of brought a fresh start for everybody. Less notes, less building on historical setups and things like that. So, it allowed some fresh ideas and some fresh minds and I think we’ve done a good job with it.”

When the green flag flies on Sunday, McDowell will roll off from 12th place as he seeks to punch his ticket into the Playoffs.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.