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Michael McDowell: 2022 NASCAR Season Preview and Prediction

Michael McDowell

McDowell, the driver of the No. 34 Ford for Front Row Motorsports, is ranked No. 25 by Athlon Sports

At Front Row Motorsports, the talk entering the 2022 season is all about enthusiasm and positivity. And why wouldn’t it be? Front Row, perpetually one of the smallest teams to run a full-time schedule in the NASCAR Cup Series in the last decade, is still riding the wave of driver Michael McDowell emerging from a fiery, last-lap crash among the race leaders to win the 2021 Daytona 500 in a stunning, upset fashion.

The season-opening win in the crown jewel event of the Cup season also marked McDowell’s first career win at the Cup level, the team’s most prestigious win and — until February, at least — the title of “defending Daytona 500 champion” for both driver and team.

“It was a storybook season for Michael, Drew, and the 34 team,” said team owner Bob Jenkins in a team press release. “They helped elevate us to the next level, and now we need to sustain and take the next step.”

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McDowell, 37, was the eighth driver in NASCAR history to post his first Cup win in the Daytona 500, following Tiny Lund (1963), Mario Andretti (1967), Pete Hamilton (1970), Derrike Cope (1990), Sterling Marlin (1994), Michael Waltrip (2001) and Trevor Bayne (2011). Only Waltrip (463 starts) had more Cup series starts before his first win than McDowell (357).

The Daytona win was easily the most impressive result for McDowell last season, although it’s worth noting the No. 34 team rolled to three top-10 finishes to start the year — the most consecutive top-10 runs in McDowell’s NASCAR career. But after the hot start, McDowell, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer (returning in 2022) and Front Row Motorsports couldn’t keep pace.

At the halfway mark last season, McDowell’s average finish was sitting at 16.8. By the season finale in November, it had fallen to 20.9. It was a disappointing slide for a team and driver that would make a Playoff appearance thanks to the surprising Daytona win.

The worst stretch of McDowell’s season came right as the postseason was starting. McDowell crashed out of the Indianapolis road course race, finished 20th at Michigan, and then failed to finish with a blown engine in the regular-season finale at Daytona. McDowell then crashed out of the Playoff opener at Darlington, finished 28th at Richmond in race two, and exited the Playoffs with a 24th-place showing at Bristol.

Consistency has long been the challenge for Front Row and teams operating in its area of the Cup Series ladder. Still, McDowell netted five top-10 finishes — the most in one season for the team.

“I’m really looking forward to 2022 and the fresh start it brings across the sport,” says McDowell. “It’s an exciting time for the NASCAR Cup Series and for us at FRM. We have proven that we can win, and now we want to find that consistency throughout the season to be even better.”

That fresh start for McDowell and Front Row comes in two areas: one, NASCAR’s Next Gen car for the Cup Series, and two, a new teammate in Cup rookie Todd Gilliland. The new car offers a different opportunity than usual for Front Row to scratch out some unexpected results. However, it seems unlikely that the advantage of the big teams (including substantially larger budgets and staff ) will be diminished for long. But as Front Row and McDowell showed last season, they’ll likely be in a position to pounce when a golden opportunity opens.