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Dr. Diandra: Examining Michael McDowell’s statistically best season

Steve Letarte details the mechanics of how a wheel needs to be installed on NASCAR's Next Gen car with the switch to a single lug nut.

Trackhouse Racing is Exhibit A in the argument that the Next Gen car is indeed leveling the NASCAR playing field. Exhibit B might be Michael McDowell. The 37-year-old Arizonan has piloted the No. 34 car for Front Row Motorsports since 2018.

“I think that we have great people at Front Row,” McDowell told NASCAR America Motormouths after Gateway. “With this Next Gen car, I feel like it’s brought us a little closer to the top teams.”

Until 2021, McDowell might have been best known for his spectacular test of the Car of Tomorrow’s safety features during qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway in 2008.

Then he won the Daytona 500. It was a popular win: McDowell is one of the most modest, unassuming drivers in the garage.

Front Row Motorsports is a two-car team (rookie Todd Gilliland drives the No. 38) that has a technical alliance with RFK Racing. Of the three manufacturers, Ford has struggled the most in the Next Gen car’s first year, winning only four of the first 17 races (23.5%) compared to Chevrolet’s nine wins (53.0%). Toyota has the same number of wins as Ford, despite fielding only about a third of the number of cars.

2021 vs. 2022

To evaluate McDowell’s year, let’s compare this year’s stats with his stats from the same point in the season last year. I’ve summarized McDowell’s finishes on the graph below.

A horizontal bar chart showing Michael McDowell's Wins, top-fives, top-10s and top 15s

Seventeen races into the 2022 season, McDowell has set a career high for top-10 finishes in a season with six. He’s tied for 12th place in top-10 finishes with Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon. He’s ahead of race winners William Byron and Daniel Suárez (five each), as well as Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric, and Denny Hamlin (four each).

The increase in top-10 finishes didn’t just happen this year. By 2019, McDowell had earned eight career top-10 finishes, including six at Daytona. The No. 34 team ended 2020 with four top-10 finishes, none of which was achieved at a superspeedway. The 2021 season brought five top 10 at two superspeedways, two road courses and Homestead.

But McDowell hasn’t had as much success reaching the top five by the checkered flag. He has only one top-five finish this year compared with two last year. That ties him with Corey LaJoie, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Bubba Wallace, Chris Buescher, Justin Haley and Erik Jones for 21st in top-five finishes.

And, of course, McDowell hasn’t won this year. His best finish so far is a third at Sonoma.

But no one, including McDowell, expected the Next Gen car to change everything overnight.

“We’ve been making steady gains the last four or five years,” McDowell told reporters earlier this week, “so it’s not like a light switch.

“When I started with the team, we were running 25th. I took a year and then we were running 20th, and it took another year or so and last year we were in those high teens and that (top-)15 range, scoring top 10s and scoring top fives, but sort of not regularly.

“Now this year, I feel like we’ve kind of made that next step to where we have top-10 speed ,and if we’re able to execute and do everything, we can get top-10 results, so that’s been a lot of fun.”

Laps: Fastest, led and top 15

McDowell’s improved in how runs during the race as well. He’s led 38 laps this year: four laps at Las Vegas and 34 laps at Gateway. That’s compared with 13 laps after 17 races in 2021, and 26 laps led for the entire 2021 season. He’s led one-quarter of his career total laps led already this season.

McDowell spends about 60% more time running in the top 15 this year. His number of fastest laps is also up, from 36 to 60. McDowell finished on the lead lap in 10 out of 17 races (58.8%) in 2022, just one race less than the previous year.

NASCAR’s loop data provides absolute numbers for metrics like green-flag speed and restarts, but also ranks drivers relative to the rest of the field. Rankings are useful because McDowell isn’t the only driver improving.

I’ve plotted the loop-data metrics with a significant change from 2021 to 2022 in the graph below. Again, I’m comparing only the first 17 races of 2021 to the 17 races completed this year. Remember that smaller is better when it comes to rankings. The first four metrics show worse performance from 2021 to 2022, while the bottom four signal improvement.

A horizontal bar chart comparing Michael McDowell's rank in loop data metrics for 2021 vs 2022

The top pairs of bars exhibit the largest changes. The first pair, labeled ‘closing’, reflects the number of positions a driver gains in the last 10% of each race. McDowell dropped steeply from being fourth at this time last year to 26th.

The other quantity with a significant change is ‘fastest early in a run’, which measures how well a driver performs at the start of a green-flag run relative to its end. There, he dropped from 23rd to 35th.

Going forward

While setting a career high number of top-10 finishes is an accomplishment, playoff berths are based on wins and points. McDowell is ranked 21st, 97 points from the playoff cut line. Last year at this time, he was 16th.

But last year, the high point of McDowell’s 2021 season was the very first race. He finished no higher than 16th in races 18 through 36 and had three DNFs. The top-five and top-10 numbers I cited for the first 17 races are thus also his 2021 season totals. In the graph below, which shows rank and finishing position for the 2021 season, the first Daytona and Talladega races look like anomalies rather than the start of a trend.

Rank (upper) and finish (lower) plots for Michael McDowell's 2021 season

Contrast that with the same graph for McDowell so far in 2022.

The rank(upper) and finishing position (lower) for Michael McDowell's 2022 season through 17 races

After a respectable start at Daytona, McDowell struggled for the next seven races, getting his second top 10 at the Bristol dirt race. That initiated a series of five top-10 finishes in eight races before a 13th-place finish last week at Nashville.

McDowell faces the same challenge Daniel Suárez finally overcame at Sonoma: putting together an entire race. The two races where McDowell led laps (Gateway and Las Vegas) produced 18th- and 27th-place finishes respectively. While his average running position was better than 15th at five tracks, he got top-10 finishes at only three.

McDowell’s best track so far in 2022 is Sonoma, where he had an average running position of fifth and a third-place finish. He earned his highest driver rating there, as well. That bodes well for McDowell coming into Road America this Sunday (3 p.m. ET on USA Network). Even though he’s had so much success at Daytona, he would much rather win sooner than later.

“I’m hopeful that we can get it done before we get to Daytona,” McDowell said on NASCAR America Motormouths. “There’s gonna be so many guys in that position and it’s really tough to win at Daytona. But you definitely can’t count it out.”

Given the unpredictability of the 2022 season so far, it’s wise not to count anything — or any team — out.