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Friday 5: Michael McDowell’s victory continues trend in NASCAR

Michael McDowell’s victory last weekend at Indianapolis showed what a team, if given the chance with an equal car can do.

The Next Gen car was touted as a way to tighten the competition and provide more Cup teams and drivers with chances to win. After a season that saw 19 different winners, this year has followed with another turnaround.

McDowell’s victory marked the third race in a row — and fourth time this season — that a driver with more than 250 Cup starts and fewer than five series victories won a race.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. began the season by winning the Daytona 500 in his 365th career start. It was his third career victory.

Chris Buescher won at Richmond last month, claiming his third career victory in his 279th start. He won the next weekend at Michigan for his fourth win in 280 starts.

McDowell followed that at the Indy road course, scoring his second career victory in his 453rd start.

Stenhouse won with JTG Daugherty Racing. Buescher led RFK Racing to those wins. McDowell won with Front Row Motorsports.

Those three organizations combined to win four races between 2015-21 — the final six seasons of the previous car. That’s a 1.6% winning percentage.

Three of those four victories came at Daytona and Talladega, tracks where smaller teams had a better chance of winning because of the close racing and unpredictable nature of those events.

The last time JTG Daugherty Racing, RFK Racing or Front Row Motorsports won a Cup race at a track other than Daytona or Talladega was 2016. Buescher won the rain-shortened Pocono race for Front Row Motorsports.

In the 60 races run with the Next Gen car, JTG Daugherty Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports have combined to win five races — a 8.3% winning percentage.

It’s still not easy, but these teams have a significantly better chance to win with the Next Gen car. These victories have not been flukes. McDowell dominated in his victory last weekend. Buescher led nearly a quarter of the Richmond race.

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Jerry Freeze, general manger of Front Row Motorsports, said the Next Gen has made a big difference for his team.

“I think to me, it all kind of started in 2020 when we were kind of winding up the Gen-6 car and NASCAR had kind of put a moratorium on advancement of the chassis and suspension components,” he said. “Once we were able to start getting them on a more level playing field with the product that we were bringing to the racetrack, our performance started to pick up. I think you started to see that a guy like Michael McDowell had a lot of talent.

“Now if you give him the same car that these other guys have, he’s going to really show that he can get it done.

“Then you advance into the Next Gen era the way they’ve consolidated the practice time, I just think it gives a chance with that middle-tier budget, let’s say, that’s going to do the right things, have the right engine program, hire the good people, have a good pit crew, to have days like this on the racetrack.”

With limited areas for teams to massage their car, it can allow mid-level organizations the chance to catch the top teams. That’s helped Brad Keselowski in turning around RFK Racing since joining that organization before the 2022 season.

He’s in a playoff position with two races left in the regular season. Should he join Buescher in the playoffs, it will mark the first time since 2014 — the first year of the current playoff format — that RFK Racing has had two cars contending for a Cup title.

“These cars were meant to tighten it up, and they have done a good job of that,” Keselowski said. “Maybe it can be argued that it is good or bad with respect to parity and passing, but for the most part I think it has served our sport well.”

2. New role: Teacher

Tony Kanaan, who won the 2013 Indianapolis 500, will serve as Kyle Larson’s coach at Arrow McLaren, helping Larson prepare for next year’s Indianapolis 500.

Larson is scheduled to take his rookie orientation in October at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Next May, he’ll become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to compete in the both the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day

Kanaan, a former IndyCar series champion who won 17 races, is clear on what his role is and that’s not to remake Larson.

“I’m not molding him on anything,” Kanaan said in response to a question from NBC Sports. “He’s going to drive first and ask me questions. I don’t want to overwhelm him with information. He might be anticipating something that I told him. I don’t think that’s good. He doesn’t need teaching. He needs just time in the car.

“What I want him to do is to feel comfortable that if he has a question, I’m there, but I’m not there to teach him. That was exactly the way it worked between Jimmie (Johnson) and I when we shared the car (in IndyCar).”

Kanaan admires Larson’s ability and willingness to compete in other cars.

“There are many guys that don’t want to do that or can’t do that or don’t do that because they don’t want to put themselves in that position and fail,” Kanaan said. “He’s not one of them.”

Larson has done some simulator work with the IndyCar, running the Mid-Ohio Sport Car Course in the sim to get a feel for the vehicle.

“When I first got in it, I thought I would be out of control and in the grass and all this stuff,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK, I feel like I’m doing all right.’ I felt like I got into a rhythm and the engineers were staying pretty quiet. They were like, ‘Everything looks good just keep working on your braking level.’”

That message continued that Larson needed much more brake pressure.

“I’ve never pushed anything that hard,” Larson said of the required brake pressure for an IndyCar.

Even with such challenges, Larson is looking forward to the experience.

“No matter the result from this whole experience, I’m going to come out of it a better racecar driver,” he said. “I already have, just in the short amount of time I’ve spent in the simulator.”

3. Bubble battle

Bubba Wallace sits on the playoff cutline heading into Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen (3 p.m. ET on USA Network). Two races remain in the regular season.

He leads Daniel Suarez by 28 points and Ty Gibbs by 49 points.

With Chase Elliott (seven career road course wins), AJ Allmendinger (two career road course wins) and Daniel Suarez (one career road course win) outside a playoff spot, it’s not unrealistic to see another new winner this weekend.

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A new winner would bump Wallace out of a playoff spot and put either Kevin Harvick or Brad Keselowski on the bubble. Harvick leads Keselowski by two points. There’s also a way for both Harvick and Keselowski to clinch a playoff spot this weekend by points.

This is Harvick’s last season in Cup before he moves to the Fox booth as a broadcaster for NASCAR races in 2024.

“We just have fought one battle after another,” Harvick said before last weekend’s race at Indianapolis. “It’s been typical No. 4 car stuff that we’ve worked through. We’ll just keep grinding away for (12) more weeks.”

4. Big Turnover

Should the 16 drivers in a playoff spot now remain the same after the regular season finale at Daytona next weekend, it would mark quite a year-to-year change in the drivers in the field.

Six of the 16 drivers in a playoff spot now were not in the playoffs last year. They are: Martin Truex Jr., Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski and Bubba Wallace.

The six drivers who were in the playoffs last year not in a playoff spot now are: Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Daniel Suarez, Austin Cindric, Austin Dillon and Chase Briscoe.

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5. Xfinity duels

Four races remain until the Xfinity playoffs begin and there is a battle for the points lead and final playoff spot.

Austin Hill leads John Hunter Nemechek by 11 points for the regular-season title heading into Saturday’s race at Watkins Glen (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). They’ve traded the points lead in each of the last three races.

Sheldon Creed holds on to the final playoff spot. He has a 17-point lead on Parker Kligerman. Creed has scored 193 points in six races on road courses this year. Kligerman has scored 190 points in those races.