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Friday 5: Playoffs start now for Michael McDowell’s team

Seven races remain until the Cup playoffs begin, but to Travis Peterson, crew chief for Michael McDowell, “the next four weeks is our playoff stretch.”

McDowell heads into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, USA Network) holding the final playoff spot. Six drivers are within 44 points of McDowell.

Peterson, in his first season as McDowell’s crew chief, cites the next four races as critical because McDowell has not traditionally done well at those tracks.

Those four races are:

  • New Hampshire (McDowell’s best finish in 20 career starts came in 2019 when he placed 17th.)
  • Pocono (His sixth-place finish last year was his second top-10 result in 20 starts.)
  • Richmond (His sixth-place result in the spring was his first top-10 finish in 24 starts.)
  • Michigan (McDowell’s best finish in 16 starts is 20th in 2021.)

After Michigan, the Cup Series goes to road course events at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen — McDowell had top 10s at both last year — and then the regular-season finale at Daytona. McDowell is a former Daytona 500 winner.

The final three races of the regular season provide hope for McDowell’s playoff chances. It’s just a matter of getting to those races.

“I just want to stay within … five points, 10 points getting to Indy road course time, and (I’ll) feel like we got them right where we want them,” Peterson told NBC Sports.

“So for us, this next four (stretch of races) is our really big stretch. We have to get the results. We have to get good finishes, try to get stage points when we can and elevate years past performance for four more weeks and then I feel good about it.”

Peterson and McDowell have formed a good team. Nine times McDowell has finished better this year compared to the same event last year. The Richmond performance was McDowell’s biggest jump. He finished sixth after placing 30th in the same race a year ago.

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A key in that Richmond race was Peterson’s pit strategy. When others pitted with about 50 laps to go, Peterson kept McDowell out, gaining positions. That decision helped McDowell score his first top 10 at that track.

“I always like finding the alternative strategy if I believe the risk and reward way works out,” Peterson told NBC Sports. “If you just do the same thing everybody else does, you’re going to rely on potentially passing people or you’re just going to ride where you are. … There’s no getting a good finish from riding around 15th all day and just pitting when everybody else does for four (tires).”

He said at Richmond calculations showed little difference for the No. 34 team between pitting or staying on track during that pit cycle with about 50 laps to go.

“When I see things like that, I tend to choose the more aggressive option,” Peterson said, “because you have 50-60 laps where if something else happens, you become a hero and you get a whole lot of track position rather than just following the leaders.”

Peterson’s aggressiveness helped McDowell finish fourth last weekend at Atlanta for the driver’s fourth top-10 in the last five races.

But the team had to overcome a pit road incident with Martin Truex Jr. after the end of the first stage. McDowell exited his stall and made contact with Truex, who was running beside Christopher Bell on pit lane.

“It was close to being damage that could have ruined our day,” Peterson said of the contract that impacted the right front of McDowell’s car.

McDowell was pitting in the stall behind Austin Hill, whose car was angled in his box. As McDowell exited his stall, a crew member on Hill’s car was going around that vehicle and McDowell had to react to avoid hitting the person.

“That’s when we really got into (Truex),” Peterson said.

Peterson and McDowell talked afterward about what they could have done differently. They determined that it might be best to pause and let two cars side-by-side go past before exiting the stall to avoid an incident in the future.

McDowell returned to pit road on Laps 64 and 65 for repairs after the incident with Truex. McDowell caught a break when the caution came out at Laps 81 and 93 for separate incidents. That allowed the team to complete its work on the right front of his car.

“In a few ways, that ended up defining our whole race because of that damage,” Peterson said. “It definitely changed the way I called the (next) couple of cautions coming in, working on it and coming back to top off (on fuel) … which really led into the fuel mileage strategy later.”

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Peterson’s first key decision came when the caution waved at Lap 124. Rain approached and the race would be official once it got to Lap 130. McDowell was 23rd when the caution waved.

“After that (Lap 81) and (Lap 93) cautions, it became really clear to everybody that it was going to rain at some point and that created this, well, pun intended, perfect storm situation,” Peterson said. “You got guys at the back topping off (fuel) every time. You’ve got guys thinking it could end at 130, may go to stage 2 (Lap 160).

“The weather just moved weirdly slow. The predictive forecasts were like it’s going to be here at 9 (p.m.). Then it was 9:15. Then it was 9:30. Then it was 9:45. It got to the point where we pitted at (Lap) 95 and that next caution came out (at Lap 124) it was ‘Alright, we’ve worked our way back up, the car is fixed, now we can go race and we may be racing to the end of the stage.’

“I knew we had some fuel beyond (stage 2). So I thought, ‘Alright I’m kind of in a decent scenario here. Obviously, if (the rain) continues to slow down, these guys will be in a better spot than me, but right now I can take advantage and that’s what we went for at the time.’”

McDowell stayed out while others pitted. He restarted 11th.

A caution at Lap 156 led to the second stage ending under caution and McDowell finishing eighth.

Now Peterson had another key moment: Pit with others at the front or stay out.

“It was really tough,” Peterson said of what to do. “The stage ends, you’ve already been thinking about it. Now you got the yellow laps to re-think it all. You’re staring at your radar. You’re listening to three people tell you what they think the weather is going to do.”

Peterson laughs as he recounts this.

“It was kind of an impossible scenario,” he said.

If he was wrong and McDowell had to stop for fuel before the rain, McDowell likely would have lost two laps pitting under green and lost several points, putting him outside a playoff spot. McDowell ran out of fuel during the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race in February and failed to finish that race. He ran out of fuel coming to the checkered flag at Fontana, California, in February to finish 18th.

As Peterson looked at the cars around McDowell, he saw AJ Allmendinger ahead of McDowell and Daniel Suarez behind McDowell. Both Allmendinger and Suarez were without a win and close to McDowell in points.

“A lot of it also came down to the fact that the guys that we’re racing for the final cutoff spot and guys behind us were likely going to stay (on the track instead of pitting),” Peterson said. “My thought was I can’t hand them a win (by pitting and giving them another spot on the track).

“I have to go for it to be up there racing those guys. I can’t just let AJ Allmendinger go get a win from behind me in points right now for free if I wasn’t up there racing him.”

When the race was called, McDowell had about half a gallon of fuel in his car.

Peterson’s gamble worked, McDowell scored a top-five finish and 39 points to put himself in a provisional playoff spot. But now comes the challenge of the next four races for the Front Row Motorsports team.

2. North Wilkesboro repave

It seems only a matter of time before North Wilkesboro Speedway will be repaved, but lessons learned from the repave at Atlanta Motor Speedway could prove beneficial.

Steve Swift, senior vice president of operations and development for Speedway Motorsports, said friction testing showed that Atlanta had lost about 5% grip since it was repaved two years ago when the track also was reconfigured. That’s more grip lost than the first two years of a typical repave, he said.

That, along with temperatures in the 80s, the Next Gen car and the threat of rain contributed to what some have suggested is the best Cup race of the season.

Swift said that when Atlanta was repaved, engineers looked at a different mix of asphalt to help the track wear quicker.

“It’s like making a cake,” Swift told NBC Sports of the different compositions of asphalt. “You can have chocolate cake or vanilla cake or strawberry cake and it all takes different kinds of ingredients. … So we changed up how the mix design was and the surface mix was because that’s the final thing (cars are) running on, the final product that they put actually tires to.”

Swift said those changes helped “give the track a little bit more tire fall-off, less grip.”

Swift acknowledges that North Wilkesboro could be next for a repave. If so, lessons from Atlanta will help with that project.

“Old Atlanta was very similar to the texture of what Wilkesboro is now, so we know what the old surfaces look like, we know how they reacted and how they treated tire wear,” Swift said.

“We know kind of what the new one in Atlanta does, and if we go just a little bit further (on the asphalt mix), we can, hopefully, achieve it a little bit quicker and hopefully right out of the box.

“The first race on the new pavement we’re hoping is a multi-groove track that does not have to have any products sprayed on it to create grip at any other locations. A lot was learned at Atlanta, especially now having four races and seeing how it’s reacted two years after the pave.”

3. Right mix in New Hampshire

Christopher Bell has won five of his eight starts at New Hampshire across NASCAR’s three national series going into this weekend’s Cup race.

After finishing second in the 2016 Truck race, he came back to win the event in 2017. He won all three starts in the Xfinity Series (2018-19, 21). After finishing 28th as a Cup rookie in 2020, he was second in 2021 and won last year’s race.

He deflects credit for his success at the 1.058-mile track in Loudon, New Hampshire.

“I would say it’s more so about the car, just getting the car to feel the way you need it to feel,” Bell said. “We have 36 drivers in the Cup Series and all of them are capable of winning if they have (the) feel that they need inside the car. We’re all great race car drivers to get to this level. If you give them what they need, they’re going to be able to be successful.

“Loudon has been a place that, fortunately, my crew chiefs have been able to give me the cars that I need to be successful. I don’t think it’s any more than that.”

Bell enters the weekend fourth in the standings, 37 points behind series leader William Byron. Bell has one win, five top fives and 10 top 10s this season, but he knows there is the potential for more.

“I don’t think it’s all come together yet,” he said. “We’ve definitely had some more positive moments, but we’re still struggling to put it all together. Hopefully, that means that it will come later on in the season.”

4. Is night time the right time?

The Cup Series is back to a day race Sunday after the past two races (Chicago and Atlanta) were held Sunday night.

Brad Keselowski admits he has mixed feelings about races on Sunday night.

“There’s some things I really like, and there’s some things I really dislike,” he said.

“I really like that by racing later on Sundays we open ourselves up to more fans. I was talking to my father-in-law who watched the Chicago races (and he said) ‘I was glad they ran it later, it was a lot easier for me to watch.’ You forget about those guys. When you live in the industry, you forget about the people who just have got a lot going on in their lives, clearly more than just racing. You get some kind of refreshing moments like that and hear that from partners, too.

“Being so close to it, being in the garage, I think of the people who have families in the sport, more so than myself, but work in this and, man, the schedule is super grinding and that made it even that much tougher.

“Certainly really liked the higher TV ratings that it draws. Those are never a bad thing, but then also really cognizant of the fact that it pushes us into tighter weather windows … which can be frustrating.

“There’s all kinds of trade-off here and there. I’ve got strong feelings on all of them, and they probably aggregate out of neutral. But it’s a topic, nonetheless, that deserves some discussion.”

5. Goodyear test at Indianapolis

Goodyear will conduct a tire test on the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a sign that the Cup Series likely will race on the there next year — the 30th anniversary of the inaugural Brickyard 400 — instead of on the road course.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, confirmed the test this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. The test is scheduled to take place the Monday and Tuesday after the Indianapolis road course race on Aug. 13.

The Cup Series last race on the Indy oval in 2020. The series moved to the road course because the racing proved lackluster on the oval. The Next Gen car has made racing better at the big tracks and could help the racing on the Indy oval.

“We just feel like there’s enough discussion around potentially going back to the oval in the future,” Stucker said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about the reason for the test. “Let’s go ahead and take the opportunity to get on that racetrack, the oval configuration with the Next Gen car. We haven’t run the Next Gen car on the (Indy) oval.”