NASCAR Crash Course: Was Michael McDowell’s win the final straw that breaks Chase Elliott’s playoff hopes?

NASCAR Crash Course: Was Michael McDowell’s win the final straw that breaks Chase Elliott’s playoff hopes?

Entering Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Michael McDowell had one career NASCAR Cup Series win to his name. Chase Elliott has the most active road course wins of any driver (seven).

Elliott also drives for the most accomplished organization in the sport, Hendrick Motorsports, won a Cup championship in 2020 and was on the verge of a second last fall at Phoenix Raceway. McDowell runs for an organization, Front Row Motorsports, yet to make it past the first round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

It made the closing laps of Sunday’s Verizon 200 a classic David versus Goliath affair. Too bad Goliath never even showed up to the battlefield.

“To basically dominate the weekend,” exclaimed Front Row Motorsports GM Jerry Freeze, “Is hardly a Cinderella story.”

Indeed, McDowell took it to them right from the start, leading 54 of 82 laps in beating Elliott to the flag by just under a second. In a fast-paced event that had the fewest cautions of any Cup race since 2012, Team FRM never gave Elliott, who led just one circuit, a chance to get ahead of them.

“Congrats to Michael, man,” was all Elliott could say after the race. “He did a good job. Ran a great race and stayed mistake free, and that’s what you’ve got to do to win.”

The performance capped a near-perfect week for McDowell, punching his playoff ticket mere days after announcing a contract extension with Front Row for 2024. He’s now the only Cup driver with just two career wins coming at the two most legendary racetracks in America: Daytona and Indy.

“You only get rings for certain races,” McDowell joked. “I got the two best rings you can get.”

His success left Hendrick sitting with two of their four drivers outside playoff position. Both Elliott and Alex Bowman now need to win either next week at Watkins Glen or at the regular season finale at Daytona to make the postseason. While each driver has suffered through injuries, combining to miss 10 races, both staying winless was not on the bingo card for a team that’s produced two of the last three NASCAR champions.

Will the momentum of a runner-up finish be enough for Elliott or Bowman to break through down the stretch? Not if there’s another McDowell lurking in the shadows. That’s the beauty of the sport’s Next Gen chassis, cranking out opportunities for middle-tier teams to go toe-to-toe and show they’re every bit as talented as the heavyweights in front of them. Kudos to FRM for delivering what could be an unexpected knockout punch.

“What we did today is we had the fastest car and we won,” McDowell said. “I think it says a lot for our race team and what we have been able to do and what we’ve been able to build on.”

Traffic Report

Green: Travis Peterson. Peterson is a first-year crew chief with Front Row that left a cushy job at another up-and-coming Ford team, RFK Racing, to take a chance on 38-year-old McDowell. McDowell was so upset after losing former head wrench Blake Harris to Bowman and Hendrick last offseason he nearly retired; now, the future is bright with a 31-year-old head wrench that’s taking Team FRM to new heights. “I wanted somebody that was fiery,” McDowell said. “I think that’s what takes to take it to the next level, and he has that… we’re a good combination.”  

Yellow: Daniel Suarez. The 2022 Sonoma winner ran third and seemed to be the only driver capable of challenging McDowell, momentum that bodes well for Watkins Glen. But a costly pit road mistake where an air hose got stuck beneath the car may be the difference for whether this Trackhouse Racing driver ends up on the right side of the playoff bubble.

Red: AJ Allmendinger. The road course ace picked the wrong time to start slumping, spinning out and running 26th at a track where he won just two years ago. Three straight runs outside the top 25 have taken him right out of playoff contention; will it also cause him to rethink running Cup full-time for Kaulig in 2024?

Speeding Ticket: Road course ringers. Expectations were high for these drivers invading the sport after Shane van Gisbergen’s surprise victory at Chicago earlier this summer. SVG put in another solid performance, running 10th with a single lap led, but everyone else failed to crack the top 20. Among them: SVG’s supercars rival Brodie Kostecki (22nd), DTM champion Mike Rockenfeller (24th), F1 champion Jenson Button (28th) and FIA World Endurance racer Kamui Kobayashi (33rd). It’s a return to normalcy and a reminder of how difficult it is to take your talent to different series and win. No caution flags for adjustments hurt these drivers as they struggled to adjust to how the Next Gen chassis handles on a road course.

Oops!

Slim pickings this weekend for a race that had only one caution flag. That came when Joey Logano and Justin Haley made contact, sending the Kaulig Racing driver straight into the tire barrier on lap two.

Haley limped home the rest of the day, ruining perhaps one of his few opportunities to pull a postseason upset: he ran runner-up to SVG at the Chicago Street Course in July.

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