Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Michael McDowell always goes into a NASCAR Cup Series road course event feeling confident and prepared to win. For the first time in his career – he’ll bring a huge trophy with him.
McDowell earned his first NASCAR cup Series career victory in the Daytona 500 last weekend and the road course specialist arrives for Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on the Daytona International Speedway road course absolutely ready to make it two-in-a-row.
Should he pull off the back-to-back wins, McDowell would be only the sixth driver in history to win the season’s opening two races. The last to do so was Matt Kenseth in 2009. But McDowell has good reason to be optimistic. He is a former IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series road course race winner and has a best finish of third in seven Rolex 24 races on the Daytona road course.
“We feel really optimistic and confident,” said McDowell, who finished 10th in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford at the Daytona Road Course last summer.
“We had a top-five car most of the day last year. [Crew chief] Drew [Blickensderfer] and I went for it near the end with taking tires, but we didn’t get a late race caution so the strategy didn’t work like we wanted.”
McDowell acknowledged he and his team carry high expectations into this road course weekend.
“Even without the Daytona 500 win, we would still feel confident coming back this weekend. We have really worked hard on our road course program this offseason and we are getting better. It’s another good opportunity for us.”
Of course, McDowell will have to beat the same driver he edged in the Daytona 500. Reigning NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Elliott has won the last four series road courses dating back to 2019. Five of Elliott’s 11 career series wins have come on road course venues, including the 2020 race on the 3.61-mile, 14-turn Daytona Road Course.
Elliott’s 8.92 career average finish on road courses in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is best among active drivers. His crew chief Alan Gustafson, a Daytona Beach native, is the winningest active crew chief on road courses with five wins.
Last summer, Elliott held off Denny Hamlin by .202-seconds to earn the series’ inaugural race victory on the Daytona course – leading a race best 34 of the 65 laps. McDowell finished 10th what was a mixed weather afternoon of competition featuring 13 lead changes among six drivers.
Elliott won both road courses last season (at Daytona and at Charlotte) and was leading on the Daytona infield in the non-points Busch Clash event a week before contact with Ryan Blaney on the final turn of the final lap. He recovered to finish second.
“Road courses have been good to us the past few trips, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go good every time,” Elliott said. “There has not been one part of me that watched the schedule change, saw seven road courses and thought, ‘yeah, we’ve got it now.’ That’s just not how I am. At the end of the day, you have to be good everywhere and I want to be good everywhere. We as a team want to get to the point where we can win on any given week; road course, circle track, intermediate, dirt. .. whatever it is, we want to be able to win at any time. The great teams and the great drivers are capable of doing that and I think we are capable of doing that. So that’s where my head’s at – trying to be good everywhere.”
Elliott and McDowell will start on the front row Sunday, just ahead of Austin Dillon, who leads the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings for the first time in his career. He finished just behind McDowell and Elliot in the Daytona 500. With two top-five finishes in the race’s opening stages plus his third-place at the checkered, Dillon holds a six-point advantage over Denny Hamlin in the championship standings.
XFINITY CHAMP AUSTIN CINDRIC LOOKS TOUGH TO BEAT
Austin Cindric picked up right where he left off in 2020 – out front and hoisting a trophy. The 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion won the season-opener at the Daytona International Speedway in an overtime thriller last Saturday and is absolutely a favorite to win again when the series returns to the track’s 3.61-mile road course on Saturday for the Super Start Batteries 188 at Daytona Presented by O’Reilly (5 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Cindric has proven to be the reigning road course master of the series – winning four times on four different circuits (Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, Road America and Daytona RC). He is the defending Daytona Road Course winner leading 21 of 52 laps there last August.
Not only does the 22-year-old return to Florida this week as defending Xfinity Series race winner, he is coming off a stellar NASCAR Cup Series debut last weekend too – starting 39th and finishing 15th in his very first Daytona 500.
With his win in the Xfinity Series opener last Saturday, Cindric said he’s checked an important box.
“One of my extracurricular goals for the year was to win on a superspeedway,” Cindric said. “To get that knocked out early was really satisfying. It is a different discipline. To be able to control the race, how we did and the speed in our car, I was really proud of that effort. We haven’t had that kind of speed at speedways in the past. It shows the effort my guys have put in during the off-season. We keep stepping up both individually and as a group. Nothing is guaranteed though, so it is back to work.”
He will have plenty of legitimate competition in this weekend’s field. Veteran A.J. Allmendinger, a former IndyCar racer, is always a favorite on road courses. He won at the Charlotte ROVAL last year and is now competing fulltime in the series driving the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet.
Other road course “ringers” include former NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year and IMSA winner Andy Lally, who finished fifth at the Daytona road course in 2020. Road course stars Miguel Paludo and Preston Pardus are also entered.
The starting lineup for Saturday’s race includes a front row of Brett Moffitt – a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series road course winner – and Austin Cindric.
CAMPING WORLD TRUCKS GO ROAD RACING
A typically action-packed season-opening NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race on the Daytona International Speedway oval last week takes a new turn – 14 turns actually – when the series races on the 3.61-mile infield road course in Friday night’s BrakeBest Select 159 at DAYTONA (7:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Reigning series champion Sheldon Creed won the Daytona Road Course event last year taking a comfortable .743-second win over veteran Brett Moffitt – the two drivers leading 32 of the 46 laps with Creed leading the last 12. Raphael Lessard, Matt Crafton and Austin Hill rounded out the top five.
It was the only road course race of the 2020 COVID-affected schedule. Typically, the series races at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in Bowmanville, Ontario. Among those full-time drivers entered this weekend only John Hunter Nemechek (2016) and Moffitt (2019) have recent road course wins there.
Ben Rhodes, a championship contender in 2020, earned the season-opening win at Daytona last weekend edging Jordan Anderson by .036-seconds. Chandler Smith led the most laps. Rhodes holds a slim four-point edge on the defending champ Creed and Nemechek coming into this weekend’s race.
Hailie Deegan, driver of the No. 1 Team DGR Ford F-150, will be making only her second start in the series as a fulltime championship contender. She ran briefly among the top five last weekend on the Daytona superspeedway but was caught in a crash and finished 24th.
Deegan, who was encouraged with her work Sunday, told the media this week she’s really benefitted from having former NASCAR Cup Series driver David Ragan as a “tutor” or sorts for the 2021 season.
“He has been crucial for my development,” Deegan said. “Just the level of experience he has and all the knowledge he has that he has been able to feed to me has been so great.”
“Ford saw how much he was helping me and the information he was giving me. I think going into the Truck Series this year, Ford stuck him with me with the mindset of working together and doing the best we can together.”
Deegan said the former NASCAR Cup Series winner has been able to help the learning curve with all the new tracks she’s encountering. She does have some experience on the Daytona Road Course, finishing seventh in an ARCA Menard Series race there last year.
“His experience and knowledge,” Deegan said. “Everything he knows about every single track. I think going to all these tracks, I am very new to them. A lot of them I haven’t raced at before. Him having experience there and a lot of notes that he can give me is crucial.”
Ben Rhodes will start from the pole this weekend and Ryan Truex, who finished fourth in last week’s season-opener, will start on the outside front row for Friday’s race.