Thursday, Dec 08

Ford Performance NASCAR: Michael McDowell Phoenix Advance

Michael McDowell, driver of the No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang, will be racing in front of his hometown fans this weekend as the NASCAR Cup Series completes its three-race western swing at Phoenix Raceway.  McDowell was a guest on this week’s Ford Zoom call and answered questions from the media.


MICHAEL MCDOWELL, No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang – HOW WOULD YOU RATE THE NEXT GEN CAR VERSUS THE GEN 6 VERSION AFTER THREE RACES?  “I thought the first few races here have gone really well.  When we were all at that Charlotte test we were concerned, but Charlotte is one of those racetracks that dirty air and it’s just a tough place.  It’s a tough place to pass, so we felt like that was probably one of the worst-case scenarios in that test, and then also too with everybody having very limited time with these cars – the teams always do a good job of making everything better and that’s what they do, so I feel like California was a great race.  You start with Daytona, Daytona was like Daytona always is.  I didn’t see much change there.  The car has some different characteristics, but for the most part, how the race went is pretty much how the races have gone in the past.  California, I thought the cars were really competitive and they were good in traffic.  You see more side-by-side racing and when I say side-by-side I actually mean just closer proximity.  The air doesn’t seem to affect these cars as much like when somebody is on your outside really tight, where with the previous generation car it would kind of suck you around and almost want to spin you out.  So, if you were that outside car you sort of had to give a little bit of room and if you were that inside car, you had to protect that and now I feel like you can be pretty aggressive side-by-side and the cars drive pretty well.  So, all in all, I’ve thought it’s been great.  I think Vegas was good.  I think California was good and those were the tracks that were probably the biggest question marks, the mile-and-a-half, two-mile tracks, so coming to a short track I think it’s just gonna get better because this car lends itself more to road courses, short tracks, it’s got big brakes and a bigger tire – all those things that will help on those racetracks that you can really attack, so I’ve thought it’s gone really well.  I haven’t watched the Vegas race yet as far as playing it back to see how it was, but from my seat it was pretty good.”

WHAT WOULD BE SOME ADVICE YOU WOULD TELL YOUR YOUNGER SELF THAT YOU WISHED YOU KNEW WHEN YOU GOT STARTED?  “One thing that always sticks out to me is in the early years, especially in my rookie year in Cup and when you’re first starting, I just didn’t take it in.  I didn’t enjoy it that much because I let the pressure and all the extra noise kind of take away the fun from it.  You work your entire life to get to this spot and then you get there and then you just feel that weight of having to perform and all the extra pressures that I didn’t take in kind of the cool moments – like the first time you’re at the Brickyard or the first time you’re at Daytona and really take it in and be like, ‘Man, this is neat,’ and something that you get to cherish.  It was more of just not enjoying it as much as I should, so that’s probably the biggest thing.  This sport is so much of highs and lows.  You’ve got to be able to ride the wave, so you can’t take yourself too seriously because most weekends for most drivers it’s a losing weekend.  I mean, if you just think about the span of your career, even the top guys – maybe not Larson right now – but you take the top guys like Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex and those guys, a majority of your career you spend losing, so you have to be able to do both well.  You have to be able to manage the highs and the lows because every week is different.”


HAVE YOU HAD ANY ISSUES WITH LEG NUMBNESS LIKE SOME DRIVERS HAVE TALKED ABOUT?  “I haven’t had any of those issues.  Everything is new with this car.  The seat is in a different spot.  The dash is in a different spot.  Even the front window in reference to the seat location is in a different spot.  The foot box is completely different and I can’t speak for those guys because I don’t know what they have going on, but if you apply your old seating position and how you want to be into this new car, I could see where there would be some challenges.  For me, it hasn’t been much of a challenge because this is actually more of the seating position that I’m used to prior to stock car racing with sports cars and things like that.  The foot box and all that is the same, so I haven’t had any of those harmonics issues through my feet or legs.  There are 38 drivers and I’ve only heard two talk about that.  It’s not calling them out.  It’s a real problem for them.  I totally get it, but if there was half the field or three-quarters of the field, then I would be like, ‘Oh, there’s a concern.  We need to explore options from a sport standpoint.’  But when it’s two guys I think they just need to explore from moving around their inserts and maybe doing things a little different than they’ve done in the past.  Maybe their legs are sitting at the wrong angle or you’re sitting on a particular nerve or vein for too long or something like that, so there are a lot of elements to it, but I haven’t had any issues with the cockpit.”


WHAT ARE YOU EXPECTING FROM THE NEW SURFACE AT ATLANTA MOTOR SPEEDWAY IN TWO WEEKS?  “Expect the unexpected.  I didn’t get a chance.  We didn’t do the tire test, so I haven’t seen the racetrack other than just like you all probably watched on You Tube when they were doing the test and stuff like that, so I don’t really know what to expect.  The guys that I have talked to said the track has a lot of grip and it’s very easy, wide-open, much like Daytona and Talladega, so I’m kind of anticipating that style of a race, but just like everybody else, not making any laps you just don’t know until you get there.  That’s the one thing I think the Cup Series in general does really well.  You look at the Coliseum and everybody was freaking out.  ‘Oh, what are we doing?  How is this gonna work?’  And it was great.  Our cars drove great on it.  It was a great race.  I think when you have teams and drivers of this caliber that everybody adapts really quickly and figures it out, so Atlanta I think will have some new challenges, but it’s the same for everybody so I think you just go there with an open mind and see what happens.”


WHAT IS THE KEY FOR YOU TO RUN WELL AT PHOENIX?  “The key for us this week is just minimizing some mistakes and also some gremlins we’ve been fighting these last few weeks.  Obviously, with this being a new car everybody is learning a lot in these first few races and we’ve had some issues that we’ve navigated through the first three weeks.  Daytona wasn’t really much of an issue, but we’ve had good speed and our cars have been really fast, especially the first half of the race, so we just have to execute.  We knew that there was gonna be things that sort of were not expected that with a new car you just kind of figure out and so we were having to make some adjustments, which is hard to do when you’re in the west coast swing because the cars aren’t going back and forth, so you really have a day in the shop before you load up and it has to be gone for the next one to do the swap out, so Phoenix in particular, I feel like, with the test that we had here last month, that’s gonna help a lot because most of us got an opportunity to feel things out and get our cars close and have at least some targets for simulation and all those things, so this weekend should go a little bit smoother than the last two, but for us it’s just cleaning up some of the details that we had some issues with the last two weeks.”


HOW HAVE YOU AND BLAKE HARRIS CONNECTED THE FIRST FEW RACES?  “He’s done a great job.  He’s a tremendous asset.  He’s done really well.  It’s really unfortunate that we don’t have the results to show because last week at Vegas I felt like we had a top 10 car and we were able to drive into the top 10 in those first 30 laps.  The same at California.  We were running eighth or ninth with 10 laps to go and then had an electrical issue, so we don’t have the results to kind of show what we’ve been able to do, but we’ve had really good speed and really good potential on our cars, so we’re optimistic.  That’s why we want to get this fixed and get everything cleaned up as quick as we can because we feel like we’ve left a couple top 10s on the table, but we feel good.  We feel good with this Next Gen car.  It seems to fit my driving style well.  Blake has done a good job with maximizing getting a new group together and a new car and an all-new format with practice, qualifying.  I mean, everything has changed, so it’s a lot to take on as a rookie crew chief in your first year.”


HOW COMFORTABLE ARE YOU GUYS AT FRONT ROW IN TERMS OF CARS PREPARED IN THE SHOP?  “I don’t think anybody is comfortable, but as we get closer to wrapping up this west coast swing things are getting somewhat better, and it’s really hard to explain because it’s not like one part or one piece, so even though everybody is in the same boat from a team standpoint, our damage the first few weeks might be different than another team’s, but the allotment of parts and the allotment of what’s available isn’t contingent on what you broke it’s contingent on what’s available, so it’s been tough but we’ve managed to get through it pretty well and I feel like in the next few weeks we’ll be on schedule, probably not ahead of schedule but on schedule and everything will smooth out quite a bit.”


IS THERE ANYTHING YOU’RE TRYING TO DO WITH YOUR FAMILY WHILE IN PHOENIX?  “It’s been a fun week.  It just worked out timing-wise.  My kids are on spring break while we’re here in Phoenix.  My wife and I are both from here and all of our family and friends are out here, so we haven’t really planned anything real big.  We’ve just been hanging out with our family, so nothing too exciting.  It’s been nice.  It doesn’t always work out that way and with four kids, taking them out of school to do this would be tough, so it all worked out and aligned this year, so it was nice and just enjoying hanging out with friends and family and then obviously, like you said, the schedule is pretty easy.  You get there Saturday and you have your qualifying and practice kind of all lumped together, so there’s not a whole lot of hanging out at the racetrack, so that makes it nice to be able to spend some more time, but at the same time it’s hard because you want to stay focused on what you’ve got going on and what you’ve got to do, but, right now, we’re enjoying it.  I’m gonna go pick up my grandma here for lunch and just make the most of these days that we have here.”


THIS WILL BE THE FIRST REAL COMPETITIVE DEBUT OF THE NEW BIGGER BRAKING SYSTEM ON THE CAR.  WHAT ARE YOU EXPECTING IN THAT AREA?  “I think this is kind of like a light test for the brakes because Phoenix, even though it is a short track it’s pretty high speed and with the test here you were using the brakes, but you weren’t using them like you would at a road course or like you would at a Martinsville or a Richmond or something like that, so I feel like this is kind of like easing into it.  The brakes are much better on the Next Gen car – bigger, better cooling.  I think the wheels help that a lot too.  The tires in general and the wheels are running much cooler, but bigger brakes, more powerful brakes, so I think that this will be a good first test for it in a full race condition.  Martinsville and COTA will be the real test of how hard and how much you can push them and how deep you can brake with these cars, but it’s been fun to try and find that limit, even on a green flag pit stop at Las Vegas last week it’s like the brakes stop and you’ve got to remind yourself that you can go much further than you think.  It’s fun to get used to a new car.”


IS THERE MUCH YOU CAN TAKE FROM THIS FIRST PHOENIX RACE FOR THE SEASON FINALE OR DO THINGS CHANGE TOO MUCH BETWEEN NOW AND THEN?  “That’s a big question mark.  In general, you would say the evolution of the car is gonna be so fast and we’re gonna be learning so much that it probably won’t apply too much, but with what we’ve seen through the test and through the races that NASCAR has done a good job of developing this car in a window where the exploration hasn’t really paid off yet.  We’ve tried a bunch of stuff in these tests and we’ve tried to get outside the box and nothing seems to really move the needle much as far as speed, so who knows?  It could be that you run something pretty similar, but one thing that it does help for sure is pace helps the engineers back at the shop with simulation for the next time you come and tire fall off and all that, so you’re definitely gonna be building a notebook for sure, and it’ll be interesting to see once we get to the end of this summer how much the setups in cars have evolved.”


HOW COMFORTABLE HAVE YOU GOTTEN DRIVING THIS NEW CAR?  “I don’t think anybody is super comfortable.  The cars in general are pretty edgy.  As we can see in practice and qualifying and the race, you can get behind and lose it pretty quickly, but every race that we do we’re all getting a little bit more comfortable and a little bit more confident of where that limit is, but with that short practice it is definitely a challenge firing off in kill mode and trying to be ten-tenths because each track is different with this Next Gen car.  Normally, we have a pretty good notebook and have some ideas, so you ease into it a little bit throughout the weekend, but, for me, I feel really confident, especially by race time I felt like we had everything worked out.  Our heights were good and everything was driving pretty nice, but you don’t let your guard down with this car, for sure.  It can snap around really quickly.”


DO YOU FEEL MORE PRESSURE RACING AT HOME WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILY WATCHING?  “You always want to perform well, but I don’t feel any extra pressure.  More than anything, I just feel extra pressure because the last two weeks we haven’t got the results that I think we were capable of and this sport is all about momentum and it’s all about just building those results and confidence, so we need to capitalize.  We’ve had the speed, so now if we can capitalize and get a result it just helps so much at the team and the morale and everything else, so the extra pressure is just wanting to run well and get that momentum going.  Obviously, if you can do it at home it’s nice.”


WHAT IS THE OPTIMISM LIKE ON YOUR TEAM HEADING FORWARD?  “I think that we are optimistic.  I think we were optimistic coming into this year that it would kind of level the playing field and I think it’s doing what we expected, honestly.  I really do and that’s also what adds to the last few weeks really being a bummer just because we’ve had those opportunities.  You just don’t know when that tide is gonna change.  We were talking about development.  The biggest teams, the best teams will always be the top.  You’re still seeing the same top teams challenge for wins, but we just don’t know when that momentum will swing to where there will be a lot of development and they’ll get ahead, or if it will stay close like this.  If it stays close like this, I think you’re gonna see us have a lot of opportunities to be in that top five and challenge for a win, just like you said.  You’re gonna see Trackhouse and you’re gonna see JTG and you’re gonna see other teams that are able to do that as well.  As long as it doesn’t turn into like a really steep development curve, which hopefully it won’t, but we just don’t know until we get there.”


WHAT ARE YOUR IMPRESSIONS WITH TODD SO FAR AS A TEAMMATE?  “Todd has done great.  He’s beat me twice now, so we were joking in the meeting – the way that we structure our meeting is whoever finished the highest gets to go first, so he’s gotten to go first the last two weeks.  I told him not to get too used to that, but all joking aside he’s done a great job.  The Cup Series is tough as a rookie.  Vegas is a tough place.  I mean, it really is a tough place, so I think he did a great job there.  He showed great speed, too, early in the race.  He was able to drive up into the top 15 and then he had some of the issues that we had as well, so I don’t think he’s gotten to show his potential yet either, but, at the same time, he’s capitalized on just making the most of the days and they did a good job last week in Vegas just kind of with strategy and making sure that he was able to get that wave around, and he did a good job of just managing all that, so I think he’s done good.  It doesn’t seem like he’s been overwhelmed, so that’s good.  It doesn’t seem to be too much for him, but it’s early in the season and it’s keeping that mental focus and that positive attitude for 36 weeks.  So far, he’s done a great job and hopefully when things slow down a little bit and we get back on kind of our normal east coast schedule we’ll be able to debrief more and have more time, but, right now, it’s like as soon as the cars get back they’re loading up and leaving again and you don’t really have a lot of time to go through planning strategy and what you’re gonna do, so it should get better here in the next few weeks.”

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