With the 16-driver playoff field set, the intensity will increase as NASCAR Cup Series drivers fight to remain above the cut line during the first round. There are several that will have an advantage early, such as Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr., but Michael McDowell has cause for concern after recent struggles.
The driver of the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang kicked off his season in an exciting fashion, winning the Daytona 500 and reaching Victory Lane for the first time in his 14-year career. McDowell then added top-10 finishes at the Daytona Road Course, Homestead-Miami, and Circuit of the Americas. A top-five finish at Talladega Superspeedway boosted his points further.
However, McDowell’s strong performances mixed with struggles at other tracks. The veteran has finished outside of the top 20 a total of 14 times, including the seven most recent races. This streak includes two crashes, which have dropped McDowell into a precarious position as the playoffs begin.
The Coke Zero Sugar 400 Ended Early for the No. 34
McDowell entered the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway with the goal of winning for the second time in 2021 and adding more playoff points to his total. However, the day started poorly and only became worse after the green flag waved.
NASCAR announced prior to the start of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 that McDowell and his teammate Anthony Alfredo would drop to the rear of the field after failing inspection. The No. 34 Ford and the No. 38 Ford were both in violation of NASCAR specifications according to Rule 188.8.131.52.a and 184.108.40.206.b. “A.) only NASCAR-approved deck lid extensions will be permitted and B.) the deck lid must conform to the drawing supplied by NASCAR.”
Instead of starting 18th at a track suited to his skill set, McDowell dropped to the rear of the field with several other drivers. However, his issues only continued. He made it back to 18th place by lap 20 and the competition caution, heading to pit road for fuel. He went back onto the track but quickly moved down onto the apron after massive amounts of smoke came billowing out from under the No. 34.
Major engine issues sent McDowell to the garage early and removed any opportunity to pursue his second victory at Daytona International Speedway. He finished 40th overall and lost out on the ability to potentially earn any playoff points. Now he will enter the playoffs with just over 2,000 points and near the bottom of the 16-driver field.
McDowell Will Have 3 Races to Make Some Moves
While he will sit near the cut line at the start of the playoffs, McDowell will have an opportunity to make some moves early. There are three races in the Round of 16, but they take place at tracks where McDowell has not contended for wins.
The playoffs start on Sunday, Sept. 5, with the Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. The Lady in Black is one of NASCAR’s most exciting tracks, especially with drivers regularly grazing the wall and earning the famed Darlington Stripe. McDowell, in particular, has crashed during two races and posted a best finish of 16th in 2020.
The Round of 16 continues with races at Richmond (Sept. 11) and Bristol Motor Speedway (Sept. 18). McDowell has 41 combined starts at the two tracks — 21 at Bristol and 20 at Richmond — but only one top-10 finish. He finished 10th at the Bristol playoff race in 2020.
If McDowell can’t improve upon his history at these three tracks, he will fall victim to cuts. The field will drop from 16 to 12 drivers after three races, removing any possibility of a championship for multiple men.