DAYTONA, Fla. - Daytona 500 champion Michael McDowell, along with car owner Bob Jenkins and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer, participated in a NASCAR Zoom call to talk about last night’s season-opening victory at Daytona International Speedway.
MICHAEL MCDOWELL, No. 34 Love’s Travel Stop Ford Mustang
WHAT HAS THE LAST 10-12 HOURS BEEN LIKE?
“It’s been a range of emotions, believe it or not. From finding out that we won the Daytona 500 just the shear excitement that you have from that to, for me, it’s been like a very emotional and humble experience where just realizing like, ‘Man, we just won the biggest race in the world.’ So many people have done so much to help me get here that it can be overwhelming, and just thankful. I’m super thankful. I really am. I’m thankful for the opportunity to be in NASCAR, to be one of 40. I’m thankful to drive the Love’s Travel Stop Ford Mustang for Bob Jenkins and Front Row Motorsports, and I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to be in a car that can win the Daytona 500 and to finally do it is amazing.”
HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO TALK TO FAMILY AND CATCH UP ON TEXT MESSAGES?
“It’s been tough, for sure, because just so much has been going on. Everytime I look down at my phone I have another 100 texts. It started at 350 and I went to breakfast and I got it down to about 290, and then I looked down again and it’s at 350, so everyone is just gonna have to be real patient and give me a couple days to get back to them. But just to talk to my kids this morning and show them the trophy and show them the ring, I would love for them to be here and experience it but I can’t wait to get home and see them. For us, as a family, we’ve always done this as a family. We’ve traveled together as a family and kids don’t always understand and they don’t know like, ‘Daddy, why don’t you win the race? Why does this daddy win the race all the time?’ So to finally get to victory lane and to do it at the biggest race is amazing and it’s fun to experience that with them. I can’t wait to get home and show them the trophy and hold them and just super thankful. Like I said, it’s overwhelming to think what it means to be a Daytona 500 champion.”
HAVE YOU TALKED TO BRAD OR JOEY ABOUT THE LAST LAP?
I haven’t talked to Brad, but Joey came and saw me in victory lane. Honestly, he was just so happy for me. Obviously, he wanted to win the race, but he just came up and congratulated me and just told me that I deserved it and how amazing it was that I get to experience this and he said it’s the last lap of the Daytona 500, I don’t expect you to lift and I don’t expect Brad to lift. Just soak it all in and don’t worry about what happened on the racetrack because all of us would have done the same thing. I haven’t got the chance to speak to Brad, but I’ll definitely reach out. We worked so good together. Brad was the guy that I was anchored to. Wherever he went I was going and we just had such a great run and when he pulled down I went with him and it just didn’t work out for all of us. That happens going into turn three here coming to the checkered, but it definitely wasn’t something I was planning on, but I feel like I was very fortunate to make it through because when Brad started spinning right, Joey started spinning left and there was just enough room for my car to squeeze through. It was like the seas parted and I was able to drive through the middle, so I feel very fortunate to escape it.”
WERE YOUR KIDS AWAKE? HOW DID THEY FIND OUT?
“I don’t believe the kids were awake. I believe my wife woke them up after we had won, but obviously my wife was watching. She’s a nervous wreck during these superspeedway races, so she was definitely glued to the TV and after they said over the radio that we were going to victory lane she woke the kids up. I was able to Facetime with them in victory lane for a few minutes. I would have loved to have that moment with them, but like I said last night I’m just thankful that we get to race and I’m thankful that I have a healthy family and I can’t wait to see them today.”
HAS THERE BEEN ANY POINT IN THE LAST FEW HOURS WHERE IT HAS SUNK IN THAT YOU WON THIS RACE?
“No. I mean, I think that there’s been parts of it, but it’s super emotional. I don’t know how it is for everybody else, but I’m just so grateful and just so thankful that you’re just kind of overwhelmed with that. The thing that keeps going through my head is just all the people. I mean, and it’s not just in NASCAR it’s my entire career, just so many people have given me an opportunity or helped me get here or sponsored me in a race and allowed me to do this that you’re just thinking about all those people. It’s humbling and it just makes you thankful for so many people, so my mind has been kind of racing about, ‘Man, this guy did this for me, and this guy did this for me.’ It’s just so many people that I need to thank.”
WHAT TIME DID YOU GO TO BED?
“I didn’t go to sleep. I probably had the opportunity around 5:30 to get an hour or so, but I don’t do well with naps and I just felt so tired that if I went to sleep I just felt like I was gonna not be feeling the greatest when I had to get up an hour later. So, I’ve got my Love’s water here and I’m rehydrating and I’ve had a Celsius, so I’ll be good for a few more hours here. I’m sure tonight is gonna be rough, but it’s hard to go to sleep when you have so much emotion running through you and so much excitement. I’ll get to sleep here later on. Naps have never worked out good for me. It just makes me feel terrible, so we’ll grind it out here a little bit and, like I said, being in the position I’m in sleep is not a big priority right now.”
HAVE YOU TALKED TO TREVOR BAYNE YET? YOU GUYS ARE GOOD FRIENDS.
“Yeah, I did. It was about 5 a.m. and he was just waking up getting ready to go to his coffee shop and so he said, ‘Man, I woke up and I had all these phone calls and text messages.’ He’s like, ‘I can’t believe it.’ Trevor and I are close friends and we just have that brotherly bond and I said, ‘Man, can you believe it? We’re both Daytona 500 champions. How crazy is that.’ So it was really special. Like I said, this sport has so many highs and lows. The lows can be low and the highs can be really high, so being on both sides of them it teaches you to appreciate each moment.”
IS WINNING THE DAYTONA 500 WORTH IT AFTER EVERYTHING YOU’VE GONE THROUGH?
“Yes, absolutely. Even if I didn’t it would still be worth it. I love this sport. I love being in NASCAR and I love the challenge of it and how difficult it is. The sacrifice it’s worth it because this is what I’ve dreamed about doing and to win, yes, for sure. That’s what it’s all about. We all show up on Sunday for one reason, we want to win the race, but even if you didn’t it’s still worth it. This is such a great sport and I’m so thankful to be one of 40. I think it’s so easy to take that for granted how many race car drivers there are in the world and to be one of 40 that gets to start on Sundays, that’s amazing so it’s definitely worth it.”
HOW DO YOU THINK YOU WILL APPROACH THE REST OF THE SEASON NOW?
“I think not a lot will change for us for the rest of the season as far as our effort and what we’re gonna do. I think what will change is we’ll be probably able to be a bit more aggressive and I think that we’ll have a little bit more confidence and swag too. It won’t hurt as bad when you have those hard days because you know that you’re in the playoffs, and you know that you didn’t just lose 50 points or whatever it might be. So, not that it takes the pressure off because every weekend you want to perform and every weekend you want to run well, but it will help us to go forward a little bit more with strategy and maybe even pushing the envelope a little bit more.”
HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO WATCH THE FINAL LAP YET?
“I have. I’ve seen it a couple times now. I haven’t had time to really go back and analyze it, it’s just people showing it to me on phones or social media, so I haven’t got to really watch it on a big screen in slo-mo and see it all, but it played out how I remember it. When I watched it nothing stood out to me that was ‘oh, man I didn’t see that’ or something happened differently than what I saw from the driver’s seat.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK BRAD WAS THINKING THERE? DREW THOUGHT HE MAY HAVE BEEN TORN WHETHER OR NOT TO GO AROUND HIS TEAMMATE OR TAKE THE PUSH FROM YOU.
“I think Brad backed up to me, definitely, in the middle of turn one and got off of Joey a little bit, so, to me, that was my indication that he was getting ready to go just because he was trying to build that little bit of a gap so we could get a run, and we got the run. We really got the run because Chase Elliott gave me a pretty good push and I was able to get connected to Brad. I do agree with that. I don’t know for sure. I haven’t spoke to Brad, but it looked like Brad had the momentum with me pushing him and wasn’t sure if he was gonna pick Joey up or pass him and I think that maybe was a little bit of what happened.”
NOW THAT YOU’VE WON WILL IT BE HARDER IN THOSE TIMES WHEN YOU DON’T?
“I think that you always have the fire for that and no doubt when you win that fire gets deeper, but we all know that’s not an every week thing for us and our race team right now. We’ve been making great gains and I’m so proud of our Front Row organization, but we know that on 26 of the racetracks we’ll be happy to be in that top 10, but I think when we go to the superspeedways, when we go to the road courses and we go to some of the short tracks that we can definitely contend. We’re getting better and better every year, so the hunger is there for sure. I think this definitely gives us a lot of confidence and you want more. You always want more, but I am so thankful that I am not gonna go my Cup career without a win. I mean, it’s such a relief to me know that I won’t go 400 starts without a win. I’ve always said I want one and I’ve got one now and obviously we want two, right? We want to win the road course next week, but if we don’t, believe me I’m gonna be very happy. I’m very happy with what I’ve done in my career and what we were able to accomplish.”
ARE YOU HOPEFUL THE NEXT GEN CAR WILL ALLOW YOUR TEAM TO BE EVEN BETTER?
“That NEXT Gen car is gonna be a game-changer and we know that. If you look at the schedule with the road courses that are on the schedule currently and with potential of more, and then bringing in the NEXT Gen car that is definitely gonna level the playing field and even if it’s for a year or two that still gives us a great window to go win races. I think Bob Jenkins and myself are excited about the NEXT Gen car. We were hopeful it would be this year because we really feel like that’s gonna be what helps us get to that top level and, like I said, we’ve been getting better every year and that’s with people. We have great people at Front Row now and if we get an opportunity to level the playing field, I think we can contend with them.”
YOU HAD A MOMENT IN 2008 THAT SCARED ALL OF US. TELL US ABOUT SOME OTHER MOMENTS WE SHOULD REMEMBER BETWEEN THAT MOMENT AND THIS DAYTONA 500 WIN?
“I don’t know what those moments would be for you all, but I’ve definitely had some key ones that stand out to me and they’re not all wins, right? It’s just those moments that give you that breath of fresh air or that breath of life that keep you moving in this sport. Obviously, the first time I made the Daytona 500 that was one of those moments. I had to race my way in and when I got the call from J.D. Gibbs to come drive their XFINITY car and the first race sat on the pole and led a lot of laps. Those are those little moments that just keep you energized to keep pushing and keep going on those days where it’s tougher. For me, it’s small things. When I went full-time in the 95 for Bob and Sharon Leavine and to be able to be in something competitive and even if they were top 20s or top 15s those were days that were lifegiving and you just build on those moments. To get a top five in the Daytona 500 and I don’t know how many top 10s I have here at Daytona, but a handful of top 10s, those were all moments that keep you fired up about what could happen.”
DENNY HAMLIN SAID YOUR WIN IS NOT A FLUKE. IS THIS AN UNDERDOG STORY?
“I’m not sure. I think we are underdogs, but when we come to Daytona I would consider us a top five contender every time, and I don’t say that because I’m being boastful, I just say that because a majority of these races we’re in the top five when it comes down to those last five laps -- no different than Denny and Joey and there are a handful of guys that seem to be able to get themselves in those positions, but the difference is I haven’t been able to close, I haven’t been able to get to victory lane. I’ve been able to get in that top 10 and that top five, so I do feel like we are underdogs from that standpoint, but I agree with Denny and I really appreciate what he says. That means a lot. I don’t think it’s a fluke because we do run up front at these races quite often and last night just worked out perfectly.”
DREW BLICKENSDERFER, Crew Chief, No. 34 Love’s Travel Stop Ford Mustang
“You always think this is gonna happen again or else you wouldn’t keep doing it, but the longer it goes the more it’s like, ‘Man, I can get back to victory lane, can’t I?’ To kind of remember how special it was. Personally, that was the feeling of making that walk and seeing everybody celebrate on pit road in front of me, teardown afterwards, all of those feelings were super special. To have guys at Front Row Motorsports, a lot of them have never won a race at any level, be able to experience that -- the guys back at the shop are gonna be super excited and like Jerry Freeze spoke last night this is something that’s good for not only the business side of Front Row, but the competition side. Hiring people gets a little easier when you have a playoff car and a resume where you’ve won the Daytona 500 recently. Going to sponsors and partners and talking to them about that, all of that becomes a little easier and it can help Front Row. There’s a lot of movement right now in this sport and our team gets bigger every year. It’s something that could really turn the corner for us hopefully.”
WHAT WAS IT LIKE WAITING THROUGH THE POST-RACE TECH INSPECTION?
“Honestly, it’s much better now than it’s been in recent history. Kind of in the last two or three years Jay Fabian has made it very clear of what he expects from you and you kind of know that going in. It’s much more like the days when I first came into the sport. When that checkered flag falls there’s a good chance you’re the winner and there’s no sweating. If there’s something they don’t like, it’s something you never show up with again kind of thing. So, it’s not that you get away with stuff now that you didn’t get away with. They catch it before and if they didn’t catch it before, they’re gonna catch it the next time, so it’s a much smoother process. And I think it’s just because you know the expectations. There’s no guesswork in it anymore. Scott Miller and Jay Fabian are very clear what they want in the garage and I think everybody respects that, so, to be honest with you, by the time I got done with media they’re pulling the motor out of our car and it’s about done, so I was sending text messages to my car chief, ‘Everything good? All good?’ It isn’t as bad of a process as you might have went through five or six years ago.”
IT MUST HAVE BEEN A GOOD SENSE OF PRIDE KNOWING YOU DIDN’T GO OVER THE LINE AND WAITING THAT PROCESS OUT?
“Yeah, it was. The place is leaving. The only thing there is your car, a couple officials and a trailer, and that trailer is to take it across the grandstands to Daytona USA, so seeing that, seeing the excitement -- guys still in their Love’s firesuits tearing that car down, it’s pretty cool. And, to be honest, to see the respect and the generosity from the NASCAR officials when they got done teching their part of the car, to be able to shake your hand -- those guys were happy for us. They know us. There aren’t a ton of opportunities sometimes that come our way and to see those guys show respect was super fun throughout the evening last night, throughout the evening into the early morning about 4:30 a.m.”
THIS IS YOUR SECOND DAYTONA 500, ONE WITH A BIG TEAM AND ONE WITH A LITTLE TEAM. DO THEY FEEL THE SAME?
“No, and I’m not sure it’s because of the team size. It’s because when I won my first Daytona 500 I had just won two or three XFINITY races in a row leading up into that, won seven I think the year before. I was winning a lot as a crew chief and we were winning a lot at Roush Fenway Racing, so when I won my first Daytona 500, yeah, you thought you were gonna win again, like the next week or the following week and you didn’t quite realize how special it was, and with the guys at Front Row Motorsports it was super special to see the guys jump off the wall. To be honest, I just kind of wanted to sit back on the pit box and take it in, and when I saw them so excited on pit road I wanted to be down there with them and give them a high-five and hug them because you could see the joy in the air. So, yeah, with a little team I think you take it and you don’t know when the next one is gonna come, or you haven’t had a first one yet and you definitely enjoy it a little more.”
IS ALL THE WORK TEAMS PUT INTO THIS ONE RACE WORTH IT IN THE END?
“I think it depends what kind of a team it is. For a team like Front Row Motorsports we have to take advantage of our opportunities. On the 34 car our opportunities come at speedways and road courses and we can sprinkle in another five or six races where we think we have a really good chance to compete with a different group of guys maybe than other weeks. I think for us it is. For Front Row Motorsports when we show up at Daytona and Talladega, that’s the reason David Ragan was driving a third car down here this weekend. There’s an opportunity to win that race, so I think Front Row has done a really good job of maximizing the possibilities of getting a win and in today’s format you can kind of throw away your cards at a couple different races throughout the year for your real chances to win a race and that automatically propels you to the top 16 in points. I mean, just like that, so I think when you look at the way the schedule and the rules play out with the playoffs throwing a big chunk of our resources into this race for a team like Front Row, I think, is probably a little more reasonable than if you were with a big team that has a chance to win every single week.”
MICHAEL SAID ON FEB. 4 HE DIDN’T THINK YOU GUYS COULD POINT YOUR WAY INTO THE PLAYOFFS. HOW DOES THIS CHANGE YOUR APPROACH?
“To be honest, I try not to look too far ahead into the season and because of that I’ve got to kind of look at the schedule and look at the playoffs and see how they set up, and I haven’t done that a ton. I glanced at it last night right before I went to bed, so those are things we’re gonna have to look at, how we’re gonna have to prepare a little differently maybe than we thought, maybe backload when we’re gonna get a car updated, things like that, versus doing it early. There are things we need to talk about as a company and as a team. Where do we put our resources so that when the playoffs start we can give the best performance we can give, but, yeah, to Michael’s point, pointing our way in was going to be super, super hard. We were gonna take our opportunities, whether they were at a road course or a speedway those are the times when running fourth at a road course, that would be really good at Front Row Motorsports and really good for Michael and myself and everybody, but taking that chance to try to win the race, that’s something that can put us over the edge and those are the chances and the things we were willing to take at certain races with this being one of them.”
CAN YOU TAKE MORE RISKS THE REST OF THE SEASON?
“For sure. Right now, why stay out to finish ninth in a stage when you can do a pit strategy to set you up to possibly win the next stage because that’s all that matters right now is winning the stage or winning the race for us. So, I think the pit calls at places like Pocono, the road courses, they’re definitely gonna gamble. In the past, if you’re running at Pocono and you’re running seventh or eighth like we were last year, we were super happy to finish there, but right now seventh or eighth doesn’t do any better for us than 15th, so why not take a gamble and see if you can either steal another one or you can put yourself up in position to at least get some more points.”
HAVE YOU HAD A CHANCE TO WATCH THE FINAL SEQUENCE AND WHAT DO YOU THINK HAPPENED?
“When I saw him going down the backstretch Michael had a plan and he was gonna stick to the 2 car’s bumper. He knew Brad earlier in the day was getting big runs on people and it looked like he could push out fairly easily when he wanted to. Our car, according to Michael, was about the best pushing car he’s ever had. All week long, Thursday, in practice, Michael said, ‘I can get to people’s bumper and I can push them.’ That usually bodes really well because you kind of get some bank built up with your competitors that know you can push really well. They want to work with you more, so Michael was pushing Brad and it was working really well leading up into that. He saw Brad and Joey kind of take off and he stayed right with them and when he shoved Brad that got Brad close to Joey and he didn’t get off Joey and he was pushing Joey. So I think Brad probably looked torn. Do I pull out from my teammate or do I stay there and it was kind of in between whether he did that. As we were going down the backstretch I kind of saw us start out to the right when all of that was happening and I thought, ‘We’re leading the charge on the outside. We’re in a great spot.’ Even though we weren’t leading, we were third or fourth at that time, we had a few pushers behind us, we were as organized as anybody as a line against the wall and I thought, ‘If we don’t win this thing, we’re gonna have a heck of a shot coming off turn four if they get crossed up,’ and lo and behold it happened earlier than that.
BOB JENKINS, Team Owner, No. 34 Love’s Travel Stop Ford Mustang
THE LITTLE SHOT IN THE ARM YOU GET WITH THE WINNER’S SHARE WILL HELP. HOW DOES THIS CHANGE THE TEAM AND BE THE FACT THAT YOU NOW HAVE A PLAYOFF CAR THAT YOU’RE TAKING AND YOU’LL HAVE MORE FUNDING FOR THAT GOING FORWARD?
“I think that’s the biggest part of it is the playoffs. Sure, it’s a good payday. There’s no doubt about it and it’ll definitely help us, especially as we prepare for 2022, but I think the biggest part of it is just getting in the playoffs. We know early. We’ve got almost a whole season to prepare for it and I think that’s really what propels us. The money part of it is nice, but you can ask Drew we all got in this because we’re racers and it just feels really good to win the race, so it would feel good if it didn’t pay anything. It just feels even better when it’s the Daytona 500. It’s a big payday.”
BUT WILL THIS HELP ATTRACT MORE SPONSORS OR HELP IN OTHER WAYS DOWN THE ROAD?
“There’s no doubt about it. It’s definitely a big step up and even with our current sponsors. I mean, Love’s has been with us for years. They’re just great people on a personal level and just growing the relationship with people like Love’s and Ford has been tremendous. I’m sure hopefully some other opportunities will come along and we’ll definitely investment spend. It is now time to go build some cars and try to run better and take our chances in the playoffs, but it feels so good to know here we are in week one and we’re already in the playoffs.”
WHERE WERE YOU WHEN THE RACE ENDED?
“That’s a long story. I was at the race yesterday, but my family had gone to Disney World while we were at the race, and I’ve got a year-and-a-half granddaughter who was at the airport, so I was kind of torn. Do I stay for the race or do I fly them home, and so we came home and I was able to catch almost all of the race, but at least the last 60 laps I watched on TV. So, I got to see the win with my wife. I probably couldn’t imagine a better way to do it. I hated that I wasn’t there because I was there all weekend, but I had to miss it and so that’s just part of what we’re dealing with with COVID and everything else. I’d have loved to been on the pit box with Drew to watch that final lap.”
WHAT DID IT FEEL LIKE WATCHING ON TV?
“Surreal. I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve coveted that Harley Earl trophy since I started in this sport, so just to see Michael and the emotion. He’s just a great guy. He and Drew have such good chemistry. I know the average fan is surprised when we win a race, but it never surprises me. It’s taken a long time to get our third win and our first Daytona 500 win, but people don’t realize this is our third top-five in the Daytona 500 and I just wanted to get that. It’s a lifetime goal. Obviously, you want to win championships, but you’ve got to win races first and I can’t imagine one bigger than the Daytona 500.”
WHAT DRIVES YOU TO KEEP GOING TO THE TRACK WHEN IT’S SO DIFFICULT TO WIN RACES?
“I’m a pretty high relationship guy and I’ve just got a great team. These are guys that could probably go other places and do bigger things, but they’re racers and we’ve become a family and we’re just very close. I see the heart and soul they put into these race cars and it really motivates me to want to do more and see them accomplish their goals. I’m happy for myself, but just to see Michael and Drew and how hard they’ve worked and be able to accomplish this just means everything.”