For the last 12 Cup races, teams haven’t had the opportunity to practice as NASCAR navigates the hurdles of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the lack of practice sessions each race weekend has turned out to be a “tremendous” help for Front Row Motorsports, according to Drew Blickensderfer.
Blickensderfer is in his second year serving as crew chief on Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 Ford. Through 16 races, both McDowell and teammate John Hunter Nemechek each have two top-10 finishes, matching the team’s best total for a season.
McDowell’s two top 10s have come in the last three races – Pocono 1 and Brickyard 400 – and both of Nemechek’s have come since NASCAR returned on May 17 – Darlington 1 and Talladega.
“Where we lack compared to some of the other teams is when they unload on Friday they’ve got a team at the shop ready to look at the information from the racetrack and help the people at the racetrack get their car better,” Blickensderfer said in a Zoom press conference. “Guys like Kyle Busch, they are the best in the world at sitting in that seat and saying, ‘I need this to be better on Sunday.’ They know what the track is gonna do. They know what they feel.
“With us getting our race cars better Michael doesn’t always know. John Hunter is a rookie, he always doesn’t know what’s gonna happen on Sunday versus Saturday. They haven’t had great race cars for years and years like some of the veteran guys have had, so I think them not knowing that and not hurting us during practice has helped a ton. We don’t have the personnel back at the shop helping us work on the cars Friday and Saturday. We load up and go to the racetrack almost everybody in this shop goes to the racetrack.
“We don’t have guys sitting back here at the shop, at least an engineering staff that’s willing to help, so no qualifying hurt, no practice, I think, has been a huge benefit and I think our tools have shown that they’re as good as anybody’s because we’ve hit that first run really well since the pandemic.”
Since NASCAR’s return, FRM’s two cars have combined to finish in the top 15 10 times, with each driver claiming five.
Heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1), Nemechek and McDowell are 22nd and 23rd in the driver points. But in the owner points, which dictates where they start each race via random draw, Nemechek is 24th and McDowell is 25th.
In the random draw process, Nemechek can start anywhere from 13th to 24th and McDowell can start between 25th and 36th. On Sunday, Nemechek starts 22nd and McDowell rolls off 30th.
“Our cars have had more speed this year than we’ve ever had at Front Row, so that’s helped us, obviously, with performance and getting the results that we need to get,” said McDowell, who is in his third season with FRM. “But they’ve done an exceptional job unloading really close without any practice and having our cars very competitive, which is hard to do. But the downside … is we had a mechanical failure early on in the year and that hurt us in the points and then, for the most part we’ve been starting 26th, 27th, 30th, 32nd every weekend, so that’s tough.
“We’re only (six) points out of the top 24 in owner points, so it would be nice to get there. The unfortunate part is that my teammate is the next one in front of us, so we’d like to have both cars in the top 24 in owner points so that we can both start up front and I think we’re maybe 10 or 12 points back from that, so it’s not impossible but we’ve got some work to do. If we keep running how we’ve been running the last three or four weeks we should be able to get ourselves in there and not have to start so far back.”
McDowell said that Nemechek, in his rookie year, has done an “exceptional job” so far, but made sure to frame it through the lens of Nemechek benefitting from “three, four, five, six, seven years of a lot of people’s hard work, but he’s doing a good job making the most out of it and executing.”
“That’s not to take anything away from him, but John Hunter didn’t bring this speed to Front Row,” McDowell said. “Front Row was building that over years and he’s very fortunate that he’s got the opportunity this year while the cars are so good, just like I am.”
McDowell added: “Seth Barbour, his crew chief, has been with the organization for a long time and has done a great job of elevating it, alongside with Drew and Derrick Finley and a lot of people, so I think that this sport … it’s a lot about timing and his timing is really good right now to be in our cars and have them running as well as they are.”
McDowell said the two drivers have “been able to push each other … and that definitely helps, so having a teammate that’s fast and can push you is super-important, and he’s definitely done that, so it’s been good.”
Nemchek, who is making his first Cup start at Kentucky, said a lack of practice has been an “exclamation mark” on how much preparation is needed for a race.
“For myself, it’s just trying to be a sponge and soak up as much information as I can to have that experience and to be able to put everything into one basket and push forward.,” he said. “For myself, it’s been a little bit difficult. I feel like most weeks we’ve kind of shown speed right off the bat. We’ve continued to progress. Some weeks we’ve been on the struggle bus side, but, overall, from almost every week I’m kind of glad that we haven’t had practice.”
Nemechek said given the circumstances the team and sport is experiencing, “we’re still going into every weekend with no expectations. We want to run the best that we can every single week and we want to continue to push forward and run every lap. For myself, this year is about learning. It’s about taking in everything that I can and building that notebook on the experience side.”