Whether winning the biggest race of the season with a last-lap pass or surviving a spectacular crash, the spotlight has found Michael McDowell in his lengthy NASCAR career.
But the Front Row Motorsports driver rarely has hunted for the spotlight and the accompanying opportunities to embrace fame.
“I’m not out hustling trying to get on TV shows and movies,” McDowell told NBC Sports in a recent interview. “But I also understand the business of it. And we have an incredible opportunity right now to gain traction and build momentum with our partners and add that value that will last a long time. I’m not trying to get too famous too quickly, but I’m also trying to do what I can to add that value for myself and our team.”
That soon will become evident in a fresh way for McDowell and one of his sponsors, CarParts.com. The aftermarket auto parts retailer announced Monday that McDowell will be the centerpiece of a new advertising campaign, including its first national TV commercial with the No. 34 Ford driver who opened the season with the first Cup victory in his 358th start.
Though McDowell was in the national headlines as a 2008 rookie (because of a terrifying qualifying wreck at Texas Motor Speedway), this will be his first national TV commercial. Since his Daytona 500 victory two months ago, he has grown accustomed to the attention and being recognized “everywhere now” while traveling the circuit.
“It’s so crazy,” McDowell, 36, said. “It’s not like I’m new to the sport. I’ve been around a long time. It’s almost like your rookie season again where of all these people are learning who you are for the first time.”
To launch the ad campaign (which will feature a humorous commercial for TV and the story of McDowell’s inspirational career arc for its digital and social platforms), CarParts.com has added the May 2 race at Kansas Speedway as a primary sponsor of McDowell’s Fusion.
After joining the team last year at Darlington Raceway in NASCAR’s first two races back during the pandemic, CarParts.com and Front Row had been negotiating on a sponsorship extension for a few months. The company finalized an expanded 2021 sponsorship with the team on the day after McDowell’s Feb. 14 victory in the season opener.
“When he won the Daytona 500, it was, ‘He’s in our next commercial,’ ” Houman Akhavan, the chief marketing officer of CarParts.com, told NBC Sports. “It was so evident and crystal clear to me to take it to the next level. He was already a brand ambassador for us in a lot of content we created.
“But what better way to cement the relationship and give a thank you back to the team. For him to win the most coveted trophy, I couldn’t have thought of a more deserving person.”
The CarParts.com sponsorship renewal also includes the Aug. 28 regular-season finale at Daytona International Speedway and the Sept. 26 first-round playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – in which McDowell is all but guaranteed of being among the 16 drivers running for the championship.
Ranked 13th in points after a third-place finish Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, McDowell has two top fives and four top 10s through 10 races – both tying career bests for a full year.
The 2021 season already has been a “dream come true” for the Phoenix, Arizona, native, who is in his 14th season of racing in NACAR’s premier series but said “I’ve always felt this is year to year because you don’t have this big brand.
“You don’t have this national presence, and you’re not winning races or winning championships,” he said. “So you know that it’s very easy for you to be replaced. So I think now there’s just this sense of growing and getting these partnerships in place so we can continue this success, rather than the survival mode that I feel like I’ve been in for so many years.
“I feel a part of Front Row. I feel we’re building something we’re growing as a team. Not just because of the win but the top 10s and top 15s. We are running so much better now than we have over the last few years.”
It wasn’t results that initially attracted CarParts.com to McDowell. The Internet search-focused company has worked on building its brand awareness since going through “an aggressive consolidation” of several websites two years ago, Akhavan said.
It was attracted to NASCAR because the consecutive races at Darlington Raceway offered millions of viewers as the first large-scale sporting events on network TV since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) put much of the world on pause a year ago.
“The NASCAR fan base loves cars, and our mission for CarParts.com is to get drivers back on the road,” Akhavan said. “There are great parallels between the fan base and what we offer. We wanted to get into NASCAR, and the excitement and allure of our branding on a car at 200 mph is what attracted us. That was a relationship built in the middle of a pandemic.”
Though it did four races as a primary sponsor last year, Akhavan and other CarParts.com executives still have yet to meet McDowell in person because COVID-19 protocols have limited garage access. Based in Southern California, Akhavan is hoping he and other company reps will be able to attend the Las Vegas race this fall.
But they already have a strong connection to McDowell, who joined a CarParts.com “town hall” with a few hundred employees on Zoom after the 2020 season to tell his story.
“We couldn’t think of anyone better than Michael McDowell in all of NASCAR,” Akhavan said. “The family values he represents. Very personable, approachable. Great sense of humor.
“It’s an inspirational story, Michael McDowell’s career, the crash at Texas. Most people would throw in the hat, but for him to come back and never give up. It parallels to our brand. We have this grit and never quit attitude. That’s driven us to build back the business and be part of this turnaround story. I see parallels in Michael’s story to not give up and improve consistently and always focus on dreams.”
CarParts.com also managed to turn a negative into a positive when McDowell tangled with Bubba Wallace in last year’s All-Star Race warmup at Bristol Motor Speedway. After Wallace dropped his bumper at McDowell’s hauler, the team auctioned it off. CarParts.com submitted the winning bid of more than $20,000 and matched it with a donation the Victory Junction Gang Camp.
Akhavan said the company also was pleased by some socially conscious moves by NASCAR last year (such as banning the Confederate flag).
“We’re very supportive of the changes NASCAR has been taking,” he said. “We’re super excited to see the likes of Michael Jordan and Pit Bull (as part team owners). It just gives more validation to the sport. It also played a role to see Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes in all of history, really give his seal of approval for NASCAR. It’s incredible NASCAR was under a magnifying glass and had to step up, and they did a lot to make that happen. We believe in inclusion, and they’ve really driven that forward.”
McDowell’s Daytona 500 victory has been a driving force for Front Row Motorsports. During a recent episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, general manager Jerry Freeze said the two-car team owned by Bob Jenkins is the most financially secure in its decade-plus history.
Its third victory (after David Ragan in 2013 at Talladega and Chris Buescher in 2016 at Pocono Raceway) is the most important and not just because of prestige. Freeze said Daytona will guarantee millions in charter payouts over the next three years.
New @NASCARonNBC Podcast with @Team_FRM GM @jerry_freeze on the impact of @Mc_Driver's Daytona 500 victory for a team that's in "better shape than ever for revenue." Listen:@ApplePodcasts https://t.co/i51dFyqPjw@Stitcher https://t.co/IrWbfQD9Q8@Spotify https://t.co/sJFLz1Q8oA pic.twitter.com/DqOQdkvfpS
— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) April 7, 2021
The team also has begun ordering new cars for the second half of the season (despite the arrival of the NextGen in 2022), hoping to take advantage of McDowell’s playoff run.
Perhaps even more impressive than his Daytona 500 victory was McDowell’s sixth at Homestead-Miami Speedway – the first top 10 on a 1.5-mile speedway in Front Row’s history.
“Obviously, the result wasn’t as big, but the confidence was, absolutely,” McDowell said about Homestead. “That was what made me feel and our team feel our equipment and our program is here. We can do this. We know the ingredients are there, we just have to hit it everywhere. And that’s hard to do.
“Our sport is so competitive. But it gave us the confidence we have what we need to be competitive. I don’t feel like we’re a fluke, but I also feel like we’re going to have to work really hard to keep this level of competitiveness and momentum up.”
Akhavan said the team’s improvement has been a pleasant surprise for CarParts.com, which “didn’t have a blank check” to enter NASCAR as a public company trying to maximize profits. “We couldn’t base it on number of wins,” he said of aligning with Front Row. “They’re a midlevel team and don’t have unlimited budgets, but we could see it was a passionate team that was reinvesting. One of our key value propositions is to do more with less. There’s no better example than Front Row.
“It was a little bit of a leap of faith that definitely worked out.”
McDowell is hoping the team will continue to attract sponsors willing to take the same chances and said the opportunities have multiplied since Daytona – both for him and Front Row.
“Those conversations definitely change when you’re talking about winning the Daytona 500 and the exposure that came with it and will continue to come with it throughout the year,” he said. “It definitely is a game-changer winning the Daytona 500 and the magnitude of what it does for our partners and team.
“It’s really blown my mind how big it really is.”