How do you improve in auto racing without actually getting faster?
That’s a question with puzzle pieces for answers, with the final product forming the turnaround of Michael McDowell’s No. 34 team at Front Row Motorsports. It’s a rare feat, just what they’ve accomplished, and while it didn’t directly lead to the playoff berth they clinched with their win in the Daytona 500, retaining championship eligibility for at least three additional races feels like a just reward.
In each of the last three seasons, the team of McDowell and crew chief Drew Blickensderfer ranked 28th, 28th and 27th across all tracks in yearlong speed rankings, hardly an improvement relative to a Cup Series field where the majority of the competition has deeper resources. But McDowell’s average finish between 2019 (24.2) and now (19.7) bloomed by 4.5 positions. It’s quite the achievement given the circumstances and one that doesn’t just happen in NASCAR’s top flight, especially not like this.
Despite ranking slower, McDowell holds higher finishing averages than three entries from Stewart-Haas Racing, one from JTG Daugherty Racing, both marquee startups (23XI Racing and Trackhouse Racing) and one from Roush Fenway Racing, which Front Row pays, as part of a longstanding technical alliance, for its intellectual property.
General manager Jerry Freeze believes the alliance was key in helping foster the Front Row we see now, a team able to take advantage of races on most 550-horsepower tracks, but the organization also benefited from an internal commitment to getting better.
“Let’s do more than what we’ve been doing”
An indelible image from last March’s race at Homestead, the first race this season on a 550-horsepower track, was Roush Fenway’s Chris Buescher passing for the lead and winning the first stage, then a surprise, and with the benefit of hindsight, an aberration. It was, though, a sure signal that Roush Fenway had spent considerable time engineering for success within a rules package from which more competitive teams shifted energy.
What isn’t easily remembered is that McDowell out-finished Buescher. Front Row’s sixth-place finish that day was perhaps more impressive than its Daytona 500 victory.
McDowell hasn’t matched the sixth-place finish, but he did manage seven other top-20 finishes on 550-horsepower tracks during the regular season (he has 17 dating back to last season, a vast improvement over his three in 2019, the first year of the rules package).
Clawing for this type of finish has become a forte. For the season, his Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength to isolate his contribution, ranks 29th in the series. But it ranks 11th specifically on 550-horsepower tracks, while his car ranks 24th in average median lap time compared to 28th on 750-horsepower ovals.
Taking advantage of the scheduling inefficiency in what’s now a split-horsepower series and this season’s moratorium on parts development might not have happened for Front Row after 2019, which saw the organization contract from three teams to two. But despite not needing a third team’s worth of personnel, Freeze persuaded Front Row owner Bob Jenkins to retain everyone in the aero department, an investment in long-term improvement.
“You know, 2019 was tough for us,” Freeze told NBC Sports. “We ran three teams. But when we scaled down to two, and I give Bob credit for this, we said, ‘This is our chance to put emphasis on the aero side of what we do. Let’s not cut any of the body hangers — the guys doing the detail work. Because we’re going from three to two, let’s keep the same amount of personnel on aero development and do more than what we’ve been doing.’
“Roush was sharing a lot of information for what we could do, but just because of our time constraints, because of a lot less personnel, we were maybe building 90 to 95% of what they were telling us to do with the car.”
From there, NASCAR’s pivot to the Next Gen car called for restrictions this year on parts development, keeping teams with deeper pockets — Freeze estimates Front Row operates at 60% of the budget traditional powerhouses utilize — from outspending in order to outrun.
“I certainly believe that putting a moratorium on parts development, of certain parts, particularly suspension parts, has helped a team like Front Row,” Freeze said. “We buy all the new tires you’re allowed to buy at a race. We buy new chassis, we have the top-tier engine program through Roush-Yates. We have the alliance with Roush Fenway that helps us shortcut the R&D side of things. We’re getting, I feel like, some top-tier-type R&D information.
“So, what I feel like is for the last several years, we’ve been going to the racetrack as armed as we can go. And Front Row struggled with constant development of the car, the constant development of parts and pieces. Once we acquired the inventory — that latest spindle or center link or rear-end housing, whatever it was that was shown to have a competitive advantage — well, there was another one coming. That’s where our budget would bite us.”
The parts moratorium was a boom for everyone in the back half of the Cup Series field, but Front Row’s machinations in advance of it placed them in position to benefit more than most, resulting in this brand of consistency on 550-horsepower tracks and a season in which McDowell fared as a top-20 point-getter before his engine failure last week in Daytona.
But also fueling these better-than-expected finishes was an industry-leading strategist with free rein.
A commitment to risk, a belief in strategy
Through green-flag pit cycles, the designs of Drew Blickensderfer have gained 188 positions over the last two years. No other crew chief has amassed more for his driver, and even isolated to playoff tracks, it represents Front Row’s biggest strength compared to the 15 teams it faces for the championship, visible in this track position spider chart:
Individually, his pit strategy output has swung track position this season in a positive direction at Nashville (+24), the Daytona 500 (+14), Watkins Glen (+14), the first Pocono race (+12), Charlotte (+6) and Phoenix (+6) — all races in which McDowell’s race result exceeded his speed ranking.
The secret to his designs is that they aren’t all that grand, instead earmarked for defeating the teams most regularly near the No. 34 car.
“We race around the same five or seven cars every single week,” Blickensderfer told NBC Sports. “So, pit strategy, the way you come into the race, taking risks on setup and changes about what you want to do to the race car, that’s kind of just against those five or seven.
“I’m not racing against the 5 (Kyle Larson) or, really, the 21 (Matt DiBenedetto) and that group, you know? We’re racing against (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) and (Erik Jones) and guys like that. So, we make changes both at 550 and 750 and road courses based on the group of cars we’re racing against. Like, how do I beat those guys every single week? That’s the difference in finishing 19th versus 26th.”
Blickensderfer admits his calls aren’t entirely pragmatic. He mixes in high-risk, high-reward bids for varying results — “I pitted at the end at Road America hoping for a top-10 (finish) and finished 30th” — but he’s been given free rein, a kind of autonomy not always present within team power structures.
“Bob Jenkins has laid it out very clearly to me,” Blickensderfer said. “He expects us to run for wins at (Daytona and Talladega). He thinks we can finish close to the top 10 at road courses. And mile-and-a-halves? You do what you can to get the best finish you can. So, I don’t have pressure on me to not take risks, and I think those risks are calculated off of the people we’re racing against.
“Bob has opened me up because of his realistic expectations to be able to not be worried about what’s going to get criticized on Monday morning … Jerry Freeze is very hands-off on the competition side. We don’t get much from Jerry if we run good or we run bad — he’s very supportive either way. He’s not asking me on Monday morning why we did this.”
McDowell — who Blickensderfer estimates saves them a half-second per pit cycle with his blending onto and off of pit road — has also placed his unwavering trust in the crew chief, often agreeing to bypass adjustments on stops, which elongate with every turn of a wrench, in favor of track position.
“I think in general, most crew chiefs will tell you positions on the racetrack are more important than any adjustment you can do on pit road,” Blickensderfer said. “There are definitely times in the race where I’ll just take the hit and do the adjustment. But there’s other times when I don’t even worry about adjustments. Michael is complaining about the car, we’ve got 27th green-flag average speed — just leave it alone. Leave it alone and see if we can gain spots.
“I’m a former pit crew member. I know some of the challenges they go through whenever they have to do adjustments, so we leave the car alone.”
To be clear, these are all tactics with an eye on a running whereabouts that falls well outside of playoff contention. As Front Row prepares for an initial round containing three 750-horsepower tracks, it’s fair to ponder what’s next, both in the short term and future.
Has Front Row reached its ceiling?
Everyone associated with the No. 34 car wanted to finish inside the top 16 in points, if only to prove the improvement and toss aside the notion that they’re only in the playoffs because of a fortuitous final lap in the Daytona 500 (for which they were positioned as a result of able driving, a car capable of the 10th-fastest lap and effective pit strategy stemming from Ford’s collective design).
For 17 weeks, they remained one of the 16 best point-earners, but the final two months of the regular season saw a slide in performance, in part because the team turned its attention towards the first round of the playoffs.
“We’ve kind of taken off the last few races, to be honest, just focusing on Darlington and Richmond,” Blickensderfer said prior to last Saturday’s race in Daytona. “We’ve had discussions the last two weeks saying, ‘Look, we’re going to focus super hard on Darlington and Richmond, because those are the wildcards that we aren’t good at.’
“Based on our past history, we’re going to be lucky to finish in the top 20 at those places. So, what’s realistic for us? And we’ve got realistic goals. Inevitably, when the playoffs start, people get penalized, people blow engines, people hit the wall. People do silly things because of the pressure and a couple cars get taken out (in the first round). Let’s not be one of those, right? We need all the help we can get, let’s not be one of those.
“Let’s go to Darlington and run 17th, and let’s go to Richmond and run 18th and let’s go to Bristol and run 11th. And if we don’t make it to the second round, we’ve done everything at the highest level Front Row could ever do.”
This begs the question: Is this the best Front Row could ever do? Has this team operating at a fraction of the budget of NASCAR’s most celebrated programs reached its ceiling?
“I like to think that we could get better next year,” Freeze said. “But as far as this year goes, I think it’s hugely successful. We really had a goal (with the 34 team). We wanted to be in the top 16 in points. And we were there for a long time.”
Freeze views the 15th-to-20th positional range as the new benchmark for a car that just two years ago averaged a 24.3-place running spot.
“When you’re running there, you are outrunning a lot of good organizations,” Freeze said. “We’re certainly very proud of that. I do think this has been the best season Front Row has ever had, certainly with an individual car, and it started last year.”
The future, one containing a new car and potentially a new schedule, could see a shift in the number of the organization’s charters and perhaps a new technical alliance moving forward. While rumors of different outcomes fly, Freeze insists that Front Row will remain in the Cup Series with an eye towards improved results and more playoff appearances.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations going back to March, really, about Front Row and a different dynamic,” Freeze said. “But Front Row will be in the Cup Series. We’re not going out of business.
“You know, the thing about winning Daytona, I think, and maybe showing more speed out of the organization, it’s opened up some opportunities that we wouldn’t normally have had … We’re not set on exactly what we’re doing yet, but we’re working on things.
“I think the future looks really, really bright for Front Row regardless of which direction we go in.”