Personnel investment, pit strategy fuel “best season Front Row has ever had”


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.”

Corey LaJoie calls fourth-place finish ‘huge’ for him, Spire Motorsports


HAMPTON, Ga. — With about 30 laps left in Sunday’s Cup race, Joey Logano looked around and suddenly saw Corey LaJoie’s car near the front.

“Oh, there he is,” Logano, the eventual winner, said he thought to himself. “Where has he been all day?

“Corey just kind of popped up there.”

LaJoie took a methodical approach — he ran in the top 10 for only 13 of the first 167 laps — and found himself toward the front for the third consecutive race since Atlanta Motor Speedway was reconfigured. 

His career-best fourth-place finish Sunday continued his strong runs at Atlanta, but also showed the growth in his Spire Motorsports team. While it’s only five races into the season, LaJoie is 14th in the points. He’s never finished better than 29th in Cup.

LaJoie placed fifth at Atlanta in March 2022 and was passed by Chase Elliott for the lead two laps from the finish in the July 2022 race there. Sunday, his push launched Logano on the final lap to pass Brad Keselowski for the win. 

While LaJoie continues to seek his first career Cup win, he was excited about his result.

“Hell, yeah, there’s moral victories,” he said after Sunday’s finish. “If you get … smashed 35 weekends out of the year, here’s an opportunity where you can win. When you can run fourth, there are so many good things wrapped up in that. … For me, it’s huge. For our team, it’s huge.”

Also significant was that LaJoie was the top-finishing Chevrolet.

“That’s a really big deal for us,” crew chief Ryan Sparks told NBC Sports. “Just kind of prove ourself and hopefully continue to build a relationship with Chevrolet. It’s always great to be (Chevrolet’s) top finisher. Obviously, we want to win the race. We’re getting closer. I think we’ll get up there for the year is done.”

After failing to make the feature in the Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race, LaJoie finished 16th in this year’s Daytona 500. He followed that by placing 14th at Fontana, California and then was 20th at Las Vegas and 26th at Phoenix before Sunday.

He has an average finish of 16.0 in the first races of the season. He’s never had an average finish better than 24th in his previous full-time Cup seasons. 

His performance this year has him in a playoff spot and ahead of in the standings:

  • Three cars from Stewart-Haas Racing
  • Both cars from 23XI Racing
  • Both cars from Legacy Motor Club
  • Both cars from Front Row Motorsports
  • All the Hendrick cars (although their penalties will be appealed)
  • Both Kaulig Racing cars

“We’ve started the year off really, really solid,” LaJoie said. “I don’t think we could have started any better. We messed up at Phoenix, but we came back and rebounded and put a good payday in the bank and a couple of points around the guys we are racing as well.

“It’s inevitable that a lot of the guys we’re in front of are going to catch us, those guys are the ones that run top 10 and top 15 consistently, so we have to get to where we can, on any given intermediate or any given short track, run in the top 15 a little bit better. We’re getting there. Days like this give us more confidence.”


Sunday’s race matched two drivers who are among the best in the sport at speedway style racing dueling for the win in former teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

It marked the first time they had finished 1-2 in a speedway style race, as Logano passed Keselowski on the last lap to win Sunday at Atlanta.

“I feel like Brad is one of the top five best speedway racers on the racetrack,” Logano said. “I feel like I’m in there. A few others that are in there that you just know are really, really good at it.

“We were kind of duking it out back and forth, side by side, side drafting each other. Okay, this is what you would expect. It’s fun going up against the best like that.

“He works really hard at it. He studies it. He’s really smart at speedway racing, for sure. When you think of driver and spotter combinations, you’re going against two of the best right there, right? Whether it’s T.J. (Majors) and Brad or myself and Coleman Pressley) , if I’m picking a couple pairings of people that understand the draft, those two groups are the best at it. So it was fun to kind of go back and forth there at the end.”

Said Keselowski of racing Logano: “We know each other’s moves pretty well, for sure, but it’s just a matter of how the cookie crumbles and it kind of came his way there at the end and he made a good move. Kudos to him.”

It was a much different ending from their duel on the final lap of the 2021 Daytona 500. Logano led Keselowski when they made contact, triggering a multi-car crash and allowing Michael McDowell to win the race.


Brad Keselowski’s runner-up finish continued his improved start to the season compared to last year. 

“We’re right there, though, as our team just continues to improve and show what we’re made of,” Keselowski said, “so I’m proud of that.”

A look at how much better this season has started for Keselowski compared to last year:

His average finish in the first five races of this season is 13.2 compared to 19.2 at this time last year.

He’s run in the top 15 in 85% of the laps run this season compared to running in the top 15 in 37.4% of the laps in the first five races of last season.

His average running position in a race is 9.5 this year compared to 18.3 at this time last year.




Several Cup drivers running extra race at COTA


Seven Cup drivers will do double-duty this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.

Four Cup drivers are entered for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at the road course in Austin, Texas. They are:

Aric Almirola (No. 08 SS Green Light Racing)

AJ Allmendinger (No. 10 Kaulig Racing)

William Byron (No. 17 Hendrick Motorsports)

Ty Gibbs (No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing)

Three Cup drivers are entered for Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at COTA. They are:

Alex Bowman (No. 7 Spire Motorsports)

Ross Chastain (No. 41 Niece Motorsports)

Kyle Busch (No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports)

In the Cup Series, there are 39 entries that includes a few road racing specialists:

Jordan Taylor (No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports)

Jenson Button (No. 15 Rick Ware Racing)

Kimi Raikkonen (No. 91 Trackhouse Racing)

Also entered this weekend is Jimmie Johnson in the No. 84 for Legacy Motor Club and IndyCar driver Conor Daly in the No. 50 for TMT Racing.

COTA Cup Entry List

COTA Xfinity Entry List

COTA Truck entry list





Winners and losers at Atlanta Motor Speedway

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A look at winners and losers in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway:


Joey Logano — Logano had won 31 Cup Series races entering Sunday’s 400-miler, but none had come at Atlanta. He changed that statistical column in a big way, leading 140 laps and making a risky move around leader Brad Keselowski on the final lap to record win No. 32.

Brad Keselowski — Keselowski’s struggle to return RFK Racing to prominence has taken many months, but he has had impressive runs this year. He led 47 laps Sunday and was on the verge of victory.

Christopher Bell — With better organization from the Toyotas at the front, Bell would have had a shot at a win. He finished third and has been in the top six in four of the season’s five races.

Corey LaJoie — Sunday’s fourth-place run was LaJoie’s best in 205 Cup starts, and his smart start to the season is an indication that better things might be ahead.


William Byron — Byron’s two-race winning streak ended with a thud — literally — Sunday as he was involved in a multi-car crash and finished 32nd.

Kevin Harvick — From one instant to the next, Harvick fell from first place to out of the race. He lost control of his car in tight racing with Ross Chastain and hit the wall. He finished 33rd.

Kyle Larson — Larson fought the good fight with the more dominant Fords much of the day in the top 10, but his car was damaged in a crash with Aric Almirola. Larson parked and finished 31st.

Long: One lap, 30 seconds of action with so much at stake at Atlanta


HAMPTON, Ga. — As they began the final lap of Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski led Christopher Bell by a car length. Joey Logano ran third, with Corey LaJoie on his rear bumper in fourth, and Tyler Reddick beside LaJoie in fifth.

So much was at stake over the final 1.54 miles and would be determined in the next 30 seconds on a brisk day at a track that looks like an intermediate speedway but races like Daytona and Talladega. 

Here’s what mattered for each:

  • Keselowski sought to end a 66-race winless streak that stretches nearly two years.
  • Bell looked to score his third win in the last nine Cup races, which would have been more than any other driver in that span.
  • Logano sought a win in a season that Fords have had few chances to do so.
  • LaJoie was focused on winning his first Cup race.
  • Reddick looked to earn his first victory with his new team.

It started with Keselowski, who is in his second year as owner-driver at RFK Racing. The organization fought through struggles last year before teammate Chris Buescher won the Bristol night race. 

Keselowski was going for his first Cup victory for his team in what has been a markedly better start to this season compared to last year.

“You need days like this,” Keselowski said afterward. “You just wish they were wins. We were right there, just didn’t come together at the end.”

Bell is proving to be the under-appreciated ace in the Cup series. 

He twice needed to win to advance in the next round of the playoffs last year — and did so. Both victories were overshadowed. The focus at the Charlotte Roval was on Chase Briscoe eliminating Kyle Larson from the playoffs instead of Bell’s win. Ross Chastain’s video game move was the talk of Martinsville instead of Bell’s triumph that day.

Nobody had won this year in Cup except Chevrolet drivers. That made this a key race for Ford and Toyota drivers. 

“We haven’t had the start to the season we’d want or hope for,” said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Logano. “The West Coast swing was pretty rough on us. We had speed at times, but not really where we need to be on any of those tracks. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.

“We know the speedways with all the aero changes to all the manufacturers, the speedways are probably the strengths for the Fords right now. I think we saw that in Daytona as well. If you look at qualifying (Saturday), that will probably point to that same sign.

“We have to take advantage of these races right now. If this is our strength, we got to make sure we execute. That’s probably what I’m most proud of, is we were able to come here and get the win. Now we’ve really have to squeeze hard to get more speed out of our cars on the downforce tracks.”

LaJoie finished fifth in this race a year ago and was passed for the lead with two laps to go. He entered Sunday’s race winless in 204 career Cup races. He had three top-20 finishes in the first four races of the year, solid performances for his Spire Motorsports team. He’s gained some attention for those efforts.

“If we have a good car like we saw at Fontana or Las Vegas,” LaJoie said earlier this week of his 14th at California and 20th at Las Vegas, “then I can go get the job done and be up front. So, certainly a crucial beginning part of the season for me with the future of my career. I want to make sure people know what I’m capable of, no matter whether it’s an intermediate or a short track or superspeedway.”

Reddick is in his first season with 23XI Racing and it has been a rough start to the season. He was eliminated by accidents in the first two races of the year. He scored his first top 10 of the year last week at Phoenix and looked for even more Sunday.

It is what all those situations hovering as the white flag waved to begin the final lap.

The key moment came with LaJoie planted on the back of Logano’s rear bumper on the inside lane.

“Joey got such a huge run down the frontstretch,” Keselowski said. “There was nothing I could do to stop it other than wreck all of us.”

Logano said that LaJoie “clobbered me at the start/finish line, gave me such a big run.”

That energy allowed Logano to go from the bottom lane to the top lane — while narrowly slipping between Keselowski and Bell.

“When you get a run like that on the last lap, you can’t lift, you just can’t,” Logano said. 

He knew he needed to move up the track to avoid having Keselowski block him on the bottom lane.

“I had to get up there and slip to his outside,” Logano said. “Ultimately, that’s the move that was going to win the race.

“If I got to his inside, you have a chance, maybe a 20% chance of winning the race depending on what kind of push you get down the backstretch. Most likely we were not going to win the race.”

He did and Keselowski finished second.

“We know each other’s moves pretty well, for sure, but it just matters how the cookie crumbles and it kind of came his way at he end and he made a good move,” Keselowski said. “Kudos to him. We’re right there, though, as our team just continues to improve and show what we’re made of, so I’m proud of that.

Bell finished third and was left to wonder what if.

“I had the position (Logano) had and I decided to bail on it and go to the top,” Bell said. “To come so close is disappointing.”

LaJoie finished a career-best fourth.

“Hell, yeah, there’s moral victories,” LaJoie said after Sunday’s finish. “If you get … smashed 35 weekends out of the year, here’s an opportunity where you can win. When you can run fourth, there are so many good things wrapped up in that. … For me, it’s huge. For our team, it’s huge.”

For Reddick, a day that started with John Hunter Nemechek on standby because Reddick wasn’t feeling well, ended with Reddick scoring his second consecutive top five.

“I was trying to create an opportunity to where myself Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin could all break away and take advantage of momentum,” Reddick said. “It didn’t quite work out timing-wise where it needed for that. All in all, an OK day.”