Front Row Motorsports gets big boost from Indianapolis weekend

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Front Row Motorsports is edging closer to its name.

The Mooresville, N.C.-based team is coming off a big weekend at Indianapolis. Zane Smith, the regular season champion in the Camping World Truck Series, opened the playoffs with a third-place finish at Indianapolis Raceway Park Friday night. Then the team’s two Cup drivers, rookie Todd Gilliland and veteran Michael McDowell, logged surprising results in Sunday’s race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Gilliland finishing a career-best fourth and McDowell riding home eighth. It was a rare FRM top-10 duet.

The performances marked the first time the team’s Truck and Cup drivers all finished in the top 10 in a race weekend. That wasn’t quite as big as McDowell’s upset win in the 2021 Daytona 500, but it was enough to give FRM, underfunded and understaffed compared to NASCAR’s top-flight operations, quite a weekend in the sun.

This came only days after the team had been hammered with a major NASCAR penalty because of an improperly modified part on McDowell’s car at Pocono Raceway. McDowell was penalized 100 driver points, crew chief Blake Harris was fined $100,000 and suspended for four races and the team lost 100 owner points.

“We got our hands slapped after Pocono because of some things NASCAR didn’t like about our car,” FRM general manager Jerry Freeze told NBC Sports. “It was important for the guys to go back to Indy and show that wasn’t anything where we were trying to gain in any way. They wanted to show at Indy, and we want to show again this week at Michigan, that we have speed week after week. I’m happy for them that they bounced back from a pretty challenging situation last week.

“I think we can get to victory lane if we put it all together sometime this year.”

Gilliland, in his first full season in Cup after advancing from FRM’s Truck operation, qualified ninth at Indianapolis and managed a fourth-place finish in the chaos of the closing laps. He has finished 12 straight races, a key statistic as the team tries to get him as much track time as possible.

“We’ve probably been a little conservative around Todd this year and maybe a little more aggressive with the setups on Michael’s cars,” Freeze said. “Todd is a rookie and is going to tracks for the first time in a lot of cases. At Indy, the crew chief decided to get a little more aggressive with the setups now that Todd has a little more of a knowledge base running different road courses. Todd really stepped up. We might have been holding him back a little.

“He’s done such a good job doing exactly what we wanted this year, running all the laps and not getting himself in bad positions and bringing the car home in one piece and getting all that experience.”

Both FRM Cup drivers have shown consistency in finishing races this season. McDowell leads the series in percentage of laps completed at 99.55 percent. Gilliland is fourth at 97.84 percent.

“That’s a cool stat to back up what we’ve been saying about the team,” Gilliland told NBC Sports. “It’s really cool that as a team we’ve been doing a better job of not tearing stuff up as much as some other people.”

Gilliland, 22, raced mostly full time in the Truck Series for four seasons, winning twice. He said he expected a sometimes rough transition to Cup.

“It’s been a challenging season,” he said. “I think partly we expected it because making the jump from Truck to Cup is tough. We’ve had guys who have won Xfinity championships who still have a tough time moving to Cup.

“We expected parts of it to be super hard. We’ve had limited practice time, and there are still quite a few tracks I haven’t been to. And the schedule in general is tough. The competition is much higher than anything I’ve been around.”

The Next Gen car has made the move a bit easier, Gilliland said.

“We’ve seen the best of the best make mistakes,” he said. “We’ve had guys spinning out on their own. The car has done a good job of leveling the playing field and has opened some opportunities for our team.”

Freeze said the team hopes Gilliland can continue to expand his horizons through the end of the season.

“He has accomplished the mission from our perspective for the first half of the year,” he said. “Now that he does have a knowledge base and the team has gotten to know him better and what he likes in the car, he has gotten more comfortable talking about what the car is doing.

“I don’t know if there is a real good measuring stick, but we’re not trying to put any pressure on him with any kinds of numbers. We feel like it’s moving in a positive direction with more consistency and more competitive finishes.”