Just before 2 a.m. on Monday, Michael McDowell finished the first round of media responsibilities required of any Daytona 500 winner.
The 36-year-old racer had scored his first NASCAR Cup win. He was only beginning to tax the adrenaline reserves that would ultimately carry the driver of the No. 34 Love Travel Stops through the morning’s Daytona 500 celebration for an event that had started 11 hours earlier.
Still, before leaving for his next stop, it was important for McDowell to leave the room with the following message.
“Don't give up,” McDowell said. “I think that's what it's all about is just not giving up and just keep fighting hard. I think that that's not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, but that's the moral of everyday life.
“That's the moral of our race team, and we just keep fighting hard, and you just never know what's possible.”
McDowell speaks from experience. Monday morning’s win came after 357 attempts, second only to Michael Waltrip's 462 in largest number of Cup starts before an initial race win. The first time McDowell was introduced to the national media was during a stint as a driving instructor at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. He was still in high school. The Phoenix native subsidized his racing habit by working there from 2000 to 2005 before he was recruited to race the No. 19 BMW in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series.
His transition to stock cars in the ARCA Menard’s Series resulted in four wins and a second-place finish in the standings. At 22, McDowell received his first big break—driving for Waltrip’s newly formed venture with Toyota Racing. After a short Xfinity Series stint at the end of 2007, McDowell was thrust into Cup the following year to replace Dale Jarrett.
McDowell and the No. 00 Toyota team struggled in 2008. Mike Skinner was recruited to help the organization and eventually replaced McDowell. For the next five years, McDowell was basically a start-and-park driver in Cup but competed full-time in 2009 for Tad Geschickter and in 2010 for Pat MacDonald in the Xfinity Series.
For McDowell, the key was remaining relevant. It wasn’t beneath him to work on his own cars, as a driver coach for fellow racers or even a motorcoach driver for another competitor motor coach--all designed to maintain visibility in the NASCAR garage.
“When you show up to the race track knowing you're not going to race, it's hard,” McDowell said. “And yeah, I drove Trevor’s (Bayne) coach for a while, and I've always driven -- I drove my own coach here. I did whatever I could.
“During those start-and-park days, I was at the shop every day working on the race cars, and so was Phil (Parsons). I can't tell you how many transmissions he put in race cars before we went to the race track. We all worked on it, and we just had to get to the race track one way or another.”
Throughout the tough times, not only did McDowell’s faith fuel his determination, but his faith in himself kept him convinced that the right ride was waiting.
“I wouldn't say like there was super lows where I was eating ramen noodles and scraping to stay alive,” McDowell said. “But when you show up to the race track and you know that you’re—I don't even know how to say it. You're just in the way, taking up space, it's hard to do that year after year and week after week.
“So you've got to have a bigger purpose than that. For me, it was knowing that I would get an opportunity eventually.”
In 2014, McDowell joined upstart Leavine Family Racing as the company attempted to blossom into a full-time organization. Again, he struggled to break into the top 25. The equipment just wasn’t there. After three seasons, a ride opened at Front Row Motorsports.
But it wasn’t until McDowell recruited crew chief Drew Blickensderfer that things started to click for the driver. Carl Edwards recommended Blickensderfer based on their earlier relationship at Roush Fenway Racing.
“I was still under contract (to Richard Petty Motorsports), and through all of that Michael and I started talking,” Blickensderfer said. “I liked his honesty and his ability to say, 'You tell me what you think I need to be doing; that's not going to hurt my feelings.' And that's our working relationship.”
Blickensderfer comes from an athletic background and a family full of coaches. His father was a high school basketball coach, and Drew walked on to the wrestling team at Indiana University. He prides himself in team building, but the coach in Blickensderfer is unmistakable. And the ability to coach McDowell has brought consistency to the No. 34 team.
“He's super loyal,” Blickensderfer said of his driver. “He's super honest. He knows at the end of the day no matter what the spotter says to him, the owner or I say to him, it's for the better good of the 34 car, and he doesn't wear his ego on his sleeve. Super humble guy. He's fun to work with…because you don't have to hold anything back. You can talk to him about what you need to get better, and that's all he cares about.”
Now, after 12 seasons in Cup, McDowell has his first career win and his first playoff berth. With McDowell locked in, the team can take chances they never imagined before—starting with this weekend on the Daytona road course—where “McDriver” had eight starts before the circuit was added to the NASCAR schedule.
Regardless of how the rest of the season turns out—or even the rest of McDowell’s career—the driver has no regrets.
“Even if I didn’t (win), it would still be worth it,” McDowell said. “I love this sport. I love being in NASCAR and I love the challenge of it and how difficult it is. The sacrifice it’s worth it because this is what I’ve dreamed about doing and to win, yes, for sure. That’s what it’s all about.
“We all show up on Sunday for one reason. We want to win the race, but even if you didn’t it’s still worth it. This is such a great sport and I’m so thankful to be one of 40. I think it’s so easy to take that for granted how many race car drivers there are in the world and to be one of 40 that gets to start on Sundays, that’s amazing so it’s definitely worth it.”