Despite Increased Value, Daytona 500 Winner McDowell Won’t Use Leverage For New Deal

For the first time in his 14 years of racing in NASCAR’s top-tier Cup Series, Michael McDowell has legitimate leverage for an upcoming contract negotiation. But don’t count on him using any of it.

McDowell’s star has never shined brighter. For one, the 36-year-old driver secured the first victory of his career in the Daytona 500, stock car racing’s biggest event. But the Harley J. Earl trophy might cast too large of a shadow over his remaining accomplishments this year for Front Row Motorsports.

Through the year’s first 15 races, he finished five of them in eighth place or better, including a sixth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His 15.9-place average finish — in the 26th-fastest car in the series based on average median lap rank — stands as the best of his career and the best in Front Row’s 16-year history, helping catapult his open market value to $2.48 million per season in a recent update by MotorsportsAnalytics.com. With no contract locked in for 2022, it would seem his performance is deserving of a pay raise or a jump to another, more established team; however, that isn’t his desire.

“I’m planning to be at Front Row as long as they’ll have me,” McDowell said. “I enjoy what we’re doing. It’s fun to be a part of something and build something. I have a tremendous amount of freedom at Front Row to be a part of those things … a lot more of the inner working.”

The autonomy he enjoys is on par with what elite drivers for bigger organizations receive; for another program, he’d have few opportunities for such input.

Front Row, owned by Bob Jenkins, whose portfolio also includes over 150 Yum! Brands franchises and Morristown Driver’s Services, a transportation logistics provider, keeps a frugal budget in what’s typically a free-spending industry. While NASCAR’s Next Gen car — essentially a kit race car debuting next year — will eliminate big-team job staples like CNC machine operators, driveline specialists and chassis specialists, Front Row has positioned itself to cherry-pick from the mechanic talent that will soon flood the market.

“I’m really looking forward to the future with the Next Gen car,” McDowell said. “I think that we have the people and we have the team and we have the partners that, if the new car does what we think it could potentially do, we will be a contender at a lot of these racetracks.”

Additionally, McDowell insists he won’t demand an increase in base pay, despite his open-market value, strictly an on-track worth, improving by 121 percent over his preseason valuation.

“That’s not part of the conversation,” McDowell said. “I’m not going to Bob and Jerry (Freeze, team GM) and saying ‘Hey, look what I’m doing,’ because Bob has been spending a lot of his own money for a long time and I’m just happy that we’re having success.”

Success, McDowell believes, could enhance his ability for bonus pay, based on contract incentives and race winnings.

“I feel like this Next Gen car’s going to even allow us more opportunity to run well and that’ll generate more sponsorship, which generates more revenue and more revenue options for me in that regard.”

Improvement this season for McDowell and Front Row is presently focused on 550-hp tracks, which comprise 47 percent of the schedule. McDowell ranks sixth in Production in Equal Equipment Rating on 550-hp tracks, but 36th on 750-hp tracks — shorter venues and road courses — which represent the remaining majority of the 36-race season.

McDowell acknowledged the gap between the splits is something that needs to change, especially given his road course racing origins and the track type’s prominence on the schedule with seven points-paying events in 2021, up from two last year.

“We’re not where we want to be, even with our road course program,” McDowell said. “We need to make some gains to be in that top five (at road courses) and being able to compete with the (Hendrick Motorsports) cars and (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars.

“The schedule this year, we knew it was going to be favorable for us. Road courses and obviously superspeedways (like Daytona and Talladega) have been a strength of ours, you know, for several years. So, we knew that this was an opportunity year with as many road courses as there is.”

That opportunity could extend into future years as NASCAR is exploring the possibility of adding street courses to its schedule, a notion that appeals to McDowell and provides more optimism for a continued stay at Front Row.

“I’m really happy being at Front Row,” McDowell said. “I don’t have any desires to do anything else.”

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