February 11, 2014 — By David Caraviello, NASCAR.com — Getty Images photo — CONCORD, NC — He’s never won a race at the national level, and his most famous moment in NASCAR was when his car barrel-rolled down the frontstretch during a qualifying attempt at Texas. For the past five years, he’s driven almost exclusively vehicles that have rolled into the garage reporting mechanical issues only a few dozen laps into the race.
Through it all, Michael McDowell has managed to become something else — a survivor. He’s lost a high-profile ride, been resigned to squeeze go-or-go-home cars into races, even driven his own motorhome to tracks to cut down on travel costs. But he’s hung on long enough to snare a new job with Leavine Family Racing, which will attempt 20 Sprint Cup Series races in 2014, with what team officials believe can be a competitive No. 95 car.
“For me, it’s not so much about the things I don’t have, but I’m fortunate to have the opportunities I do have,” McDowell said. “You look, there are a lot of great drivers that are a lot more talented than I am who are not in this sport any longer. So I feel very fortunate to still be in the sport, and I feel that perseverance, almost, has given me the opportunity to see a lot of different aspects and elements of the sport, which helps me bring a little bit to the program with LFR being a smaller program trying to grow.”
McDowell has seen it all, all right, even though he’s just 29. The Phoenix native and former ARCA star broke through in 2008 in Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 00 car, but back when MWR often struggled to just make races, and had not yet transformed itself into the winning organization is it now. Although he often showed speed — too much of it in that epic qualifying crash at Texas — the results never came, and one year later McDowell was making his living sneaking less-than-competitive cars into races.
He’s been doing that basically ever since, despite a dozen runs in Joe Gibbs Racing Nationwide Series equipment where he’s consistently finished inside the top 10 and even had a few chances to win races. It’s those performances — like a runner-up finish at Mid-Ohio last season, and another at Road America in 2012 — that give him confidence that he can make it in NASCAR.
“Really, those Gibbs races gave me the opportunity to show myself whether I could or couldn’t do it. As a driver, that’s really all you want,” McDowell said. “You fight your entire career to see if you have the stuff, you know? You think you have the stuff, and you’re confident you do, and then you get to this level, and everybody does. It’s so difficult. And without the right opportunities, you just never know. So a lot of it was my own stubbornness, me saying, ‘I’ve got to stay in this thing long enough to see if I can do it.'”
McDowell remembers a race for Gibbs at Iowa in 2012, where he was racing Kurt Busch for third on the final lap. McDowell challenged Busch for the spot and it ended with Busch in a sideways slide and a fifth-place finish, while McDowell took third place.
“That’s not a highlight,” said McDowell, who expects to have more Nationwide starts for JGR this season. “But the fact of the matter was, I was racing Kurt Busch for third place on the last lap. Which sort of re-sparks that — hey, I want to be here, I want to do this. And with the opportunity I have now in the 95, I think we’ll have runs where people go — wow, they are serious.”
That’s certainly the hope. LFR has one top-10 finish in its three-year history — ninth at Talladega last spring with Scott Speed, who has left to pursue rally racing. McDowell filled in for Speed during last year’s Sprint Showdown, and the relationship with LFR owner Bob Leavine proved fruitful when the ride became open for 2014. Thanks in part to sponsorship from the Christian radio network K-Love, McDowell will once again have the opportunity to actually race at NASCAR’s highest level.
“Obviously, we’re all very competitive,” McDowell said. “Being one of 43, you don’t get there just by enjoying the ride and not being intense. That part’s definitely hard. And then especially when you have a good car and a good week, you know you can’t run. Now with this new program, we know every weekend when we show up, we’re going to have an opportunity to compete. We’re going to have good pit stops, we’re going to have tires, we’re going to have all the things we need to need to be competitive.”
The team will field a Ford and use Roush-Yates engines in its 20-race schedule, which will begin with the Daytona 500. McDowell finished a career-best ninth in the event last year, getting a rare chance to compete for the full race in a vehicle fielded by Mike Curb. This season, he’ll be able to do the same thing every time he rolls onto the track.
“The biggest thing was, for me it was an opportunity to race,” he said, “and that’s all I want to do.”