BRISTOL, Tenn. - Michael McDowell definitely has a love-hate relationship with racing in Bristol.
“A few years ago I would have told you Bristol was my favorite track just because of the atmosphere and the challenge of it and it is so fast and it is so grueling and it is very demanding on the cars and your body,” McDowell said. “It is just a really tough race and I enjoy those races, but it has eat me up and spit me out the last few years.”
McDowell, whose best finish in Bristol was 19th in the 2013 Night Race, only managed to get through 10 laps last August before getting caught up in a crash and eventually placing 37th.
His best qualifying effort at Bristol Motor Speedway was ninth in the April race in 2018, but got caught in a crash on the ninth lap and wound up finishing 38th. He came in 28th in the April race of this year after starting 18th. Rain has even been an issue in recent years for him.
See a pattern? Yet, the 34-year McDowell, who has zero wins in 308 races in his 12 years on the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series, will arrive in Bristol with a positive outlook on what lies ahead.
He has no choice.
“One thing I have learned is anytime you go to a race track and you are dreading it, you just don’t perform well,” said McDowell, who won once on the Xfinity circuit in 2016, four times on the ARCA Menards Series in 2007 and once on the Rolex series in ‘05. “You always have to be positive and you always have to think about ‘how I love coming here, it is my favorite place, I am really good here.’
“Once you get it in your head that ‘Man, I don’t want to go to Bristol, I never run good there, I wreck every time I go’ you are pretty much setting your whole weekend up so just going into it with the right outlook is important.”
McDowell knows what it takes to compete at Bristol. A good qualifying run for sure and staying out of the crashes that seem to happen often at the “World’s Fastest Half-mile.”
“Not to crash. That is literally it. You have to race so hard and you are always surrounded by other cars,” he said. “You have got to race really hard to stay on that lead lap because the leader doesn’t have anybody breaking his momentum and messing him up so the leader just goes so fast.
“Even when you are 15th and you go on a long run, the leader can lap all the way up to 15th so just staying on the lead lap and not crashing. That sounds easy but you have to race your guts out to stay on the lead lap and that is why you see so many crashes there.”
McDowell, who drives the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team, was 27th in points standings heading into Watkins Glen on Aug. 4, having secured one top-5 and one top-10 finish on the season.
“We are starting to get into a little bit of a rhythm. The first 10 races we had, I don’t want to call it luck, but we just had bad finishes,” said McDowell, whose first-year crew chief is Bob Osborne. “We had a lot of DNFs with mechanical issues and crashes, flat tires and things that typically don’t happen, four or five in a row.
“The start of the year was tough for us, but now we have a little bit more momentum. I think our race car is better and building chemistry with the guys since we have a new crew chief this year. I do feel like we are on a good path here and hopefully keep plugging away and keep that rolling.”
McDowell will arrive in Bristol for what is widely considered the most popular event on the NASCAR schedule. Bristol hosts two races a season, but there is just something about driving at night that drives the passion of both drivers, their teams and the fans.
“I think the cars in general have more grip and because of that they are more aggressive and they take more chances and there is more side by side [racing],” McDowell said. “A lot of times when we are fighting for traction and you are just trying to find any grip you can and you end up staying in line because you don’t feel like you have the confidence to go driving down underneath somebody and not knocking yourself out and wiping it out.
“With night races in general it just seems like the intensity just goes up. I don’t know if that is the drivers or that is what happens or it is the second race of the year and there is more on the line.”
Despite his misgivings about Bristol, McDowell does enjoy the entire spectacle that the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race has become.
“It is a great race. You can’t beat the Bristol atmosphere and the energy that they have,” McDowell said. “The night race obviously adds to that a tremendous amount so anytime you are under the lights it seems like the racing is always really good and a lot of action.”
It could be even more exciting in 2020 when the Night Race moves to September and will be the first elimination race of the playoffs.
“For sure. I think the deeper you get into the playoffs, that is definitely something where you see the level of intensity increase,” McDowell said. “I think the weather plays a factor into that too. You can have pretty cool temperatures that time of the year and you will able to run hard.
“Anytime there is as much intensity as there is in our sport in the playoffs it is going to make for an exciting race and those kinds of tracks will create it.”