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McDowell kicked off last season with his first career series victory in NASCAR’s biggest race – the Daytona 500.
The win locked McDowell into the playoffs and he and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team finished a career-best 16th in points behind two top-five and five top-10 finishes.
While he has no victory yet this year, McDowell already has three top-10 finishes in the season’s first 10 races and enters this weekend’s race at Dover, Del., coming off finishes of eighth and ninth.
“That’s definitely the best start that we’ve had minus last year, and I think there’s a lot of potential with this Next Gen car for us to have more good results and be in contention,” McDowell, 37, said.
“We were optimistic about that going into this season that this could be a year for us to really have an opportunity to shine and get better results, and so I think there’s still a lot to come this year and I’m looking forward to some of the tracks that we have circled and seeing where we can stack up against the competition.
“There’s a tremendous amount of development going on right now and there seems to be teams that are sorting it out pretty quickly, so we have to make sure that we keep up with the rapid pace of development of a brand new car.”
A more level playing field
At least for now, the Next Gen car seems to have leveled the playing field in the Cup Series, where the big budget, multi-car teams generally dominated while spending millions in research and development.
The common chassis and parts of the Next Gen car have required every team to start from scratch on finding the best ways to get speed out of the car, but also may have at least temporarily limited the big money advantage some teams have enjoyed.
“I think that the hardest thing for us has probably been the challenge of just the limited amount of practice that you have and with the newness of this car,” McDowell said. “You want to try a lot of things because it’s so new, so you want to try different packages, different geometries, springs, stiff, soft, bars, no bars, there are a lot of things that you want to work through that you can’t work through in those 20 minutes.
“I feel like it’s kind of ebbed and flowed a little bit as far as the small teams being able to perform because there’s been tracks where it seems like we’re closer to the competition than we were last year, and then there have been tracks where we feel like we’re pretty similar.
“I think in the next few weeks and definitely in the next few months we’ll have a better handle of what we need to do to get us closer to the competition, so I hope it plays out how we anticipated.”
Sunday’s race at Dover (Del.) Motor Speedway – a 1-mile, high-banked concrete oval – should be another stout test for the Next Gen car.
Dover has not been one of McDowell’s best tracks – in 21 starts his best finish is 19th in 2017 – and he admits to be a “bit nervous” about tackling the track with the Next Gen car.
“Not nervous with what’s going to happen with it, but more of just how they’re going to drive because it’s such a fast race track, a lot of loading (on the tires), so it’s going to be a challenge the first couple of laps when you unload there to see what you have,” he said.