NASCAR: The most underrated driver of the 2020 season

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) /

The success that Michael McDowell had throughout the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season flew under the radar and points to him being the sport’s most underrated driver.

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season ended with the usual suspects contending for the championship, with a number of those drivers having career years along the way.

But one driver whose overall performance throughout the season was arguably just as good as anybody’s, given his equipment, but did not get nearly the amount of credit it deserved was that of Michael McDowell.

McDowell’s 2020 season was his third consecutive season behind the #34 Ford for Front Row Motorsports, and not only was it his best yet, but it was the best season of his Cup Series career, which dates back to 2008.

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He didn’t record a top five finish last year after tripling his career top five finish total with a career-high two in the 2019 season, but what he was able to accomplish with what has been one of the sport’s slowest teams stands out.

The 35-year-old Phoenix, Arizona native finished in 23rd place in the championship standings. His previous top finish in the standings had been his 26th place finishes in 2017 and 2018. Since entering the sport in 2005, team owner Bob Jenkins had never had a driver finish that high in the standings, save for when Chris Buescher scored an upset win at Pocono Raceway in 2016 and locked himself into the playoffs and therefore into the top 16.

Throughout the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, Michael McDowell recorded a career-high four top 10 finishes.

Three top 10 finishes had been his career-best over a two-year span entering the year. Most impressively, he recorded four in 2020 without relying on superspeedways, as he finished in eighth place at Pocono Raceway, a season-high seventh at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 10th at the Daytona International Speedway road course and 10th at Bristol Motor Speedway.

McDowell, who entered the season with just eight career top 10 finishes in 321 starts, had not finished a non-superspeedway/restrictor plate race inside of the top 10 since he finished in 10th place at Homestead-Miami Speedway driving for Circle Sport – Leavine Family Racing back in 2016, and that had been his first ever top 10 finish in a non-superspeedway/restrictor plate race.

He also shattered his career-high of 15 top 20 finishes by the season’s 27th race at Darlington Raceway and ended the season with 18 top 20 finishes to earn himself his first ever top 21 average finish. His average finish ended up at 20.9, besting his previous career-high of 22.2 from 2017. It was the best for a driver in team history.

Even with rookie teammate John Hunter Nemechek having burst onto the scene with an impressive three-race stint late in 2019 ahead of his first full-time season in 2020, McDowell was still able to solidify himself as the top driver in Jenkins’s organization with a year that went largely underappreciated.

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McDowell is set to be back behind the wheel of the #34 Ford for a fourth season this year, and justifiably so. With seven road courses on the 2021 calendar, he could be in for another career year. He is set to be joined by a rookie for the third straight year, as Anthony Alfredo is set to drive the #38 Ford as the replacement for the Kyle Busch Motorsports-bound Nemechek.