NASCAR: Could Michael McDowell be in trouble?

Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

Michael McDowell “clinched” his 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoff spot by winning the Daytona 500 to open the season, but did he really?

The current NASCAR Cup Series playoff format has always been seen as a “win and in” format, given that there are 16 playoff spots and drivers who secure victories throughout the regular season “lock in” to the playoffs.

But that isn’t necessarily true. Never before have we seen more than 13 winners throughout a 26-race regular season, but mathematically speaking, it is entirely possible to see at least 16 drivers secure victories prior to the postseason.

Hot. What if there are more than 16 winners?. light

Through the first five races of the 2021 season, there have been five different winners. While this isn’t super uncommon, having occurred three times from 2013 to 2017, this was what many had anticipated entering the new season given the fact that is the final season of the current car.

And many believe that this trend will continue.

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The first five winners of the season include just two drivers who won last season. None of them made it to the Championship 4 last season, and only one of them made it to the round of 12.

So many of the perennial contenders have yet to find victory lane. To name just a few, Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, who combined to win 28 of last season’s 36 races, are all 0 for 5 so far this year.

Fellow 2020 winners Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Alex Bowman, Cole Custer and Austin Dillon have also yet to find victory lane in 2021.

That list alone contains 11 drivers, and that’s without including some of the others who many feel could win at some point, including but not limited to Aric Almirola, Matt DiBenedetto, Tyler Reddick, Bubba Wallace and rookie Chase Briscoe.

So while he won the season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway to secure his first win in 358 career starts, the second highest start total ever for a first-time winner, should Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell be concerned?

McDowell started the season with three consecutive top 10 finishes. Prior to last year, he had never recorded more than three top 10 finishes in a two-year span.

While that start to the season was an absolute boost for McDowell and Bob Jenkins’s team, many realized that it wouldn’t necessarily last. In fact, many joked that we knew who would finish 16th in the championship standings following his Daytona 500 win — much like when rookie Chris Buescher won for the team at Pocono Raceway in 2016 to clinch a playoff spot.

But is there a chance it may not even be that good?

After finishing the first three races of the season in first, eighth and sixth place, respectively, McDowell has finished in 17th and 23rd. It is beginning to look like if we do get more than 16 regular season race winners, McDowell could end up falling from the playoff picture, since it would then come down to a points tiebreaker between single-race winners.

Up until this Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway, he had been ahead of at least one of the other winners in the point standings. Now he has dropped outside of the top 10 and sits in 11th place, and it would be a surprise to nobody if he kept falling. Just 31 points separate him from 18th.

The other four race winners so far this season are Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell and William Byron. They all drive for powerhouse teams, either Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports, and they sit in fourth, tied for fifth, eighth and ninth place in the standings, respectively.

So if we do end up with more than 16 regular season race winners, McDowell is going to need to finish ahead of at least one of them in the point standings to be one of the 16 postseason drivers, and while we could see somebody who usually runs at the back break through for an upset win at a superspeedway or a road course, that is already trending in the wrong direction.

Of course, that assumes we get more than 16 regular season winners. While entirely possible, that is still going to be tough to pull off, and in that case, McDowell will be safe.

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And let’s not forget one key detail: more than likely, the #34 team knows they won’t be able to compete for a championship if they do get to the playoffs. The big takeaway for McDowell from this season, no matter what else happens, is winning the Daytona 500. That alone will make up for any potential playoff disappointment, bar none.