NASCAR driver, team cautiously optimistic after fast start to 2024

While the results haven't been there, you could make the case that no team have shown more speed to start the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season than Front Row Motorsports.

Todd Gilliland, Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR
Todd Gilliland, Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, NASCAR / Todd Kirkland/GettyImages

The 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season's first two races at Daytona International Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway count just as much as any other events on the schedule. But everybody will tell you that, because of the nature of superspeedway racing, the "real season", per se, starts this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The Las Vegas, Nevada oval is a typical mile-and-a-half venue which does not race like a superspeedway. It is not a drafting track like post-repave/reconfiguration Atlanta, and its product is certainly not comparable to a Daytona 500.

Sunday's 267-lap Pennzoil 400 is the race that many have circled on their calendars as the most telling early-season race when it comes to who the strongest drivers and teams are as the action picks up.

So far this season, you could make a case that Front Row Motorsports have been NASCAR's top team.

The results haven't been there, primarily due to the nature of superspeedway racing and the inherent wrecks that come with it.

But Michael McDowell has recorded back-to-back front row starts, including his first career pole position in 467 starts, and no driver has led more laps than the 23-year-old Todd Gilliland, who wasn't even a lock to be back in the No. 38 Ford this year after having had his schedule reduced during his sophomore season a year ago.

There has been quite a bit made about the team's new Tier 1 Ford status and technical alliance with Team Penske, and it's hard to argue against the idea that such upgrades for the 2024 season have been beneficial thus far.

McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner, is cautiously optimistic about what Front Row Motorsports can bring to the table at the sort of tracks that make up a majority of the 2024 schedule.

"I hope so," McDowell told Beyond the Flag when asked about whether or not Front Row Motorsports' red-hot start to the season could continue at a more "typical" race track. "You don't know until you get to Las Vegas. Las Vegas I feel like is where you'll see where you stack up against the competition.

"Daytona and Atlanta are unique in regards to superspeedway racing – different spoiler, different rules, different package – so until you get to Vegas, you don't really know exactly how you're going to stack up when it comes to the downforce tracks, and obviously the majority [on] our schedule are downforce tracks, so it's a big part."

In past years, Front Row Motorsports have needed to rely on superspeedways to give them their best opportunities to run at the front. McDowell is optimistic that they can challenge at other ovals this year, given their recent gains.

"We feel good and we feel confident," he continued. "Obviously, we've had a lot of speed and our team has been strong over the last couple years, and getting stronger, and we feel like the new Dark Horse Mustang is going to do all the things that we hoped it would do.

"But until you hit the track and see where you are, you just don't know for sure, so [we're] looking forward to this weekend. I think qualifying will obviously be the first real gauge of where we feel like we are, and then we have a race to kind of work through what we need to do balance-wise and changes that we can make and try to learn this new Dark Horse Mustang."

The new Ford body has been one of the storylines of the early 2024 season, and now the teams get to see how it performs at a true intermediate track.

"Obviously we have notes from previous races, but with a new body, we are imagining there are going to be some adjustments and things that we have to get used to, so we're looking forward to this weekend," McDowell explained.

Speaking to Beyond the Flag two years ago, McDowell correctly predicted that Front Row Motorsports would be a lot closer to some of the sport's powerhouses in the Next Gen era than they had been with the previous car.

While he didn't win a race in 2022, he had a career year by almost all statistical measures, and he backed that up with a second career win and a second career playoff appearance in 2023.

Now he and the entire Front Row Motorsports team are looking for much more.

"It's a big weekend for us. It's a big weekend to see where we stack up and kind of set the tone for the rest of the season."

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Sunday's Pennzoil 400 is set to be broadcast live on Fox from Las Vegas Motor Speedway starting at 3:30 p.m. ET. Begin a free trial of FuboTV now and don't miss it!