McDowell earned his first career Cup win in the season-opening Daytona 500 in 2021, which locked him into the playoffs for the first time just as the season was getting underway.
He and his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team didn’t win again before the start of the playoffs, and felt they needed to focus on getting a win in the opening round if there was any hope of advancing.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned from 2021 is I felt like we didn’t have quite enough speed to just go to (Darlington) and run our race. I felt like I had to hit a home run,” McDowell said.
“That was kind of the mindset – go in there all-out, taking big chances, taking risks.”
It didn’t work.
McDowell ended up wrecking out of the playoff opener at Darlington after 30 laps, which put him in an enormous points deficit. He was eliminated from further title contention after the first round.
Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Love’s Travel Stops Ford Mustang
Photo by: Gavin Baker / NKP / Motorsport Images
“That crash was pretty much the end of our playoffs. When you have an experience, you learn from it,” he said. “You fast forward to the end of that year and look back at those first three races and how the standings turned out and you’re like, ‘Awe, we didn’t have to hit a home run. We just needed to run 10th to 15th each race and we would have made it.’
“The big difference this year is we come in with more experience and more speed and more potential out of our race cars and our team. That helps – not having to have a miracle run to do well.
“The approach going in is don’t beat ourselves, execute and no mistakes. If we have a 12th-place care, we take that and move on and not have that desperation. That desperation got me in trouble last time.”
This year, McDowell, 38, enters the playoffs following a 26-race regular season that featured some of the most consistent performances week-to-week of his career, including a dominating victory at the Indy Road Course.
He has more top-10 finishes already (six) than he had the entire 2021 season (five). He’s led a career-best 92 laps and his average finish of 18.5 is currently the second highest of his career.
McDowell believes his team’s previous playoff experience and increased speed at the track are invaluable to putting together a strong run this season.
“You still feel the pressure. You still feel the anticipation,” he said. “You have to execute at such a high level right now on all parts of the race team and inside the race car, there’s just no room for any type of mistakes.
“Having speed is everything. When you look at the teams that have really good speed, they can run 97 percent and keep themselves out of trouble rather than 110 percent and put themselves in high-risk situations.”
Michael McDowell, Front Row Motorsports, Horizon Hobby Ford Mustang
Photo by: Josh Tons / Motorsport Images