NASCAR: Michael McWho?
By Jenna Fryer
FORT WORTH, Texasó Michael McDowell came to Texas Motor Speedway as a NASCAR rookie known best for infuriating Jeff Burton during his Sprint Cup debut.
Then the kid known as “McDizzle” barrel-rolled his car around the track in the most spectacular crash in recent history.
Now he’s an overnight sensation, booked solid on national TV shows to discuss the wreck he lived to talk about. It’s created mixed feelings for McDowell, who didn’t quite want to become famous this way.
“I have two feelings about it ó one is that I want to be in the media spotlight for the right reason, and that’s for being a good race car driver and running well,” McDowell said Saturday. “We don’t want to go out there and wreck cars to get on TV, that’s never the plan.
“If you’re going to do one as spectacular as we did … we’ll definitely soak up as much as we can get.”
The wreck during Friday’s qualifying session capped an auspicious first week on the job for McDowell. He debuted last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway with a decent run for a rookie on a difficult short track. But when his desire not to lose another lap interfered with Burton’s attempt to pass, the 23-year-old newcomer angered the veteran.
Burton offered a blistering critique of McDowell immediately after the race, and the criticism spoiled what should have been a shining moment for McDowell, who finished 26th.
It also raised concerns that McDowell perhaps isn’t ready to race at NASCAR’s top level. Although he’s turned hundreds of laps testing a Cup car for Michael Waltrip Racing, his only previous NASCAR experience was four Nationwide races and one Truck Series event.
Asked Friday if he maybe wasn’t in over his head, even McDowell acknowledged his rise into the No. 00 Toyota wasn’t conventional. Despite his limited seat time, McDowell was promoted when team officials had to fill the hole created following Dale Jarrett’s retirement.
The team doesn’t yet have the resources to field Nationwide cars or trucks for McDowell, so moving him up was the only option.
“The seat that was available at Michael Waltrip Racing was for the Sprint Cup Series. I didn’t walk in there and say, ‘Hey, I’m a Sprint Cup driver. I deserve it. I want to be in it,”‘ he said. “For sure, it will be a tough year and I’m going to have to learn. It’s tough to learn at this level. Do I belong? No, I don’t belong, but I’m going to work hard to get to the point where I do.”
Just more than two hours later, his car was flipping down the track in an accident that left even the most hardened NASCAR veterans wide-eyed and frozen in front of televisions that looped the replay during a lengthy delay to repair the wall McDowell hit.
It happened on his second qualifying lap when McDowell briefly lost control of the car entering the first turn. Many believe he slid in a wet spot of material meant to dry oil that had been spilled on the track earlier.
McDowell then overcorrected as he attempted to regain control of the car, and his Toyota darted up the track and directly into the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier. The car ricocheted off the wall and onto its roof, then rolled at least eight times before finally coming to rest at the bottom of the high-banked track.
Although he quickly hopped out of the car and waved to the crowd, pit road remained hushed as competitors marveled at McDowell walking away essentially unscathed.
“That was a scary incident,” pole-winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “We all held our breath for a few seconds there because it looked pretty bad. We have pretty safe cars and that was good to see him get out.”
Still, it inflamed the debate over McDowell’s readiness ó conversation his team insists is unwarranted.
“That’s not very fair to question the kid, because he’s certainly not the first driver to put a car into the wall,” said MWR general manager Ty Norris. “He’s been testing for us since last September. He has raced Nationwide races for us, he has raced truck races for us and that is the first time he’s ever hit the wall.
“He’s been phenomenal in the fact that he hasn’t bent one piece of sheet metal until yesterday. He’s proven to us that he deserves a chance.”
NASCAR agreed, noting McDowell’s previous experience in Champ Car, Grand-Am and ARCA in approving him to race at every Sprint Cup venue.
Then he had the wreck, which pushed his name to the front of NASCAR at the same time he had to deal with the emotions of such a scary accident. He’s still calming his young wife, Jami, and had to convince his father over the phone that he really wasn’t injured. McDowell compared his lingering soreness Saturday to returning to the gym after a hiatus from working out.
“My wife and I have been together since we were 15 years old, so we’ve been through some wrecks before,” he said. “I think once she saw me she was OK, but after she was pretty shaken up. They replayed it a thousand times and it’s pretty horrific to watch. My dad back at home, he was pretty torn up watching it and not really knowing if I was OK.
“When I told him I was OK, he thought I was lying to him.”
Although the attention is squarely on McDowell right now, he’s eager for it to return to the racing. He’ll start 40th in Sunday’s race, and needs a strong run to keep the car inside the top 35 in points.
“I want you to write on Sunday that I had a horrific wreck and I came back and ran in the top 20 on the lead lap and moved up another two spots in the points ó because that’s what matters to me,” McDowell said. “Nobody is going to forget this wreck, but it doesn’t guarantee me that I’m going to have a ride. The only thing that guarantees me of having a ride is performance and that’s what I’m going to focus on.
“I’ll climb back in there and do it.”
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