An Interview with:
- Michael McDowell, Winning Driver
- Drew Blickensderfer, Winning Crew Chief
- Jerry Freeze, Front Row Motorsports General Manager
THE MODERATOR: We are now joined by Michael McDowell, our Daytona 500 champion.
Q. Did you ever dare believe you’d get over 300 races in the bank without a win, if it would ever happen, and not only did it happen, it wound up being just the Daytona 500?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, how crazy is that? Yeah, you guys all know, it’s been a tough road for me. I’ve had to spend a lot of years grinding it out, but I finally have felt like this last four years have been — just been more competitive and greater opportunities with Front Row and Bob Jenkins. Daytona has been so good to us that we’ve been in the top 10, we’ve been in the top 5, we’ve been close. The last lap, there’s been times where I’ve made the wrong choice, wrong lane and pushed the wrong guy, and it’s just so hard to get in position and to do it, and to get my first Cup win at Daytona is just unbelievable.
I’m just so thankful, thankful for everybody that just has allowed me to do it. It’s not been an easy road and there was lots of years where I was wondering what the heck am I doing and why am I doing it.
I always knew that if you just kept grinding that one day everything will line up and it will go right. But as you get further into it, you just don’t know.
So I’m just thankful, very thankful to everybody that made it possible.
Q. Talk about going into Turn 3 on the last lap; you were obviously going to be part of the mix because where you’d been pushing all day because Keselowski was counting on you to go, people were counting on you to be in the mix, did you think you were just going to be a pusher or did you think maybe I’ve got a chance at this, actually have a chance at this?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, I mean, to be honest with you, I had a plan before the race started. You never know if you’re actually going to be in position to execute that plan because there’s so much that can happen. You can get in the big one early on.
Having a plan is great, but it doesn’t always work out. But I had a plan, and as it wound down to the last 10 laps, I was in a pretty good position. Not exactly where I wanted to be, and then we got a little bit shuffled, and I think Cole, the 41, made a move, and we were able to — Brad and I stayed together, and I was in the position I wanted to be in coming to the white flag, and my plan was to push the 2 the entire lap until coming off of 4, and when I came off of 4 I was going to try to get to his outside or inside, but my plan was to stick with the 2 because I knew he was going to go for it. I knew he wasn’t going to ride there.
But I also knew he wasn’t going to pull out with three laps to go and try to get side by side with Joey or Kevin Harvick and there was other Fords up there. I felt like if I could just stay on his bumper, that would give me the opportunity when he did make the move to hopefully make a hole and make something happen. The hole happened on its own. I can’t even tell you what happened.
Brad and I pulled down with a run and next thing you know Brad was turning right, Joey was turning left and I went right through the middle of it, and I looked in my mirror and I saw Chase Elliott with a run and I went up there and blocked him as fast as I could and we made a little bit of contact, and I didn’t see anything else from that point. It’s just kind of a blur from there.
Q. When you were racing go-karts back out there in Glendale, could you have imagined winning this race like this?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: No, never. You know, from the time I was a young age, I knew I wanted to be a race car driver. I didn’t know what that looked like or where it would be, and so just — my path was really open wheel and road racing and just so happened that I got an opportunity to go stock car racing. I’m so glad I did because the path that I was on, it would have been really tough to make it to the top, so I feel like as a kid growing up, I always dreamed of being a race car driver but never thought about being a Daytona 500 champion.
Q. I asked Denny Hamlin, I wanted to know — this is a weird celebration because it’s COVID and you didn’t get to do all the normal things. Do you feel any different like people do sometimes at rain shortened races or does it feel just the same or do you have anything to compare it to?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: You know, the only thing I would have to compare it to would be my Xfinity win at Road America. But yeah, it’s definitely different. But for me, I don’t — I don’t know. I just feel like it’s just so meaningful that even though it’s under different circumstances, it’ll still have a lasting memory.
The thing that I probably — probably is the toughest is just not having my wife and my kids here. You only get so many shots at it, as you guys know. It’s taken me like 400 shots to do it. It would be great to have them here with me. But unfortunately they’re back home, and we’ll celebrate with them tomorrow.
Yeah, that’s the toughest thing is just not having my family here to celebrate with me.
Q. Did you think you were going to win this race?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: I know it’s going to sound crazy, but I always think I’m going to win this race, and it doesn’t happen, and you get done with it, and you look at it and you go, man, I should have done this, I should have done that, but if I would have done this or that, I would have had a shot at winning.
And so we talk about it, my team and I talk about it, Drew and I talk about it, if we just keep putting ourselves in that position, in the top 5 coming to the white flag, eventually it’s going to go how we need it to go. When I came to the white flag I wasn’t thinking I was going to win the race. I don’t think drivers ever think that, but I was doing everything I could to try to win the race if that makes sense. I was thinking how am I going to win the race, but I wasn’t thinking here it is I’m going to win my first race. I don’t think drivers allow their minds to go there to think about what could be while you’re in the heat of the moment, but I was going to do everything I could to get myself in position to try to win the race and felt like I was in the position that I had a shot at winning the race.
Q. Did you make contact with Logano at the end there or Keselowski?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: I definitely was pushing Brad. The last lap you just lock bumpers and push as hard as you could. But I gave him a shove, but we actually got disconnected and thankfully we did because it’s when we got disconnected, and I didn’t see how Joey and Brad got together, but it’s when we got disconnected that the contact was made and that gave me a little bit of a gap to get through, otherwise I would have been right on the 2.
The way these runs work, sometimes when you hit a guy you kind of push him out a little bit and you get detached from him, and Brad and I had a great run and I was on his bumper and then he pulled down and I got a little bit detached from him and then him and the 22 got together.
I’ve only seen the replay once, but it doesn’t — you guys would have to tell me. I’m not sure what it looked like.
Q. Your guy Clayton Hughes is from our area of Lexington, and this was y’all’s first race together. Talk about what he added to that race. How did he help you stay up there and maintain?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, Clayton did a great job, and like you said, it’s our first race working together. Him and I spent time at the shop going over video and looking at jumping on the phone and looking at different races and talking about where we need to be and how we need to position ourselves. I mean, if you listen to Brad and Joey with Coleman and with T.J. and those real top guys, man, they have such a good rhythm at these races and know when to block the lanes. So that’s hard to create in just one race.
But I feel like Clayton and I put the time in to make sure that we both knew what we needed coming down here, and he did a great job, and I felt super confident with all the moves that I made. Yeah, it’s crazy, just all the pieces coming together. Every element matters, and that was definitely an element that really helped us put it all together.
Q. It’s been a little over an hour; has it sunk in yet?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: No, I mean, yes and no. You go from the super high and the emotion of man, I can’t believe we just won the Daytona 500 and you’re just ecstatic, and now it’s a little bit more of that somber like humble, like man, I cannot believe this. This is just unbelievable and just so thankful.
So yeah, you’re just going through a range of emotions. Like I said, when I see my family, that’ll be different, as well.
Yeah, so it’s unbelievable. Like I said, I’m just super thankful. Just so many times I’ve felt like, oh, this is it. When I lost the ride at LFR driving the 95, man, where am I going to go, finally starting to run full time and having decent runs and feeling like I was going somewhere and that’s gone, so many times like that.
For Bob Jenkins to give me a shot in the 34 car with Love’s, and Love’s has been with Front Row for over nine years now and they are just the backbone of our organization, such a great partner. Even though Front Row has been to Victory Lane with David Ragan and with Chris Buescher, the Love’s car has never been to Victory Lane with them. It’s so cool to finally get them into Victory Lane because they’ve been such an integral part of Front Row and the growth of Front Row.
Q. When we talked on Wednesday, it was a lot of fun, you kind of talking about those humble beginnings and to see it all come to fruition tonight, I’m wondering what was it like when you first realized oh, my gosh, I just won the Daytona 500, and what’s it mean to you to represent Arizona in that process?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, I don’t know if that’s all sunk in. Yeah, like you said, we talked about this a week ago, what it would mean to win and just how long I’ve been grinding it out to try to get in position to win.
To be in the playoffs and to be able to go home and bring the trophy with me, to my dad and my brother and my family, that’ll be very special.
Q. I know how big of a night this is for you, for the team. When you’re sitting in the midst of 0-for-300-plus NASCAR Cup Series starts, do you reach a point — I know you’re kind of the eternal optimist, but was there ever a doubt, those thoughts of man, is it ever going to happen for me?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: I know it sounds crazy, but no. Y’all could ask my wife because she’s more realistic, and she’s just like, man, I don’t think it’s in the cards. Just for whatever reason, I don’t know. I’m like, it’s going to happen. I just know it is.
You know, I don’t know why. I don’t know why I have that feeling. But I also feel like if I don’t come to the racetrack thinking like that, then why am I coming to the racetrack.
I think that for so long, that was a hard part because I knew that with start-and-parking and all that stuff, I’m not going to run the full race, not going to have a shot. But even when I was start-and-parking, I was like, man, one day I’m going to get a shot at it and I’ll be able to do it because of all this that I’ve put into it. I never lost hope of that.
And when I come to the racetrack, when we load up and go, I really think every weekend, okay, this is the weekend it’s going to happen. And I know that sounds crazy, but I do, and I have, and I have for a long time.
I think that’s an important part of it is just believing that it’s possible. It’s not so much believing like, oh, I can do it, I’m good enough. I don’t care about that stuff, just believing that it’s possible that it could happen, and it did.
Q. What I would call the last true Daytona 500 upset came 10 years ago this weekend, and it was another driver who has a very strong faith like you do in Trevor Bayne. What do you think, a decade later, that Trevor gets a Daytona 500 win and now you’ve joined him in that category?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, it’s crazy. I can’t wait to talk to him. Yeah, Trevor is such a close friend of mine and such a talented guy. Like even when you look at that, like man, how do I keep still getting opportunities and a Daytona 500 champion and a guy that’s won races and his resume is a lot better than mine is making coffee right now. God just has a plan for each of us, and I just never felt like it was time for me to stop and it was time for me to quit. I just always felt like there’s a win on the horizon, and you’ve just got to keep grinding it out.
Q. You talk about the grinding it out. Can you kind of go back, how you got to this point and maybe some examples of how close you came or especially early in your career? I know you had the MWR deal and that went away. If I’m not mistaken weren’t you driving coaches part of the time, too, as you were doing some racing? Can you give me a sense of I guess how low things got or maybe the ladder you climbed to get to this point?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, I wouldn’t really call it low because during the time — it’s just all perspective, right? When I lost my job at MWR, that was pretty hard to overcome just because I was a young guy that came into NASCAR with not a lot of experience. I never ran truck. I never ran Xfinity. I ran one season of ARCA and had some success, and bam, I got picked up by MWR, a new manufacturer, and it just didn’t work out.
So it’s hard to rebound from something like that, and I just was able to work with Tad Geschickter and JTG and kind of take a step back and run Xfinity, and that went pretty well. We were running well, and we got about halfway through the season and there was no more funding. So that went away.
So then I started driving Brian Keselowski, Brad’s brother’s start-and-park cars, him and his dad and Kay, they gave me a shot to go run, and they missed some races, and man, we went to Iowa and ran top 10, we went to Bristol and ran top 10, went to Watkins and ran top 10. We ran the same car at all three races I’ll add to you, so we ran a Bristol car at Watkins Glen.
You know, just those moments of man, it’s like — it gives you life. You feel like you’re at the bottom and then you have a good run, and then I just drove for Randy McDonald and I drove for Phil Parsons, and Phil is such a huge part of me getting the experience I needed in Cup, even though it wasn’t full races. I learned so much in that time. And Tommy Baldwin and Dustin Whitney.
When you show up to the racetrack knowing you’re not going to race, it’s hard. And like you said, yeah, I drove Trevor’s coach for a while, and I’ve always driven — I drove my own coach here. I did whatever I could. During those start-and-park days, I was at the shop every day working on the race cars, and so was Phil. You all know Phil, but Phil, I can’t tell you how many transmissions he put in race cars before we went to the racetrack. We all worked on it, and we just had to get to the racetrack one way or another.
I wouldn’t say like there was super lows where I was eating top ramen noodles and scraping to stay alive, but when you show up to the racetrack and you know that you’re — I don’t even know how to say it. You’re just in the way, taking up space, it’s hard to do that year after year and week after week, and so you’ve got to have a bigger purpose than that. For me it was knowing that I would get an opportunity eventually.
Q. When you did driving Trevor’s motor coach, that wasn’t when he won the Daytona 500, that was before then, correct?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yep, and I driver coached and I worked with Ricky and Trevor and I worked with a lot of guys, in particular road race — getting them ready for Watkins Glen, getting them ready for Road America, all those places. How I was able to keep things going was by doing a lot of driver coaching and doing whatever I could to keep my name in the hat, and that really helped me get those opportunities with Joe Gibbs Racing, which was another huge part of me still being here. Even though I didn’t win, I had some great runs in there and sort of I felt like at that time I needed something that helped me just legitimize being here, and J.D. was who gave me those opportunities and literally did it because he knew I needed it.
So for years — that propelled me for years. Just so many of those little things that add up to allow you to be here.
Q. When you look back on this win at whatever point in time, what are you going to remember most about it?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: You know, I don’t know yet. I don’t want to give you an answer. I don’t know what I’ll remember the most. I think what I’ll remember the most is the group of guys that I did it with. I have a great relationship with Drew, and him and I, we fight hard. We scrap hard to get everything we can every weekend. So just to know somebody has got your back and you’re fighting hard, and Bob Jenkins, man, he’s just a great owner. He’s a great friend.
So I think it’s just the people. You’ll remember the people.
Q. When you get to go home and tell your kids about this or maybe one day speak about it in church or maybe talk to the kids at PKRA, what is the moral of this story that we just saw this chapter close on today?
MICHAEL McDOWELL: Yeah, don’t give up. I think that’s what it’s all about is just not giving up and just keep fighting hard. I think that that’s not just the moral of my NASCAR journey, but that’s the moral of everyday life. That’s the moral of our race team, and we just keep fighting hard, and you just never know what’s possible.
THE MODERATOR: We are now joined by our race winning crew chief Drew Blickensderfer. Can you just talk us through that race and how are you feeling right now?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Yeah, it turned out great for us. Lap 15 or so, it kind of got upside down for us we thought. We kind of slid in some oil, thought we missed the wreck and we flattened the right side of the car and when the lightning and the rain came we were sitting on pit road with two flat tires and a pancaked right side. I kept telling the driver, It’s fine, it’s nothing more than a Darlington stripe, it’s just a little bit of narrowing up and we were able to put tires on it when they pulled the red flag and our car was fine. Once we beat the fenders out we were okay and Michael’s MO and my MO to Michael is, go do what we try to do, win races. Not ride run around the back just see if we can run fast.
Q. Can you tell us about the Michael that you know? What kind of person is he for the fans that may not be as familiar with him?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: So the Michael that I know, he’s a great guy. Super loyal, super honest. And that’s the reason I came to work for him. He had a long conversation with, Hey, I need to go out and get a crew chief, who should I get. And he actually pulled one of my former drivers Carl Edwards, and he’s close with Carl and he called him and Carl said, You need to go after Drew. I was still under contract and through all of that Michael and I started talking.
I liked his honesty and his ability to say, you tell me what you think I need to be doing, that’s not going to hurt my feelings. And that’s our working relationship. He’s super loyal. He’s super honest. He knows at the end of the day no matter what the spotter says to him, the owner or I say to him, it’s for the better good of the 34 car, and he doesn’t wear his ego on his sleeve. Super humble guy. He’s fun to work with. Even if I get frustrated and say — the first half of the race I was frustrated with Michael today and I was like, Okay, that’s a rest, let’s get your butt in gear and get going. And the second half of the race I couldn’t be any prouder, obviously.
But I think Michael is a guy that it’s fun to work with because you don’t have to hold anything back. You can talk to him about what you need to get better, and that’s all he cares about.
Q. Tell us how sweet it is to get this one because it was under weird circumstances where it was a delay and everything, but also knowing the fact that you guys got it done, because in the past Michael has had strong runs but luck wasn’t on his side until now.
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Yeah, I think Michael has done a really good job his entire career at speedway racing, of wedging himself in with probably a sub-par car and making sure he was there at the end, and that never wins races, but he’s always come out on the better part of that. We’ve kind of taken the initiative of, hey, our cars are getting better, we’re getting better at mile-and-a-halfs, we’re getting better at short tracks, our speedway cars are getting better, Front Row is building. We’ve got cars now that are closer to winning. It’s not to say we were the fastest car today or we were the fastest car, obviously we weren’t, if you looked at qualifying. But our cars are good enough to where he can be aggressive and make moves and not worry about just staying in line, maybe go for a win.
I think that mindset, a spotter change this year, Michael having that aggressive attitude of not just trying to get fifth, trying to go for a win, all of that kind of worked out in our favor a little more than it has in the past.
Q. For a guy whose gone over 350 starts without a win, what do you think your chances are of winning, and do you ever think, well, this guy is just not destined to win?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Well, I don’t have that outlook, but I do have — I’m a realist, right. I’m at Front Row Motorsports with Michael McDowell and our team. We’re not Chase Elliott. We’re not Hendrick Motorsports. You have to pick your chances. I get super fired up when I come speedway racing. I love to come to Daytona and Talladega and so does Michael and those are chances for us. Everybody says they have a chance when they come here but in reality there’s a handful of guys that run good at these places every time we come. Michael is one of those guys.
And I think when we come here — and when we come back next week, we might not have the fastest car at the road course but we have a chance to run really well and if circumstances play out just like tonight we could be there at the end and we have to maximize those chances because there’s only five or six of them a year for Front Row versus if you’re a Stewart-Haas or if you’re at Penske or Hendrick or someplace like that.
Q. How do you manage the season now? You’ve got a victory. You’ve put yourself in prime position to be the Cinderella story for the playoffs, and we’re just a race into the year. How do you manage this from this point on to make sure you guys indeed are there?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: You know, I think the main thing is Michael and I have already talked about it, we don’t have to points race for the next few weeks. We can go a lot of races where I can make calls at both road courses and the Poconos and the places like that where we’re looking for stage points; how do we win a stage, how do we get stage points, how do we do things like that.
To follow up on the other question, at Front Row Motorsports there’s a lot of times when we’re doing what we can, if we’re running 15th, we don’t want to screw that up and I don’t think I have to have that attitude for at least the foreseeable future. Just taking this all in right now, thinking about next week, it’s win or nothing. Just like if we’re running third at the end of the race and Chase Elliott is winning the race and there’s a good chance he’s really fast, we can’t beat him on the same tires, why not pit and try and beat him, calls like that. Where a year ago or if we didn’t have this win, third place is really good at Front Row Motorsports, you stay there and you take the safe call. Now you can be a little more aggressive on something like that.
Q. Do you have to have a little bit of a mental reset now because of the — you’re in a completely brand new circumstance.
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Yeah, exactly, and it’s a circumstance I haven’t been in in a while. I got really lucky when I first came into Cup and won a couple races right off the get go and I should have enjoyed those a little more. This one I’m going to have a good time in Daytona tonight and kind of celebrate this one because you never know when the next one is going to come.
But yeah, it’s a different circumstance for both Front Row and myself and Michael. We’re going to have to learn for a little bit, and we’re going to have to think about it, and to be honest we haven’t thought about that yet. We’re going to — through all this commotion, Tuesday, kind of take a deep breath and say, Okay, now we’re going road course racing, what was our goals again, when were we supposed to be in the simulator to test Phoenix stuff, are we still doing that now? So we have to rethink a few things there for sure.
Q. Can you put what this means into words? Obviously it’s huge for Michael, breaking that 0 for 357 streak, but what does this mean for you after so many years of bouncing between drivers as a crew chief to finally have one to come together like this at the Daytona 500?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: It’s unbelievable. You never know when you’re going to get the next win, and when we talk about — when I do Race Hub or when I do a show and they’re saying, What was it like that night in Daytona, I don’t remember it. It happened so fast, and I thought, Man, if I ever get that chance again I’m going to enjoy it.
I made the move to Front Row Motorsports because of Michael McDowell and because of Bob Jenkins. I saw what they wanted to build and I wanted to be part of that. We are getting better. We are one of the NASCAR teams that’s getting bigger and better every year. We’re not trying to downsize and we’re not cutting corners and we’re trying to get better, and it might be a small step and it might not be obvious, but that’s why I wanted to come over here.
When I took that leap, there’s a good chance you’re not going to win. Like I said earlier, you’ve got to take the opportunities when they present themselves, and speedway racing is an opportunity, it’s an opportunity to do that. We focused on that. Michael works really hard at it, and I think personally, my eyes are red, not because I had champagne in them, but I was tearing up out there. I sat on the pit box and thought, man, I didn’t know if this day would ever come. It’s surreal sitting here because it’s been so long. It’s exciting.
Q. I know this changes things just in terms of the playoff perspective and being able to try different things through the year, but for a team like Front Row that doesn’t always have the resources of a Hendrick or a Stewart-Haas, financially they may not release the purse anymore, but traditionally over a million dollars to the winner, what does this do for you guys from a resources standpoint to change the trajectory?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: It does a lot of things. I think both when you look at how we’re going to plan our season, I think we start planning our season forward at the end of the season. The money we were going to spend in March and April and May is like, well, can we save some there and put it towards the end of the year.
It’s a great day for Bob. He’s put so much into it. I wish he was here. He will sit down and we’ll talk about that, see if we can kind of divert some of this money from February so that it goes towards the later part of the season, and maybe not right when the playoffs start, maybe a month before that so we can kind of get used to what we have going on and things like that.
But like you said, we have to spend money very wisely at Front Row and part of it is knowing when to spend it. Knowing when to spend it at road courses, when to spend it at mile-and-a-halfs and when to spend it at speedways. The second half of the season looks a lot better than spending it in the first half right now.
Q. Three or four wins now have come here at this place, two of them in this race specifically. What is it about this place that really jives with you?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: I’ve been lucky. Someone said the other day they looked up my stats here and they’ve been really good. This is a place that’s such a crapshoot because at Talladega they haven’t been good and it’s similar style racing. I think when you look at guys that run good here as drivers, they embrace it and they love it. They’re not thinking, oh, it’s one of those things, I hope I don’t get wrecked, it’s how do I win.
I don’t know if there’s anything to it, but I love coming to Daytona. There is no part of — whether it’s the 4th of July or the second race of the season or it’s the first race of the season, coming to Daytona is a super exciting time for me. I love the aspect of the racing. I think, you know, the last few years, these have been my chances to win races as a crew chief, so that’s helped embrace some of the love to come down here.
When it was more of a handling racetrack, I really liked that part of it, and now that the strategy has kind of changed, I’ve embraced that. It’s a place unlike Talladega where it gets clogged up at the end of the race and you have to be at the front. You can’t make it three or four wide very easily to get from 20th to the lead in 10 laps like you can at Talladega. Just the strategy part of Daytona, yeah, it’s been a place that I’ve really embraced.
I don’t know if it’s luck or not. Either way, I’m going to keep riding it.
Q. The strategy aspect of things, some people may say, well it comes down to a lot of luck because of the drafting and the packs and whatnot. But like you said, you play the strategy really well here and in a race like this where it’s single file, strategy means more than just luck, so can you just tell us a little bit about how you go and strategize these races?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Yeah, you know, we sat down with Michael, and we’ve talked about this before, and I see it from my past. When I was with Matt Kenseth and guys like that. They kind of helped mold that into me, where Daytona, it gets fairly narrow. We look at it and we say, oh, they’re three wide. They are tight when they’re three wide. And if you don’t want three wide at the end of the race you can kind of block that a little bit. Talladega you can’t. The end of the race at Talladega you can come from about anywhere and get to the front.
With 50 to go at Daytona my job as a crew chief is get my driver cycled to the front. He’s got to be in the front 10 to have a chance to win this race because they’re going to get clogged up and they’re going to make it really hard to get three wide and you’ve got to be up there.
I do whatever I can to kind of prep a few stops before that to where I can take gas only, two tires, whatever it takes to kind of cycle into the top 10, and that usually puts you in a pretty good position to where if you can’t capitalize, you’re there at the end.
Q. I was just wondering how quick do you start thinking about playoffs?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: About five minutes ago. I kind of thought about it and thought, oh, man.
I think I start looking at that in the next week and a half, to be honest with you. I think this is going to be a whirlwind the next couple days, and then I’ll have to get jammed into, okay, I’ve got to get to the road course and see what’s going on there. Heck, it might be a fun time the next couple days and I won’t even leave Daytona and just stay down here until the road course race.
I think probably by the middle of next week we’re thinking, okay — and to be honest with you, I’m one of these guys that I think I can only take so much information at a time and I don’t look that far out. I’m looking at the next six, seven, eight weeks of races, and I’m working with the shop foreman and my car chief and engineers on what we need to do to prepare for all that stuff. I’m not looking that far out ever because I feel like that gets clogged up and I’m not focused as much as I need to on the next week.
Now that we’ve won, I need to take some time and do that. I need to take some time further out and say, these are the cutoff races, these are the first few races in the playoffs, what do we need to do better to be more prepared for those.
Q. You mentioned how this is all a whirlwind, especially the next couple days. How long are you going to soak in and enjoy this victory?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: I’m going to lie to you and say probably until tomorrow afternoon, but there’s a good chance I’m going to go to my motor home in about an hour and I’m going to look at the playoffs and kind of start thinking about some of that stuff.
We have a simulator date later this year where we’re on a sim for the Daytona road course, so we’ve obviously got to switch gears quickly. That’s one thing this sport does. You can’t rest too much on what you did the previous weeks because five, six days later you’re showing up somewhere else, and you’ve got to go do something different.
I would say by Wednesday morning I’m full fledged on the road course and then what we can do to help build this 34 car.
Q. I’m wondering just given your background with Roush and everything and you worked with Jimmy Fennig for so many years, you’ve been so good at Superspeedways, did all of that kind of help mold you for this moment?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Yeah, I think it did. I worked around Todd Parrott quite a bit as a peer early in my career. I also — to be honest, David Ragan helped a lot of this. David Ragan is one of the best speedway racers I’ve been around.
When I was at Roush and I was with Matt and then I was with David in 2011, Jimmie was Matt’s crew chief, and Matt always wanted to draft with David because it was the tandem drafting, and that got Jimmie and I pretty close.
So whenever we set up cars and whenever we talk about things and even throughout this weekend, Jimmie and I talked quite a bit while he was down here with the Roush cars.
I think it did help. It helped me understand what the drivers were talking about because I was very fortunate to work with one, people that had won races down here and were really good at the crew chief part of it, but I was able to work with Matt Kenseth and David Ragan and some really good restrictor plate drivers early in my career that really kind of helped me figure out Daytona and Talladega.
Q. Ford kind of perfected this working under one system deal, and at one point knowing you’re with all these powerhouse guys, at what point did you think this might be real?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Well, when we came off pit road with them. In the past, we’ve had — we’ve sourced out our pit crew, and our pit crew has been the second, third, fourth pit crew for our organization. If I’m trying to run with them yet come down pit road and have to leave with them, it’s so important to leave. Our pit crew, all day long whenever we put tires on it left with who they should leave with. When we put gas on at the end they did what they should have done. When we drops jacks at the same time as the 2 car, who pitted right in front of us and left with them off pit road and we were like a four- or five-car Ford train right there, I thought, we’re in a good spot. I just talked to some Ford guys on the way in and thought, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be us but I knew everybody else in the field was going to have to come through a lot of Fords to be able to win this race. It just happened to be us.
We were kind of controlling the race, leading it, and when you’ve got four or five Fords in the front, especially when a couple of them are Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick it’s going to be really hard for the guys in sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth to get by us and we were just lucky enough to be able to tag on with that train and have a car good enough, and Michael made all the right decisions at the end.
THE MODERATOR: We are also being joined by the general manager of Front Row Motorsports, Jerry Freeze. Thank you for joining us.
JERRY FREEZE: My pleasure. I’m just blown away speechless. I can’t wait to hug Drew there. He made some great calls on the pit box throughout the race, and just really happy for our whole team, really happy for our car owner Bob Jenkins who’s just put a lot into this over the last 15 years, and especially most importantly to Michael McDowell. He’s a very deserving winner of the Daytona 500 and so happy that he got his first win in our biggest race.
Q. Drew, think back two years ago when you first joined Front Row Motorsports. What was your initial reaction when you found out you would be working with Michael?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Well, Michael had kind of tried to recruit me a little bit and I kind of felt him out and I kind of thought about, hey, what do I want to do here. And after talking to Jerry and talking to Michael, they kind of laid out what Front Row Motorsports — their vision and their future.
I had seen it from afar. Like Front Row Motorsports gets a little better every single year. You can see it with the points. You see it with race finishes. You see it with equipment. Just being in the garage, when their car goes by, I remember when they first entered the sport and I know what their cars look like now, and I thought, you know what, that is a challenge that I think is super cool to be a part of.
And like I said earlier, at this point in my career I didn’t know if I was going to win races again, but if I can help this place get better, that would be really fun to do.
I think we have. We’ve gotten better as a group. Bob Jenkins puts a little more in every year to push us over the edge, to get a little bit better, and you see it slowly build. We’re no superpower by any means, but we’re getting better and better. That’s a fun thing to be a part of.
I think when I first came over there, I saw that, and I’ve seen it every year. I think every single year we have made changes where we needed to make changes to get better. They’re not huge. They’re not the things that some of the big three or four teams are doing, but they’re things that — we had a new spotter today, we had to go out and get a new spotter and we went out and got what we thought was the best spotter we could get and Clayton Hughes did a phenomenal job. We wouldn’t have been in Victory Lane if we didn’t have someone like him doing it. Things like that, where we just take steps at a time, that might not be noticed on the outside as huge steps, those are little things that are climbing the ladder for us.
Q. Jerry, I’ll make you think back three years ago, you go out and get Michael, he came off a consistent year with LFR. What made you want to go after Michael McDowell who’s been put through the ringer throughout his career?
JERRY FREEZE: I think like you saw tonight, Michael has always shown a great aptitude at the speedways. He’s an accomplished road racer. He gives us a shot to win at tracks that we feel like we can be competitive at, and he’s a good guy. He fits our program really well.
We’ve had probably our best success with drivers that have had five or six years of experience under their belts that maybe didn’t quite work out at a top-tier organization but they’re still hungry, they’re still trying to prove their mark in the sport, and they do a great job for Front Row and they’re great ambassadors for our sponsors and they’re good solid people. I’m talking about David Ragan, David Gilliland and on to Michael.
So anyhow, Michael just fits our program very well. He outran us all the time with the 95 car when he drove for them, so when he was available and we were making some changes in our program, it was very easy to make it work and put Michael in the 34 car a few years ago.
Q. Drew, Michael is such a successful and prominent road racer and I’m curious if there’s an opportunity for him to continue upsetting the field because there’s way more road courses this year and it plays into your wheelhouse as a team and him as a driver?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Yeah, I think Michael and I are honest. When we go to the Roval and we go to Watkins Glen, it’s hard to beat Martin Truex and Chase Elliott. They’ve got great road racing cars and they’ve turned themselves into superior road racers. I think what you saw last year at the Daytona road course when there wasn’t much track time, we ran in the top seven the entire day, and I pitted from fifth or sixth with the green-white-checkered to put tires on it because of what I said earlier. We couldn’t have won from where we were at, and I thought, man, if we get another quick restart, maybe a wad up in Turn 1 like you do at the Roval on a restart, we can sneak by here and we can steal a win. I think the fact we go to Road America where Michael has won in an Xfinity car, we go to COTA, we got to these places, Indy road racers, Michael’s natural talent can kind of compete against a Hendrick car and against a Gibbs car.
I think it’s definitely a possibility. We ran really well last year at Pocono, I think places like that where you can still win and you can kind of upset some of these guys. I think there’s definitely a possibility, at least I’m going to hope so.
Q. Several drivers have mentioned it, not negatively but just honestly, that one of the reasons you guys were able to push really well was something that happened to the spoiler. I couldn’t see. What happened to the spoiler and how does it help you guys push really well when it comes to late in the race and it’s time to go?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Well, I don’t know if it was better or not. We were talking about that. What happened was the last six inches of the spoiler we had side slapped the wall and we had right side damage and it kind of bent the spoiler.
In the mile-and-a-half car, that would have been worse. We have less drag if we have the spoiler closer to the back window. I am not sure if it was better or worse. All weekend long Michael said it was the best pushing car he has ever had down here, and that’s a great thing for a guy like Michael and Front Row Motorsports because when we pull out of line people don’t want to go with you a lot of times, but if you can push all day long and they realize you’ve helped them and helped them, it kind of builds some in the bank to where they’ll go with you.
Our car was narrowed up a little bit on the right side from the damage. Our spoiler was kind of twisted back, the last six inches of it and kind of opened up. So sure, it helped us get to Victory Lane. So I don’t know if it was better or worse on the racetrack. I’ve seen it go both ways. Yeah, it was something we were a little concerned about because, like I said, on a mile-and-a-half car a lot of times, the opposite has been less drag.
It definitely was something that was on our mind when we first took off right after the rain.
Q. We’ve seen teams make the playoffs, get further manufacturer and team support to help them progress. How strong is the manufacturer support over at Front Row and would you expect any additional help, especially heading into the playoffs?
JERRY FREEZE: I’ll take that, Drew. I think we get all the technical support that any Ford team gets right now. I guess we don’t know what we don’t get, but I feel like we get everything and our drivers are on the simulator quite a bit. I would think that a lot of what we do is in collaboration with Roush Fenway, who’s our technical partner. So I can imagine that maybe there might be a little more simulator time for Michael at some of those playoff races when we get closer to that.
Other than that, I think Ford is doing as much for us as they would anybody else, so with the tools and all the support that they do, but we would certainly welcome more if they’d like to give it to us for sure, and obviously they’ve got a vested interest in our race team. They want to see us succeed.
We did get into the playoffs a few years ago. We were drummed out in the first round. We’d like to improve on that for sure. So we’ll work real hard to try to have our package set for those first three races.
A lot of racing between now and then, and who knows, maybe we might be able to get another W before then, too.
Q. Drew, now you lose that car until 2022 to go into the museum. Starting to think about Talladega, any impact there, or are you guys good with your car?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Jerry is probably more sad to hear about that than me. There’s air conditioners and brakes and things in that car that we’re not going to get back.
To be honest with you, I’m not big into saying there’s special cars. I never have in my career. The next car you build should be better than the one you built the time before.
Yeah, unfortunately we wrecked a lot of cars at Front Row today. We got one in Victory Lane that needs a right side on it and is going to stay in Daytona USA and the other two got killed. We wrecked a few speedway cars. We’re going to have to figure out which one to build, but it’ll have to be a different one because I think we went through quite a few of them today, Jerry.
Q. Jerry, with that being said, how long is it going to take before you and Bob are thinking about a special place to put that car when you get it back next year?
JERRY FREEZE: Yeah, that’s a good one. You know, the car that we won Talladega with, we restored it and gave it to Bob a few years ago. I’m sure he’ll find a special place for this one, too.
I did forget about the fact that we lose that car. I was actually thinking at the end of the race, well, at least we’ve got one that’s repairable for Talladega. But that’s a good problem to have, and we’ll take it all day long.
Q. Drew, do you almost view yourself and Michael as kindred spirits in the sense of guys that have been in this series for a long time? Certainly you’ve had some success and won, but it’s not been as much as others. I’m curious, do you view yourself in the sense of that kindred spirit? Also, what keeps somebody going through the ups and downs that you have gone through in your career and even like Michael?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Well, to be honest with you, I love race cars. I love being a crew chief. I grew up in an athletic household where there were a lot of coaches around, and I run the crew chief role like that.
I want to manage and kind of be in charge of this group, but to your point, it’s difficult when you don’t feel like you have a chance to win some weeks. That’s hard. The Michael and I part of it, Michael and I, we have a super honest relationship, and it’s really good, where we can go into the lounge and I can say, Hey, you screwed this up, and he trusts me and he says, Okay, let’s look at that.
There’s a lot of race car drivers that race on Sunday where if you said that, you’d be looking for a job on Monday. And to the betterment of the team. I’m doing it because Michael knows I can tell him on the radio and he can tell me on the radio at lap-50, Something isn’t right, and we can hash that out as a group. If we spend that time to finish one or two spots better, that’s for the better for the 34 and we’re happy about it on Monday.
The fact that Michael and I in our career know, heck, put your egos down and what’s it going to take to be better, that part of it, I think we’ve worked out really well, and that’s the relationship part of it that’s gone good.
Q. Also, your first win came in your first race as a Cup crew chief. Obviously in a different organization, different expectations, but I don’t know if surprise level, or what are the feelings like today compared to the first because even though you were a good team I don’t know if people were expecting you to do that immediately that year.
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Yeah, when I got my first win as a Cup crew chief I had won two or three Xfinity races leading up to the end of the season. So we had a four- or five-win streak. We were winning all the time with Carl Edwards. We won with Matt in the 500. We won the next week at California. We were like, man, this winning thing comes pretty often, like everything is going good, and then, uh-oh, it doesn’t happen. The 500 with David Ragan and we get black flagged, Trevor Bayne wins it and we were lucky enough to come back in the July 4th and win it.
I always said, if I get that chance again I’m going to soak it up a little bit. I sat on the pit box when it was over and I was pretty sure we won, but I didn’t want to think about it. The guys were celebrating and I thought, man, I don’t want to think about this, what’s going to happen.
And when I got off the pit box and they said, 34 to Victory Lane, to be honest with you, I was tearing up. It was — it’s something that I don’t take for granted anymore, you know, and I probably did 10 years ago. It’s definitely special to win in this series. It’s going to be enjoyed, that’s for sure.
Q. Jerry, when it comes to September and you guys are always on one-year deals, the question is, is McDowell coming back, is he not coming back, it seems like it takes a while. I’m curious, what tips in favor for him that you guys have kept him year-in and year-out?
JERRY FREEZE: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think he’s probably in better shape for next year now than he’s ever been. But anyhow, Michael is just a great fit for us. Love’s Travel Stops is our major sponsor on the 34. He fits their program very well, they’re very fond of Michael. He does a great job for them. Freight Options has been a great partner with us for years, they’re stepping up their program quite a bit this year, and it’s a big part because of Michael and what he does.
It all has to do with partnerships for us, and it’s always just trying to marry the driver with the partner and the program to make it all fit and make it all work. Unfortunately, Front Row just hasn’t been in a position to do multi-year deals with sponsors, so we’ve been on single-year deals with them, just like we have been with the drivers.
Maybe with today’s success, hopefully that might change some things, but I think we have to prove that we’re a solid team week-in and week-out to be in that position. But I think Michael is just a great fit for Front Row all the way around, and so we’ve maintained that relationship for about three years now.
Q. How does a victory — what is the significance of a Daytona 500 victory, how much it means to a relatively small team like Front Row Motorsports?
JERRY FREEZE: I’ll start. It means everything. It means everything to us. I think Drew said it best; we’re a team that incrementally gets a little bit better each and every year, and that’s basically the mandate that Bob Jenkins puts on us. What are we going to do to get better next year. He doesn’t have unrealistic expectations. I think we’ve probably exceeded this year’s expectations already, but for us, I think it — I just talked about the partnership thing, and obviously that will help with the relationships that we currently have to make those even stronger for the future and then hopefully find some other people that want to be part of our program and know that we’ve got a good value proposition out there and that we’re a team that’s capable of winning races.
Now Front Row Motorsports has won three races since 2013. There’s not a lot of higher-powered organizations that can say that. So I think when we’re in the marketplace and maybe competing against some other teams, it’ll help us stand pretty competitively against those other teams.
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Similar to what Jerry was talking about, on the partner side, from my view, it helps me with employees. You know, when we lose a guy or when we need a guy or we want to upgrade, we can go and — people see us as hey, they were in the playoffs and they’ve won races and they know that possibility is out there. I think it helps both the competition side and the sponsorship side.
You’ve got a little more value that you can provide people, and it definitely is more attractive to them to want to come work for you.
Q. Can you just talk about Michael’s career and how he’s stuck with it all these years, just to be the — have his resilience that he’s had his entire career? Can you speak on that a little bit?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: I think from my point of view, when I’ve been around Michael going on now this is the third year, to see his willingness to work hard. He’s a guy that’s got four kids at home and a wife, and he’s trying to be a dad during the week and then all of a sudden I tell him in the middle of the day, Hey, there’s simulator time opened up in two hours, can you make it, he does what it takes to drop everything.
And it says a lot about his wife Jamie, he goes and drops everything and does that, because he knows that’s what he needs to do to be a better race car driver. He’s a guy that is willing to do whatever it takes.
Two years ago Michael was on the keto diet and he was losing weight and he was really happy and I didn’t see his performance in the race car getting any better, so I told him he needs to stop it and he stopped it like that, and I think his performance got better in the race car and he was eating healthier and things like that, and Michael is willing to do whatever it takes.
The fact that he’s willing to dig and claw and do things on the racetrack he needs to do, but he does it off the racetrack to make sure he stays on the job, and this is the only thing he knows. He’s been driving race cars his entire life, and it’s just like we talked about earlier, it’s frustrating when you go to the racetrack thinking you don’t have a chance to win, but, oh, I’ve got to keep doing this. To have that drive and that work ethic, that’s a good role model for not only myself and the rest of the guys on the team and the young guys we bring in at Front Row, the John Hunter Nemechek, the Anthony Alfredo, they can see how hard this guy who’s been a veteran works at his craft, that’s the thing about Michael that really stands out to me.
JERRY FREEZE: I’ll echo that from the business side, too. With Michael being a veteran driver, he will go the extra mile for whatever we ask from him on the business side, whether it’s shooting content for sponsors, working with our PR man, Mac, they’re always coming up with something new. A lot of it is driven by ideas that Michael has. So he is really engaged in what’s going on with Front Row Motorsports, not just on the car side but on the business side.
Q. 10 years ago was the last time you won, and Dustin mentioned your first ever race as a Cup crew chief you won, and you talked about how you got humbled in the years that followed that, and that’s one of the reasons why you’re pretty emotional about that. Did you ever think you’d win again? Did you think you’d be back here?
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: Yeah, you never lose hope. I’m a realist, right. When I go to Charlotte and it’s the Coke 600, it’s like, this probably isn’t going to be a great weekend, a great chance to win here. But when I come to Daytona and Talladega with Michael and when we came to Daytona road course last year, those are chances, and you believe you have that opportunity.
I never lost faith that I wouldn’t do it again, but there are days that it’s hard. There’s days that — why am I beating my head against the wall, if you don’t have a chance to win; is it not fun, working these hours, doing this stuff, being gone from your family for a long time? Is that worth it? But it is. The chance.
If we would have ran fifth tonight I would have been happy and I would have been in a great mood all week and this is definitely worth it. This is icing on the cake.
But yeah, I never lost faith that I wouldn’t get back there to Victory Lane, but the older you get and the more you get away from it, it definitely gets difficult.
Q. I just wanted to ask what it was like in Victory Lane just with you and Michael and what you guys said to each other when he first got out of the car and went up and talked to you.
DREW BLICKENSDERFER: I stayed on pit road at first. So I wanted to see Michael when he turned the corner. And to be honest, I tease Michael a lot because his heart rate is always way high in the car, and I guarantee his heart rate was well over 200 beats a minute when he was turning that corner. He was just super excited, the smile on his face, and that joy. When we locked eyes and he saw me and I saw him and like he was proud of me, you could tell, and I was proud of him, it was something, like when you don’t get to win regularly you don’t enjoy. Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers see it nine times a year, heck every fourth race they’re doing something like that. But getting that joy from Michael, that was super, super special. The guys on the team, a lot of these guys had never won before.
We had a thing at my house a few weeks ago, and the trophy they give the crew chief in Victory Lane in 2009, they gave it to me, I had it sitting up and they were all looking at it and talking about it, and seeing those guys’ eyes light up going to Victory Lane and Michael’s, it was pretty impressive. I was trying to take it all in and those guys were so excited, it was neat to be a part of.