Steve Waid, Motorsports Unplugged, NASCAR, Michael McDowell, Kyle
When Michael McDowell saw his cell phone light up, and learned that Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs was on the line, he wasn’t exactly sure why he was being called. But in the back of his mind he had an idea.
McDowell was well aware of the firestorm that surrounded JGR driver Kyle Busch after the Camping World Truck Series race Friday at Texas Motor Speedway on. He had a feeling the Las Vegas native could face an unfavorable ruling from NASCAR.
When it became apparent that Busch’s crash with Ron Hornaday was intentional and that NASCAR would not allow him to race in Sunday’s Sprint Cup event – nor the Natrionwide race a day earlier - McDowell was offered a one-race deal to drive the No. 18 Toyota in the AAA Texas 500.
Later, Busch was also fined $50,000 and placed on probation until Dec. 31.
McDowell was at TMS to drive the No. 66 Toyota owned by Randy Humphrey and Phil Parsons, but when he was given such an incredible opportunity to drive a top-flight Chase contending car, they quickly granted him permission to accept and placed Josh Wise in their car.
Once all of the particulars were in place a few minor changes within the car had to be made. For instance, the fact that Busch stands thinner and taller than McDowell presented the need for a better fitting seat. The brakes were also reworked a bit to allow a more comfortable feel of the pedal.
The chassis remained largely the same with adjustments made to the springs, tire pressure and sway bar in hopes of making it competitive around the 1.5-mile banked speedway.
McDowell found himself in a double-edged sword scenario. The good news was that he had a championship-caliber car under him that could propel him into positive attention with a surprisingly good performance.
The bad news was that if he didn’t produce a great finish many would tag him as not being able to compete in good equipment and under pressure.
There was hope for a Cinderella finish but it didn’t happen. Some may have felt McDowell did not perform well, considering his 33rd-place finish.
But his JGR team maintained he did a good job under the circumstances and praised his efforts. After he exited the car in the garage following the race, it was easy to see the disappointment on McDowell’s face.
“We just started in the back with the driver change,” McDowell said. “I think we had pretty long green flag runs right out of the gate, so we didn’t really get a chance to work on the car. It was just pretty loose all day long and, yeah, it’s unfortunate. We obviously were hoping for more and were hoping for a big day, but just wasn’t meant to be. Gave it all I had and we just struggled pretty much all day long.
“I’m a race car driver. I want to win races and I had a car that typically wins races, so that’s the expectation for me and I enjoyed that. It was hard. It was a handful. I wish we had got a couple of more cautions to work on it, but, all in all, it just is what it is.”
McDowell fought a loose chassis condition throughout the 334-lap event which made it difficult for him to gain position. As it turned out, all three of the JGR Toyotas seemed to suffer the same problem. Teammates Joe Logano and Denny Hamlin remained marred back into the field as well, making JGR’s trip to Texas disastrous.
“We ran around our teammates there quite a bit,” McDowell said. “Joey and I were kind of fighting the same thing - just loose in and loose out all day. We needed a couple of cautions so we could work on it. Not what we were looking for, but grateful for the opportunity and thankful to get a shot at it.
“It’s a great opportunity to be in great equipment and had some fun today. Obviously, not at all the results we were looking for. None of it really played out all that well for us today, but I’m still thankful for the opportunity. It’s great to be in great equipment and hopefully we get an opportunity to do it again.”
Crew chief Dave Rogers also found himself in a tough spot when Busch was benched for Sunday’s Sprint Cup event. Not only was his usual driver relegated to the pit box, but he also had to learn the traits and needs of a new driver in a matter of hours.
“You never change your objective but you change your goals,” Rogers said. “Our objective is to provide the best race car possible at all times, but you have to be realistic.
“These guys that race on Sunday are the best in the business. They race hard lap after lap. They take a lot of chances and when you put another guy in and ask him to just bring the car home with all four fenders, he's not going to take those chances. He’s not going to push it that hard.
“And then I missed the setup on it. We wanted to finish higher than we did, but we’re happy to come home with a race car in one piece that we can work with.
“I think Michael did a great job. I just think the lack of time together and knowing what he needed, that hurt us a little bit and you saw it in our finishing position.”
McDowell should be commended for his efforts under the circumstances. He’s one of the nicest people in the Sprint Cup garage area and, at Texas, he offered Joe Gibbs a welcome break from the drama and chaos that often surrounds his young superstar.