McDowell's hard work, diligence about to pay big dividends

Have you heard of NASCAR newcomer Michael McDowell? Don't worry -- you will, writes Mark Ashenfelter.

Updated: January 31, 2008, 10:59 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter |

CORNELIUS, N.C. -- At Pocono Raceway last August, a man walked into the media center and placed a stack of press kits on a table, a scene repeated numerous times each weekend at racetracks across the country.

[+] EnlargeDale Jarrett, David Reutimann, Michael McDowell and Michael Waltrip
AP Photo/Chuck Burton Michael McDowell, far right, joins Dale Jarrett and David Reutimann at Michael Waltrip Racing.

Rare, though, are the times the same man goes out, jumps behind the wheel of a stock car and proceeds to win the race.

Welcome to the life Michael McDowell was leading less than a year ago, his first full season driving a stock car.

Life in the ARCA Series is different than life in NASCAR, but McDowell's efforts to get noticed still went above and beyond. The 23-year-old from Glendale, Ariz., says that's always been his approach.

"I don't want to brag on myself, but that's one of the things that I've focused on in my career," McDowell said. "When you don't come from a family with huge backing and money and you can't just buy your way into rides, you have to do those extra things to get you in front of the media and get you in front of the teams.

"Since I was racing go-karts, I've always had [the mentality] that you show up at the track with your shirt tucked in and a nice polo [shirt]. You make sure you have media kits and [autograph] cards and you sign every autograph you can, and you stay an extra 10 minutes because that's what it's about.

"It's about the people who are coming to see you [race]. It's about the media that's coming to cover you and it's about the sponsors that make this all happen. Without that equation, there is no racing. So I've always made sure I've performed on the track, but off the track is equally important."

All that is great, but it won't make a bit of difference if the driver doesn't have more than just average talent. And McDowell quickly proved that the talent he displayed in sports cars could translate to a stock car.

Michael Waltrip Racing had ties with Eddie Sharp Racing last year via development driver Josh Wise. Soon, though, MWR realized that McDowell -- who was teamed with Wise -- also deserved a look.

So when Dale Jarrett announced in October that he'd be retiring from Cup competition after five races, all eyes turned to the team's future. Sure, David Reutimann would move over to the No. 44 Toyota, but that would leave an opening in the No. 00.

Waltrip said that McDowell, who would make his NASCAR debut with the team a week later in the Craftsman Truck Series, would compete with Wise to see if either was ready to make the jump to Cup. Three Nationwide Series races and a solid winter of testing later, McDowell now knows he'll make his Sprint Cup debut at Martinsville in March.

Since I was racing go-karts, I've always had [the mentality] that you show up at the track with your shirt tucked in and a nice polo [shirt]. You make sure you have media kits and [autograph] cards and you sign every autograph you can, and you stay an extra 10 minutes because that's what it's about.

-- Michael McDowell

Needless to say, a lot has happened in a hurry for McDowell, who credits his family for his upbringing, saying you don't learn to tuck your shirt in as an 8-year-old by yourself.

"My dad always told me that you never know who's watching or listening, and I've always remembered that."

It was hard not to notice McDowell a year ago as he was winning four races, nine poles and finishing second to perennial ARCA champion Frank Kimmel.

"It was unbelievable," he said of his success, pointing out that while Eddie Sharp Racing was a proven commodity, he was anything but. "Coming into it with the limited experience I had in stock cars, I didn't know whether I was going to be able to do it."

McDowell's background, though, offered signs that he'd be able to adapt. He won the World Karting Association National Karting Championship in 1997, posted two undefeated International Karting Federation seasons and won 18 straight main events.

He then moved to the Star Mazda Series and then to Grand American Cup and the Rolex Series before jumping to ARCA last year.

Waltrip said a strong endorsement from road-racer extraordinaire Boris Said helped convince him that McDowell was ready for the job.

"Michael's natural progression from road racing to ARCA to where he is today just puts him a step ahead of Josh [Wise]," said Waltrip, who said McDowell's efforts during testing also helped seal the deal.

"Everywhere we would go, he would test from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the day, he would give wonderful feedback and he was fast," Waltrip said. "I would have to drive as fast as I could to run the same speed he did. All those things were very encouraging. It didn't matter whether it was the new car or the old car -- he could do the job."

Cal Wells, the team's executive vice president, said McDowell made an immediate impression on everyone involved with the team.

"I'm a big, big fan of McDowell's," Wells said. "I know we're swinging for the fences with he and Bill Pappas as his crew chief, but I truly believe that, over time, that is going to be the direction that all organizations will need to go.

"We're very fortunate to have Bill. He's a championship engineer [in the open-wheel ranks] and will be, I know, crew chief. And I really think that Mike's got it. No matter what he's driving and when he's driving it, he's got it.

"There will be the typical struggles because he's going to race against really talented guys, but at the end of the day he's got a lot that he can contribute, and I think he's going to do a great job."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.