NASCAR takeaways: Michael McDowell outlasts Chase Elliott at Indy for playoff spot

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michael McDowell with a Front Row Motorsports car outran one of the best road-course racers from one of the best teams in the NASCAR business as he vaulted himself into the playoffs by winning the Cup Series race Sunday on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

McDowell certainly has always been a driver to watch on road courses but his dominating performance in leading 54 of the 82 laps and outlasting Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott to the finish was a seminal moment in the team history.

“For a team like us at Front Row Motorsports to go out there, take the lead, keep the lead, execute all day, lead a lot of laps, just shows the strength of our team and where we’re at,” McDowell said.

“And I’m just so proud. It’s just a really cool, humbling moment. … It’s such a grind, such a hard deal to win a Cup race. And to do it like we did today. I’m just really proud of everybody at Front Row.”

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The victory was the second for McDowell, the 2021 Daytona 500 winner. It was the fourth in the 19-year history of Front Row Motorsports, which had won a rain-shortened race at Pocono and two superspeedway events, where the nature of the races make it possible for more teams to win.

The fact that they beat the bigger teams and a driver in Elliott, who has won seven road-course races in his career, was a statement that they can win a race straight up without the benefit of rain, pit strategy or the superspeedway aerodynamic draft.

“It’s definitely a huge accomplishment, and it’s going to take a while for that part of it to sink in,” said McDowell crew chief Travis Peterson. “I don’t know that we even think about it like that. We just think, ‘What can we do to become the best we can be?’ And this week it worked. 

Michael McDowell reflects on his second career win

Michael McDowell reflects on his second career win

“Obviously Chase is great, and I think Michael could be considered one of the best road racers in the business. He just hasn’t always had the best opportunities.”

Takeaways from McDowell’s victory, where four of the drivers in the top-5 needed a win to clinch a spot in the playoffs — McDowell, Elliott, third-place Daniel Suarez and fifth-place Alex Bowman (Tyler Reddick was fourth):

Huge Win For McDowell

McDowell entered Sunday’s race three points behind the current playoff cutoff, so he relished the victory that clinched him an automatic spot in the playoffs.

“We know we’re not going to go to every racetrack and win,” McDowell said. “We know that. We know where we’re at, but we can 10th at almost every oval and we can win at superspeedways and road courses.

“And if we keep building on this, we’re going to be not just in the playoffs. We’ll advance. Are we going to be a Championship 4 team [vying for the title at the season finale]? I don’t know. But I bet you we’ll piss some people off in that first round.”

Michael McDowell earns the checkered flag in Indy

Michael McDowell earns the checkered flag in Indy

McDowell led the final 30 laps with Elliott, the 2020 Cup champion, trying to run him down.

“I knew we had the car to beat once we got past the halfway point, I just had to manage it and not make any mistakes,” McDowell said.

Elliott, Suarez Come Up Short

Elliott just couldn’t get to McDowell over those final 30 laps and left one spot short of trying to make the playoffs in a year where he missed seven races.

“I’m sure I could have done something different, but I was definitely trying as hard as I could try so just need to do a better job,” Elliott said. “I just need to be a little better. … [McDowell] did a great job and didn’t make any mistakes”

Chase Elliott talks about Michael McDowell’s clean racing

Chase Elliott talks about Michael McDowell's clean racing

McDowell’s win means at most three drivers will make the playoffs on points. Kevin Harvick has a 145-point edge on the cushion, Brad Keselowski has a 143-point edge and then Bubba Wallace is on the brink at 28 points ahead of Daniel Suarez.

Ty Gibbs (-49), Elliott and Bowman (-80) have virtually no shot to make it on points. That made it a frustrating day for Suarez, who finished third, possibly in part because of a slow pit stop.

“It was a good day — not a great day,” Suarez said. “We were a little bit behind on adjustments in the first half of the race, and then by the end we got better. But unfortunately, we lost some time to the first two guys [with the slow stop].

“But you know that’s part of racing. … We win as a team and we lose as a team, so we’re not going to point fingers here. We’re going to go back home, analyze everything and come back stronger.”

Daniel Suárez on the outcome of the race in Indianapolis

Daniel Suárez on the outcome of the race in Indianapolis

International Drivers Learn

Shane van Gisbergen, the New Zealander who won the inaugural Chicago street course race, finished 10th in his second career Cup start.

The race featured drivers from seven countries (including the United States). Mexico’s Suarez was third, then van Gisbergen 10th, Australia’s Brodie Kostecki was 22nd in his debut, Germany’s Mike Rockenfeller was 24th, England’s Jenson Button was 28th and Japan’s Kamul Kobayashi was 33rd in his debut.

“Good and bad — obviously you have high expectations I get after Chicago, but it was awesome racing with those guys — Kyle [Larson] and Christopher [Bell],” van Gisbergen said. ‘We had an awesome battle back and forth and they’re the same guys I was racing with at Chicago, just a few more spots back.

“I had a blast. … It was cool to be a part of so hopefully can come to do more.”

Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass, and sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass.

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