Marty Robbins. Mel Larson. J.J. Yeley.
The state of Arizona hasn’t seen much success in NASCAR, even with a shortlist of all-star caliber names who competed in NASCAR’s top series.
2021 has brought Arizona into the spotlight, though. Once the checkered flag dropped in the NASCAR regular-season finale at Daytona on Saturday night, the 2021 NASCAR Playoffs were officially set with two of the 16 playoff drivers hailing from the Grand Canyon State. Tucson’s Alex Bowman and Glendale’s Michael McDowell have the opportunity to battle for the NASCAR Championship and become the first NASCAR champion from the state of Arizona.
Welcome to the #NASCARPlayoffs.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) August 29, 2021
The First Arizonan to Win a Cup Race, Alex Bowman
Bowman went on a blazing run during the dog days of summer but has lost some of that sizzle since then.
“I don’t really think momentum matters or flipping a switch. You just have to go do your job and execute,” Bowman told NBC postrace at Daytona. “We’re not going to do anything different, I think we’re in a great spot and we’re going to have great race cars. We have to go execute.”
All three of Bowman’s 2021 victories came between April 18 and June 26. Since his last win at Pocono, the Tucson native has averaged a 13th place finish in eight races.
— Alex Bowman (@Alex_Bowman) June 26, 2021
Regardless of his current stretch, Bowman and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team have broken through after a few years of one-off victories. In 2021, Bowman has more than doubled his career win total, nearly matched his career-best of top-fives and top-tens, and totaled his best career average finish.
Bowman grew up in Tucson, racing locally in dirt midgets en route to a USAC National Focus Midget Champion in 2008 and the USAC National Midget Rookie of the Year award in 2009. After a life-threatening crash in Las Vegas in 2010, Bowman stepped away from dirt racing and moved to North Carolina to pursue a career in stock car racing.
Bowman became the first Arizonan to claim a Cup Series win in June of 2019 at Chicagoland Speedway. In 2019, Bowman was eliminated in the Round of 12 but in 2020 made it to the Round of 8 and fell 28 points shy of advancing to the NASCAR Championship. The former Ironwood Ridge Nighthawk is the sixth seed and the playoffs. If he can advance into Championship 4 in 2021, he will battle for his first career championship at his home-state track of Phoenix Raceway.
Michael McDowell is your 2021 #DAYTONA500 Champion!
This is his first career Cup win in his 358th start. pic.twitter.com/h8K5NlOfwS
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 15, 2021
The Daytona 500 Champion, Michael McDowell
“So many years just grinding it out hoping for an opportunity like this. We’re the Daytona 500 champions, I can’t believe this! So thankful, God is good.”
One of the best superspeedway racers in the series, Michael McDowell, finally found victory lane in the Cup Series and did it in NASCAR’s most prestigious race. The victory punched his ticket to the NASCAR Playoffs and kicked off a triumphant start of the 2021 season. While this has certainly been a career year for the Glendale native, he has battled a rough few months with the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 team. McDowell and company haven’t finished in the top-15 since May 23 at Texas Motor Speedway.
There is still plenty for McDowell to hold his head high about. McDowell has tied his career-high for most top-fives in a season and has surpassed his career bests in top-tens and average finish. Regardless of his troubles in the past few months, the No. 34 team has spent the past 25 races to learn and prepare for an opportunity to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
“We know it’s uphill [from here] but at the same time, we have all year to plan for it,” McDowell said on ‘The Inside Lane’ in February. “We’ll be able to put some more money into it, some better cars, and be able to kick the playoffs right and have the best chance that we can at advancing to the next round.
“We know that’s lofty, we get it, but we’re going to fight hard, that’s what’s gotten us to this point, and we’ll see what happens.”
— Daytona International Speedway (@DAYTONA) August 27, 2021
Born and raised in Glendale, McDowell grew up racing go-karts at the Phoenix Kart Racing Association track in Glendale, across the street from what is now Six Flags Hurricane Harbor. Now residing in North Carolina, McDowell gives back to the karting community as a minority owner of GoPro Motorplex in Mooresville, NC.
McDowell is in his fourth season driving for Front Row Motorsports, owned by longtime NASCAR owner, Bob Jenkins. FRM is a lower-budget team, without the funds of teams like Team Penske, Stewart-Hass Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, and Hendrick Motorsports. FRM typically doesn’t have the engine power and resources to consistently contend for wins. Just making the playoffs is a massive accomplishment for this team.
McDowell became the first Arizona-born driver to win in one of NASCAR’s national touring series in 2016 at Road America in the Xfinity Series. In 2004, he found victory lane on the former Phoenix Raceway road course in the Pro Star Mazda Series en route to claiming the season championship.
This is the first career playoff appearance for Michael McDowell and enters as the 13th seed. Learn more about McDowell from when he joined “The Inside Lane” after his 2021 Daytona 500 victory.
To move to the Round of 12 and avoid elimination from the Playoffs, Bowman and McDowell must finish in the top 12 in points over the next three races at Darlington, Richmond, and Bristol. NASCAR Kids Reporter, Andrew Kurland, makes sense of the NASCAR Playoffs below.
The race to Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway begins with the opening race of the Round of 16 at Darlington Raceway on Sept. 5.
NASCAR Championship Weekend at Phoenix Raceway crowns four champions beginning November 5 with the Camping World Truck Series, November 6 with the Xfinity Series and ARCA Menards West Series, and concludes with the Cup Series championship race on November 7.