Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell, driver of the No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series 63rd annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 14 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The 2021 NASCAR Cup Series has begun, and after an action-packed race at the Daytona 500, Arizona natives and fan favorites are off to a great start.

Drivers like Glendale native Michael McDowell and Tucson’s Alex Bowman will return home to the Grand Canyon State for the NASCAR Cup Series Race at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, March 14, at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale.

McDowell recently won the Daytona 500. 

“It’s just amazing,” McDowell said. “There’s so much to be thankful for and so much along the way that the journey hasn’t been super easy. It’s very gratifying and very rewarding. I feel like (there has been a long) process to get to this point.”

Daytona marked McDowell’s first career win in the Cup Series. It’s also the first time an Arizona driver won the race. 

McDowell pitted during the caution prior to a huge wreck at the front of the pack that took out 16 cars, including the pole winner and Tucson native Alex Bowman.

“At Daytona, you’ve got to get to the end; you’ve got to survive,” McDowell said. “There’s a lot to it. There are a lot of circumstances involved in there and luck and putting yourself in a position (to win). A lot has got to go your way. Go get to the end of the race. A lot of the race is that survival element.”

For McDowell, he said sometimes you just have to be at the right place at the right time. He has finished in the top five at Daytona and used that experience to score the victory. 

“We felt like this could be a really great year for us with the new schedule,” he said. “Obviously, kicking it off with a win is huge.”

Bowman was running in second place at the time of the wreck. The 27-year-old knows he has a bright future in NASCAR.

“Alex Bowman is from Arizona as well, and he’s a super talented guy,” McDowell said. “He’s with a great organization, and he’s going to have a long career and do a lot of things. I feel fortunate that I beat him to the punch in winning the (Daytona) 500. He’s going to be so successful, and it would be hard to stay ahead of him in any category.”

McDowell and Bowman are the only two Arizonans in the Cup Series. McDowell said it’s a privilege and a cool opportunity to represent the state.

Big shoes to fill

During the offseason, NASCAR lost one of its most storied and successful drivers, as Jimmie Johnson retired after 18 years. He left behind seven championships and 83 career victories.

His legacy in NASCAR leaves him among the greats in the sport, and the onus now falls onto Bowman, as he inherited Johnson’s No. 48 car after his retirement.

Bowman said he and his team are extremely excited to get to work on that No. 48 car.

“To try and fill another set of big shoes and go to the 48 is going to be really fun,” Bowman said. “I was definitely nervous when (team owner Rick Hendrick) told me.”

The changes don’t stop at the car number for Bowman. He also inherited Johnson’s primary sponsor: Ally Financial Bank. Bowman said he’s looking forward to getting Ally its first win.

“You never know how working with a new partner is going to be,” Bowman said. “But working with Ally has been so much fun so far. I’ve really enjoyed it.”

While he knows driving the No. 48 car is a huge deal that comes with a lot of added pressure, Bowman isn’t going to allow it to get to him this season.

“I think the biggest thing for me is that there’s not a car number in the world or a situation in the world that’s going to put more pressure on me than I put on myself,” he said. “Obviously, I want to win for Hendrick Motorsports and for Chevrolet and for Ally and for everybody that makes this deal possible. More so than any of that, I just want to win for me, so I put a ton of pressure on myself each and every week to go do that and to run well, to run how we should.

“Outside situations don’t really add to that. I probably put too much stress and too much pressure on myself at times, but I really care about how we run. It’s not because somebody’s saying, ‘Oh, the 48 (car) has to go win or needs to go win a championship.’”

Hendrick knows Bowman has what it takes to win and is looking forward to seeing what he can do.

“I’m super excited about this year,” he said. “Alex can definitely win; he had a bunch of second-place finishes. He’s just going to get better.”

Though he hasn’t been in the shop as much during the offseason due to the pandemic, Bowman knows that the key to his Cup Series is consistency. He wants to represent Hendrick Motorsports the right way.

“Anytime you walk through the front door at Henrick Motorsports you know there’s a standard here, and it’s a very high standard,” Bowman said. “The expectation is to win a lot of races and to win championships.”

Bowman believes he and his team can make a lot of noise if they can run this season similarly to the way they ran last season’s playoffs.

 

Last year’s winner

Bowman’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, may just be NASCAR’s single biggest fan favorite. He’s coming off of a season in which he won the championship at Phoenix Raceway, and he is ready to defend his title.

Despite last season’s championship, however, Elliott believes he and his team have more work to do and can get even better.

“The cool thing for me is that I think there’s more for us to go get,” Elliott said. “I don’t think we’re at our very best in every category, which is really cool for me and something our team should be able to take a lot of pride in, to have the result we did last year but also know that we can still improve in some pretty big ways.”

Hendrick said he feels Elliott is at an all-time confidence level. Bowman echoes that feeling.

“The confidence level with Chase Elliott is unbelievable,” Hendrick said. “They really believe they can win every week. He’s way more mature than his age.”

“They’ve been really dialed in for a long time, and I think that’s just going to continue,” Bowman said. “Chase has always been confident, especially on the racetrack. He’s always been a confident guy.”

Elliott recognizes his confidence level and feels as though the 2021 Cup Series can be a successful one. He said winning a championship plays a huge role in that.

“I think for me, I’ve just been trying to enjoy all of the different situations and scenarios that I’ve been a part of,” he said. “Obviously, winning a championship is great. I think it brings confidence to our entire team. I’ve really just enjoyed winning and enjoyed racing.”

Elliott ran about five or six races in the offseason. He said that at 25 years old, he’s just doing the best he can to enjoy life and takes every opportunity placed in front of him.

He recognizes sports as a whole are a “what have you done lately” game. Even though he’ll run this Cup Series as the defending champion, he knows he can’t afford to take his foot off the gas pedal.

“No matter what you do, if you have a bad stretch or don’t do well, they’re going to come after you about whatever you’ve done recently,” Elliott said. “On the flip side of that, too, if you have a good run after being trash for a year, everybody is going to be hyping you up and jumping on the bandwagon.

“It’s all about performance. We want to push and continue to do good for ourselves and push our team internally. That’s all that really matters to me.”

Hendrick said his driver is in a fantastic headspace. He thinks this season can be a special one for the Georgia native.

“I think Chase has such a sharp head on his shoulders,” Hendrick said. “You don’t have to tell him too much. He celebrated, and now he’s ready to go and try and do it again. He’s got his head on right. He’s a competitor, but he takes it all in stride. I’m really excited about this year for Chase.”

Elliott is going to do his best to live through the peaks and valleys of the season while staying as levelheaded as possible. 

He knows being the defending champion brings many, many more eyeballs. In the end, he wants to be one of the best and most consistent drivers the sport has to offer.

“I think there’s a small group of guys that can win literally every week, that nobody would be a bit surprised if they won the race,” Elliott said. “I think that I can want our team to be a part of that conversation as well. I want to get to the point that when we leave the racetrack, that nobody is surprised that we won.”

Elliott will return to the site of his championship victory. For McDowell, this season’s race in Phoenix carries more weight. 

“Any time it’s a hometown race it’s special,” McDowell said. “My wife and I like to make a trip out of it and get to see all of our family. This year it’s even more so special — just bringing the hardware back to Arizona and representing Arizona as its first Daytona 500 champion. 

“That was very cool and was a very special moment. I’m really looking forward to coming back home and seeing everybody and just being able to celebrate that.”