McDowell earned his first series win in the Daytona 500 – a surprising win for sure, but teams like his Front Row Motorsports are on a much more equal footing with top-level teams due to the aero rules.

He followed up his victory a week later with an eighth-place finish at the Daytona Road Course – again, not a total surprise as McDowell has a sports car background and has shown to be a talented road racer.

But Sunday’s sixth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway? That was a giant step forward for McDowell and Front Row.

The intermediate tracks are generally where the top-level organizations separate themselves from the rest of the field, in part because of the money they are able to put into research and development for the tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule.

After three races, McDowell and his No. 34 Ford team are already locked into the series playoffs and are currently fourth in the series points standings, ahead of drivers the likes of reigning series champion Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski.

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“I think that this is a really big thing for us. The Daytona 500 is huge. You’re not going to replace that,” McDowell, 36, said. “But the fact that we’re legitimately running in the top 10, not just here but at the road course last week, too, we overcame a lot of issues last week and really raced our way back into the top 10.

“To start the season with three top 10s on three very different race tracks. Daytona, everybody knows that anything can happen there, but I’m very proud of my race team. We have done a great job of making big gains.

“To be running down Kevin Harvick with five laps to go for a top-five, that’s stinking awesome for us to even be in that sentence, conversation. It just shows how much hard work everyone has done at Front Row, and it’s just awesome right now.”

How COVID-19 helped FRM catch up

McDowell credits his team’s performance Sunday to building off a strong run at the track last year and NASCAR’s recent rules limiting teams’ ability to develop and build new parts during the season.

Those rules have come about in part due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the protocols the sport adapt to navigate it and the Cup Series’ move next year to its Next Gen race car, which will be vastly different from the cars used now.

“One of the biggest things for us is there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of development, not new chassis, new parts, new pieces,” McDowell said. “We used to fall so far behind, but now I feel like we’re able to build on what we had in the past and make our cars a little bit better each time we come to the race track without changing all the fundamental pieces and kind of starting over and having to re-engineer everything.

“It’s kind of simplified the process for us a little bit just to keep building on what we have and try to make it better.”

Asked what he would have said if someone told him before the season he would start the year with three straight top-10 finishes, McDowell said his response would be, “That they’re crazy.”

“I think that we are realistic about where we finished last year and where we wanted to be, and we thought that we were in that 15th to 20th range pretty consistent last year,” he said. “To make a big jump like we did, I wouldn’t say that it’s a complete, like, unbelievable shock, but it’s pretty close to it.

“We have definitely out-performed where we thought we’d be, especially on the mile-and-a-half (track). I think that at the same time we had a good run here last year and had something to build on, so we came back and made some improvements – and yeah – we kind of shocked ourselves.

“Right now, we’re going to take it one week at a time and just keep fighting hard and see what the season brings.”

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