With Indy 500 winners Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish among the rookies competing in NASCAR this year, it’s tough for an unknown to get attention. But keep an eye on Mike McDowell. Star Mazda champion in 2004, McDowell showed his ability in 2005-06 in Grand-Am and Champ Car. He co-drove to a Grand-Am win and qualified in the front half of the field for two Champ Car races. Last year, McDowell switched to stock cars, racing in the Midwestern ARCA series where he won four races, led the most laps and came second in the points.
That caught the attention of Toyota and Michael Waltrip Racing, and the 23-year-old has earned his big break this year. At the end of March he replaced Dale Jarrett in one of Waltrip’s three Toyota Sprint Cup cars. Expect McDowell to start to make a serious mark in the sport this year.
McDowell’s crew chief is Bill Pappas, a veteran Indycar engineer who also joined NASCAR last winter. Pappas engineered Gil de Ferran’s Indycars for five years, and he compares McDowell to the title-winning Brazilian. “It’s exciting,” Pappas said. “Mike has a lot of talent, he’s motivated and loves to think about the car. He’s going to develop very quickly into a very competitive NASCAR driver.”