It was the last lap of the last race of this NASCAR Cup Series regular season, the annual Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Michael McDowell was head-to-head with some ... unfamiliar competition.
Jimmie Johnson, he of the seven Cup Series championships and one of NASCAR’s most legendary drivers, was bumping and grinding with McDowell’s No. 34.
Johnson ended up edging McDowell for 16th place, with the latter settling for 17th.
Innocuous, maybe, but also not.
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At least, not for McDowell.
“Now for him, he’s going, ‘What a terrible day, this is awful, our car is terrible, we’re running 17th and I’m racing the 34,’” McDowell told the Observer this week. “And I get done, and I’m like, ‘Man, we had a great car, we did an awesome job, and I was racing the 48 on the last lap for position in the Top 20.’
“So it’s all perspective.”
That perspective comes from understanding where both drivers are this season. Johnson, as usual, is in the playoffs, doing his best to avoid elimination this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval course.
McDowell, on the other hand, is nowhere near the playoffs. At 26th in the standings, his story with Johnson raises an oft-forgotten question:
For the 20-plus NASCAR drivers who don’t qualify for the playoffs, what’s the point of still racing?
“The playoffs when you’re not in it are very tricky, because you are still racing,” McDowell said. “At the same time, you know that there’s a lot on the line for those guys who are still in the playoffs, so it’s definitely a challenge to navigate through that.
“But for us, we have our own battles. We have our own goals that we’re trying to achieve.”
‘Eliminated,’ but not really
Of the roughly 40 regular Cup Series competitors, only 16 make the playoffs every year. That number dwindles to 12 at the end of Sunday’s race, and soon to eight, and then four. But unlike in conventional stick-and-ball sports — where eliminated teams are just that, eliminated — NASCAR doesn’t work that way.
The other 24, 28, 32, or 36 drivers who are “out” still compete. They’re still on the track, right there with the Kyle Busch’s and Kevin Harvick’s of the world who are gunning for a championship.
And understandably, that can cause issues.
In last year’s championship race at Homestead, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch were first and second, respectively, as the laps rolled away. But there in third, anxiously waiting and more than capable of potentially passing one or both drivers ahead of him, was Kyle Larson.
Only instead of passing either, or even getting close to the championship hunt, Larson held back. He took third, allowing Truex and Busch to duel for the title (with Truex eventually winning).
That’s just one example of when non-playoff drivers have to decide whether or not to interfere in what happens with the remaining championship contenders.
“For me, I just try to race my race,” David Ragan, McDowell’s teammate at Front Row Motorsports, said. “I don’t wanna do anything stupid, I don’t want to wreck one of those guys or make a mistake, but we’re all racing for the same real estate as well, and I think they understand that.”
But while toeing the line of interference or not can be tough, there are other challenges non-playoff drivers have to deal with and address.
One, for instance, is motivation. Or in other words: Why bother when you know you can’t win a championship?
Both McDowell and Ragan agreed that reaching their individual goals remains a high priority. For both, that’s to finish in the top 25 in the points standings for this season — Ragan is 25th, McDowell 26th.
Why is having that goal, even when the playoffs are an unrealistic option, so important?
“When you’re in a sport where only one person wins every weekend, and we know which of those teams those are, you have to have goals, and you want to feel like you’re accomplishing something,” McDowell said. “You know you’re not going to contend for wins every weekend ... so taking these teams that, hey, on a good day I think we should outrun so-and-so, and then when we do, that’s an achievement.
“It’s really important, or else you spend an entire year miserable, because there’s only one winner and there’s 39 losers every weekend.”
Basically, having something attainable — in this case, to finish the year in the top 25 — to strive for is what gives those non-playoff drivers’ purpose. There’s no unrealistic expectation that they’ll beat the Hendrick Motorsports or Stewart-Haas’ of the world on a regular basis, but there is still an expectation of success.
That comes from the drivers themselves, but also their sponsors. And their teams. And the people who decide on a year-in, year-out basis which drivers deserve to be in their cars. Those factors are motivating, just like the allure of a championship trophy to playoff drivers.
“It keeps us focused,” Ragan said, “because if you don’t have a goal — if you don’t have something that you’re aiming toward — I think you can lose focus real easily.”
An audition every week
McDowell said that while he views each weekend as a job audition, that doesn’t mean he is auditioning for other teams. Rather, he is hoping to prove to his personal and professional backers that his performance is worth their continued support.
So while a championship may not be on the docket for McDowell, or Ragan, or dozens of other non-playoff drivers, there is still much worth competing for.
First, there’s the chance to meet or surpass your own individual goals. Second, to continue feeding the flames of your inner competitor. And third, to continue proving to your team, sponsors, and personal supporters that you’re headed in the right direction professionally.
That, to Front Row’s two drivers, is exactly what they’ve been able to accomplish.
“When you’re a mid-level team trying to grow and be more consistent in the Cup Series, it’s hard to make a big jump,” Ragan said. “It’s very impressive when you can improve your average starting or finishing position by just a couple of numbers, and that’s what we were able to do this year.”
This week’s NASCAR race: Roval at Charlotte: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400.
Distance: 109 laps, or 248.5 miles.
Where: Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, a 2.28-mile asphalt hybrid oval-road course in Concord, North Carolina.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Martin Truex Jr.
Also this week: Drive for the Cure 200 presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, Xfinity Series, Charlotte Motor Speedway, 3 p.m., Saturday, NBCSN.
Worth mentioning: The Roval is the first road course in NASCAR Cup Series playoff history.