While covering the Sprint Cup NASCAR weekend at Martinsville Speedway I had the opportunity to meet Michael McDowell. I interviewed the driver of the No. 66 Victory Junction Toyota immediately after he had posted the fastest time in Happy Hour on Saturday.
A start-and-parker for the majority of the season, McDowell's best 2011 Cup finish is 30th at Sonoma in June.
However, he has made the most of the opportunity to drive several races for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Series. In five 2011 Nationwide starts, McDowell finished no worse than 12th with a best finish of third. He led 66 laps, including 30 at Road America, where he had the dominant car and won the pole.
The chance to run in top-notch equipment was a breath of fresh air to McDowell.
"Everybody at this level (Sprint Cup) has won a lot of races somewhere. For me, it's been a humbling experience to come into NASCAR and struggle like I have. To get in great equipment at JGR and have a shot to show people what I can do is a lot of fun."
That's not to say McDowell has never made an impression in the Sprint Cup Series. McDowell is perhaps best known for his spectacular crash during Sprint Cup qualifying at Texas in 2008. The video has since become a YouTube sensation.
"When it first happened, I didn’t know whether it was going to stop. It felt like everything happened in super slow-motion, and it felt like it was never going to stop," said McDowell. "My initial response was, “I hope I don’t lose my job,” because it was only my second Sprint Cup for Michael Waltrip. The team was underfunded at the time anyways, so to go out there and crash in qualifying was not a good thing for my career."
"But to walk away from that is nothing short of miraculous. For me, it just gave me the faith and the confidence that God has me here for a reason. He’s used that crash as a witness tool and a platform for me to share my story."
McDowell, a strong Christian, believes God has a purpose for him being in NASCAR. McDowell doesn't define his life by NASCAR, saying "it's not who I am; it's just what I do.
"I think the faith is something for me that’s not just a backup plan or an emergency thing, it’s a way of life," McDowell added. "To walk away from some of the accidents I’ve walked away from and to stay in this sport and to have the opportunities I’ve had, to drive for JGR this year, I know those are all things God has provided.
"It’s not something I’ve worked for or necessarily earned or deserved, and my perspective on that this is that God can do whatever He wants with whoever He wants, and if He wants me to drive the 24 for Hendrick next year, He could make it happen."
Well, McDowell just got his wish...almost, and a lot sooner than he had imagined.
Mere days after my interview with the driver of the usual start-and-park No. 66, McDowell was called upon to drive the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 machine usually piloted by Kyle Busch.
Busch, of course, had been parked by NASCAR for the Nationwide and Cup events at Texas Motor Speedway after intentionally wrecking truck series championship contender Ron Hornaday Jr. under caution during Friday night's race.
Although McDowell finished in 33rd place, three laps off the lead, the No. 18 car looked as good as new when the race was over and the other two JGR cars had struggled during the race as well.
Looking to the future, McDowell's expectation for 2012 in the Cup series is "to race the 66; we're definitely racing the first five events. We'll try to get ourselves locked in the top 35 and take it from there, and try to build it into something that we can race every weekend," said the 2007 ARCA Series Rookie of the Year.
"This year we’ve been gearing toward that, been buying good cars and running really well. We’re moving in the right direction and hopefully we’ll be able to get locked in and start off the year by making Daytona."
"I’m 26 years old, I’ve been married for six years now and have almost a three-year-old son. I’m the oldest 26-year-old I think, at least that I know. This sport makes you grow up fast."
Luke Krmpotich is a Featured Columnist with Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained first-hand.