This is the first in a weekly series of interviews: 12 questions with NASCAR drivers who aren't currently in the top 12 of the Sprint Cup Series. Since the Chase drivers already get plenty of publicity, we thought this would be a good way to get to know some of the non-Chase drivers a little better. First up: Prism Motorsports driver Michael McDowell.
What's the best race you ever drove?
MM: That's a tough one. You know, the best race I ever drove was Richmond in the 00 [for Michael Waltrip Racing], second race of '08. I started 37th or something [actually 38th] because we had those huge rains and the race was delayed. All the MWR cars were really strong that weekend. I raced my way up to the top five, [teammate David] Reutimann led for like 150 laps. We were legitimate. We ran in the top 10 for most of the race. And then we got pushed around and bumped around the last few laps and ended up 20th.
Everybody was fighting for the Chase, so all those guys were trying to get in and here I am, this rookie in the way running in the top 10. So it was a lot of fun for me. It was one of those races where you felt like you belonged, like you could do the job.
Who's the most talented driver in NASCAR?
MM: The best driver in our series is Jimmie Johnson, because of the effort and the team he builds around him and the people who believe in him. But the rawest talent is Kyle Busch, there's no doubt. But he won't have what Jimmie Johnson has.
This sport is so, so difficult to win a race, let alone a championship. To do what [the 48 team has] done is miraculous. There's no other word for it. The dedication and work it takes to do what they're doing, it's no different than a Michael Schumacher. And to me, Michael Schumacher is the best to ever be in the sport, because everywhere he went, he won races and was able to build a team.
Let's say a new driver comes into NASCAR. Who's one guy they should learn from and one they shouldn't?
MM: Learn from Mark Martin, because there's not a person here that doesn't respect him. And they respect him because he's a good driver, he's good-hearted and he's been in the sport a long time. What's funny with him is, he doesn't take a lot from people, but he'll take enough. He won't let you take advantage of him, and people don't try to. He's just got this aura of respect around him.
As far as who not to learn from? These usually get me in trouble. Let's see...who sticks out in my mind right now? Let's go with Robby Gordon. Great driver, unbelievable talent and car control, not a tremendous amount of respect given to him. I'm not saying that's right, but I'm just saying.
What's the best time for a fan to approach you for an autograph?
MM: Anytime. That was always my thing when I started – I never wanted to be the guy who didn't have time for people or wouldn't do it. But I can tell you now after being in it – and not even being famous – that sometimes I don't give myself enough time to be available. Like when you're walking out to the grid for driver introductions and you only have five minutes, it's tough because you can't sign, you'll be late and have to start in the back. The fans don't necessarily understand that all the time, but you try to make yourself available and for the most part, most of our guys do. It's just hard to be completely available all the time.
What's something people don't understand about you?
MM: NASCAR fans who haven't followed my career don't know that I've won a lot of races in a lot of different series, and I didn't get here by accident. But when you get to this level and you don't run well because of sponsorship or equipment or just circumstances of how difficult it is, everybody thinks you're just this no-talent driver that just showed up all the sudden out of nowhere. I've spent my whole life dedicated to this and have won championships and won races against the likes of great champions.
What's the worst track to visit?
MM: Ha! Honestly, California [Auto Club Speedway]. I'm a West Coast guy, but honestly there's just something about California that hasn't been good to me lately. It's never been very good to me.
If you ran NASCAR, what's one thing you'd change?
MM: If I ran the sport, there'd be less NASCAR sponsors and more funded teams. Like, it's hard for a team to go against The Official ‘Blank' of NASCAR. But that's not NASCAR's fault.
Who's the one driver you admire most outside NASCAR?
MM: Michael Schumacher. And you know, it's funny, because people are like, ‘Well, you just like him because he's won a lot of races.' But that's not it for me. Being in this sport, building a group of people around you that gives you the capability of winning is tough. And to do it time after time, it's amazing, you know? Because this sport is driven by people, just like any sport. To me, building a team around you is very difficult.
How long do you see yourself driving?
MM: Every year, I just hope [to make it] one more year, you know? I don't have a timeframe on it. I just take it one year at a time, one race at a time for me. It's easy to get caught up in it. For me, it's just about giving my best every weekend. I hope I can drive for a long time. I'd love to drive forever. But it's a tough sport.
What's the first thing you do when you get home from a race?
MM: That's changed now. Now, it doesn't matter what time I get home, I like to go upstairs and see my son [1-year-old Trace]. If he's sleeping, I try not to wake him up, but it changes everything when you've got a family and leave. So you sort of cherish those moments.
Who wins the Sprint Cup in 2015?
MM: Brad Keselowski. Like him or dislike him, there's only a few guys who get up on the wheel and win races. When you're sitting third with two laps to go and have Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards in front of you and can still win the race, there's no doubt he can do it. It's whether or not he can build a team around him that will give him the capability to win races in the Cup Series. The Nationwide Series isn't the Cup Series; everyone at this level is great. But there's no doubt he can do it.
Would you rather be known as a great driver or a great person?
MM: A great person. There's just so much more to life than just the sport, you know? It's a great job, but I wonder how many guys sacrifice being a great person versus a great driver.