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Michael McDowell always goes into a NASCAR Cup Series road course event feeling confident and prepared to win. For the first time in his career — he’ll bring a huge trophy with him.

McDowell earned his first NASCAR Cup Series victory in the Daytona 500 last weekend and the road course specialist arrives for Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 (3 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) on the Daytona International Speedway road course absolutely ready to make it two in a row.

Should he pull off the back-to-back wins, McDowell would be only the sixth driver in history to win the season’s opening two races. The last to do so was Matt Kenseth in 2009. But McDowell has good reason to be optimistic. He is a former IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Series road course race winner and has a best finish of third in seven Rolex 24 races on the Daytona road course.

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“We feel really optimistic and confident,” said McDowell, who finished 10th in the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford at the Daytona road course last summer.

“We had a top-five car most of the day last year. (Crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer) and I went for it near the end with taking tires, but we didn’t get a late race caution so the strategy didn’t work like we wanted.”

McDowell acknowledged he and his team carry high expectations into this road course weekend.

“Even without the Daytona 500 win, we would still feel confident coming back this weekend. We have really worked hard on our road course program this offseason and we are getting better. It’s another good opportunity for us.”

Of course, McDowell will have to beat the same driver he edged in the Daytona 500. Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott has won the last four series road courses dating back to 2019. Five of Elliott’s 11 career series wins have come on road course venues, including the 2020 race on the 3.61-mile, 14-turn Daytona circuit.

Elliott’s 8.92 career average finish on road courses in the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is best among active drivers. His crew chief Alan Gustafson, a Daytona Beach native, is the winningest active crew chief on road courses with five wins.

Last summer, Elliott held off Denny Hamlin by 0.202 seconds to earn the series’ inaugural race victory on the Daytona course — leading a race-best 34 of the 65 laps. McDowell finished 10th what was a mixed weather afternoon of competition featuring 13 lead changes among six drivers.

Elliott won both road courses last season (at Daytona and at Charlotte) and was leading on the Daytona infield in the non-points Busch Clash event earlier this month before contact with Ryan Blaney on the final turn of the final lap. He recovered to finish second.

“Road courses have been good to us the past few trips, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go good every time,” Elliott said. “There has not been one part of me that watched the schedule change, saw seven road courses and thought, ‘Yeah, we’ve got it now.’ That’s just not how I am. At the end of the day, you have to be good everywhere and I want to be good everywhere.

“We as a team want to get to the point where we can win on any given week; road course, circle track, intermediate, dirt ... whatever it is, we want to be able to win at any time. The great teams and the great drivers are capable of doing that and I think we are capable of doing that. So that’s where my head’s at — trying to be good everywhere.”

Elliott and McDowell will start on the front row Sunday, just ahead of Austin Dillon, who leads the NASCAR Cup Series championship standings for the first time in his career. He finished just behind McDowell and Elliott in the Daytona 500. With two top-five finishes in the race’s opening stages plus his third-place finish at the checkered, Dillon holds a six-point advantage over Hamlin in the championship standings.

NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 At Daytona

The Place: Daytona Road Course

The Date: Sunday, February 21

The Time: 3 p.m. ET

TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 252.7 miles (70 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 16),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 34), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 70)

What To Watch For: A total of 39 different drivers have competed in at least one NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race at the Daytona Road Course. ... Driver Kaz Grala made his first career NASCAR Cup Series start at the Daytona Road Course in 2020. ... Hendrick Motorsport’s driver Chase Elliott won the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race at the Daytona Road Course on August 16, 2020. ... NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon leads the NASCAR Cup Series in overall road course wins with nine (Sonoma, five; Watkins Glen, four). Tony Stewart has the second-most road course wins all-time in the series with eight (Watkins Glen, five; Sonoma, three), NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison holds the series record for the most wins at a single road course track with six victories at Riverside International Raceway (1971, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1981 sweep). ... Seven active drivers have won at least one race on a road course in the NASCAR Cup Series. ... Chase Elliott leads all active drivers in NASCAR Cup Series road course wins with five victories. ... A total of six different NASCAR Cup Series drivers have led at least one lap at the Daytona Road Course. ... Chase Elliott leads the NASCAR Cup Series in laps led at the Daytona Road Course with 34 laps led. ... The margin of victory in the first NASCAR Cup Series race at the Daytona Road Course was 0.202 seconds. ... Championship Pedigree: All three of NASCAR’s national series winners at the Daytona Road Course — Chase Elliott in Cup, Austin Cindric in Xfinity and Sheldon Creed in Camping World Trucks — all went on to win the driver championship title in their respective series at the end of last season.

This article originally ran on gwinnettprepsports.com.

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