SPARTA, Ky. - Michael and Jami McDowell and their three young children spend a lot of time traveling to different racetracks during the season.

The family is spending this weekend together at Kentucky Speedway. Michael wanted everyone close because history says he will be in a car capable of taking him to victory lane in the 300.

"While my kids are still young enough and not in school, we try to enjoy that time together," McDowell said. "It's a lot of fun being together on the road."

The last time he drove a Nationwide Series car - last month at Iowa Speedway - McDowell finished second behind the No. 22 Ford owned by Roger Penske. That's his ride tonight.

For someone who came up through the open wheel and sports car ranks, and competes with a single-car team in the Sprint Cup Series, getting seat time in a Penske car is a big deal.

"It's definitely an honor to drive for Roger Penske," said McDowell, who qualified eighth. "It's something, as a kid growing up, watching Indy cars and just how they always ran their operation. I remember sitting in the grandstand at Phoenix International Raceway and thinking, 'Man, I want to drive one of those Team Penske cars. It's really a dream come true to be able to put this on the resume."

Penske needed a driver for its Nationwide effort with the Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck series racing this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. To hear McDowell tell the story, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time at Iowa Speedway.

"I was walking by coming out of the media center and (Team Penske competition director) Travis Geisler grabbed me and said, 'Hey, what are you doing for Kentucky weekend? Are you running your Cup car in New Hampshire, or is that a race you're not doing?' That sort of started the conversation," McDowell said. "I think they had been waiting to see how the Chase was going to play out and whether or not Brad or Joey were going to try to go back and forth. With Ryan being in the Truck championship and having a shot at that, I think the priority being on the Chase races, it opened up an opportunity to fill a gap that they had."

A victory tonight would be McDowell's first in 93 career Nationwide starts and keep Penske positioned atop the owner point standings. The No. 54 owned by Joe Gibbs Racing trails the No. 22 by 15 points through 26 races.

"I've been close a few times to getting my first victory in the Nationwide Series," McDowell said. "This has been a great race for Team Penske and the 22 team. They've sort of dominated the last few races here."

Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney helped the No. 22 team sweep the Nationwide Series races last year at Kentucky Speedway. Keselowski finished second when the Nationwide cars visited in June.

The car has won four races and finished runner-up another six times this season. Keselowski, Blaney, Joey Logano, Alex Tagliani and now McDowell have piloted it.

McDowell's focus has been on NASCAR since 2008, and he currently drives for Leavine Family Racing in the Sprint Cup Series. The team has failed to qualify on three occasions this season and in 13 starts has posted one top-10 finish.

Dropping down to the Nationwide Series and gaining experience with powerhouse teams like Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske helps keep him relevant in the sport, McDowell said. He's also been able to pass on what he's learned about those operations to his other team.

"It allowed me to go back to my Cup programs a little bit more focused on, 'Okay, here's the areas where we do well. Here's the areas where they do better,'" McDowell said. "That's really helped me be able to really bring more to the Cup program. You're always going to be limited with a small team and the funds are obviously substantially less than the big programs but at least it gives me a direction as to what we need to focus on. It's definitely a big help."

As for whether tonight's race might be an audition for a future opportunity, he said he hadn't thought about it.

"I really haven't," McDowell said. "Every weekend is an audition in this sport. One of the great things about this sport that I still believe is that you're always one weekend away from your career radically changing."