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‘Gutsy call’ delivers Paul Menard first top five with Wood Brothers Racing

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On a day where it dominated the top 10 with seven cars in the top eight, Ford’s “company car” pulled off its best result of the season.

When the rain put an end to Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway after 133 of 200 laps, Paul Menard and Wood Brothers Racing found themselves in fifth, earning their first top five together.

It’s Menard first top-five finish since last July’s race at Daytona. It’s his first top five on a non-restrictor plate track since March 2015 at Auto Club Speedway, the sister track of Michigan.

“We had a good car today and all weekend,” said Menard who qualified 15th. “We didn’t qualify as good as we would have hoped and went from the back and got put to the back twice.”

The first setback came on Lap 27 when Menard was caught speeding on pit road during the competition caution.

As he came back through the field, Menard had a close call on Lap 66 when he was “door slammed” by Daniel Suarez as they exited Turn 4. The contact sent Suarez sliding through the infield grass.

Back in the pack again, Menard’s crew chief, Greg Erwin, made the “gutsy call” to keep Menard out of the pits on old tires following Kyle Larson‘s spin on Lap 86.

That allowed Menard to restart first on Lap 92 before Kevin Harvick took the lead. Menard finished Stage 2 in fifth setting up the last short sprint before the rains came.

“I am really proud of my guys,” Menard said. “We made a gutsy call to stay out on no tires with a bunch of laps on it. Gutsy call. We had the car to hold on though, so it worked out.”

Five of Menard’s 20 career top fives have come at Michigan.

NASCAR adds tire tests at Texas, Phoenix

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In an update to the rule book, NASCAR is adding tire tests Aug. 14-15 at Texas Motor Speedway and Oct. 2-3 at ISM Raceway in Arizona.

The Texas tire test is scheduled to have a team each from Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske and Furniture Row Racing. The test is to determine tires for the fall playoff race at Texas.

The Phoenix test is scheduled to have a team each from Chip Ganassi Racing, Wood Brothers Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. That test is set to find a tire combination for the 2019 races there.

The Atlanta Motor Speedway tire test will now be Oct. 16-17. It was pushed back from Aug. 14-15.

Also in the rule bulletin:

Effective July 11 in the Camping World Truck Series, NASCAR will use owner points instead of attempts to qualify in determining provisionals.

Also, when Truck qualifying is canceled, two spots (positions 26 and 27 in the lineup) will be awarded based on the fastest combined practice speeds to vehicles not yet assigned a starting spot. The top 25 spots will be determined by owner points. Filling out the final spots will remain the same as stated in the rule book.

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Friday 5: Chevrolet’s struggles harken back to 1982

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Ten races into the Cup season, the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1’s debut is starting to reach historic proportions.

Not since 1982 — before Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon were born — has Chevrolet failed to lead a lap in three races in the same season. It’s already happened this year. No Chevrolet paced the field at Las Vegas, Martinsville and Richmond.

Only 11 times in the 656 Cup races run since the beginning of the 2000 season has Chevrolet failed to lead at least a lap in a race.

A couple of other races nearly joined that list this season. Chevy teams led three of 200 laps at Auto Club Speedway and five of 334 laps at Texas Motor Speedway.

That Chevrolet didn’t lead a lap at Las Vegas and struggled to do so at Auto Club and Texas — tracks where aero plays a key role — is a concern.

The Camaro’s woes, though, are not surprising. There can be teething problems when working with a new car. Look back to last season when Toyota ran a new Camry body. Toyota won one of the first 10 races (same as Chevrolet this season with that victory by Dillon in the Daytona 500).

In the first 10 races of last season, Toyota teams won one race, had eight top-five finishes and 23 top 10s.

In the first 10 races this season, Chevrolet teams have won one race, had 12 top-five finishes and 28 top 10s.

Keep in mind that there are more Chevy teams than Toyota teams, so Chevy teams should have better numbers.

Take out the two restrictor-plate races, the Daytona 500 and the spring Talladega race, this year and last year and the numbers are closer between the models.

Toyota had one win, seven top-five finishes and 21 top 10s in the first eight non-plate races last year

Chevrolet has no wins, eight top-five finishes and 20 top 10s in those same events this year.

This doesn’t guarantee that Chevrolet will continue to struggle. Toyota won two of the first 17 races last year — both by Martin Truex Jr. — before winning 14 of the final 19 races.

One difference is that NASCAR employs the Optical Scanning Station this season to tech cars. The station has been credited with helping Ford, which has the oldest body among the manufacturers, remain competitive because of how closely the station can scan a car. More rigorous inspections can keep cars even. Of course, that also could make it more difficult for Chevrolet teams to find the speed in their cars to be more competitive.

The two Chevy drivers who have shown the most promise this season are Larson and Elliott.

Larson has been the top-finishing Chevy driver in four races and Elliott has held that honor three times.

Rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 and scored an eighth-place finish at Texas. He noted this week that his team has more work to do with refining his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

“We need more raw speed out of our car,’’ he said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction.

“We’re finding some things, for sure. We look back at Richmond. We weren’t really a big factor, but our car drove really good. So, we’re still trying to figure out where we were so far off, but we had the handling down to a T. I felt like we were the best car there handling-wise but speed-wise we were one of the slowest.’’

Said Dillon on Friday at Dover: “We’ve been decent all year long, we haven’t had the speed and there are reasons for the speed not being there. As far as Chevy as a whole right now, we’re working to find the speed.’’

Here’s a look at the Cup races since 2000 where Chevrolet did not lead a lap in the event:

April 21, 2018 — Richmond

March 26, 2018 — Martinsville

March 4, 2018 — Las Vegas

July 24, 2016 — Indianapolis

Sept. 12, 2015 — Richmond

August 22, 2015 — Bristol

June 28, 2014 — Kentucky

October 20, 2002 — Martinsville

October 28, 2001 — Phoenix

August 19, 2001 — Michigan

September 17, 2000 — New Hampshire

2. Learning the way

Paul Menard, in his first season with the Wood Brothers, scored the team’s first stage win of the season last weekend at Talladega.

The Wood Brothers are aligned with Team Penske, so that means Menard takes part in competition meetings with Penske drivers Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and their teams.

“We’re all very different people and we have different perspectives, which is interesting,’’ Menard said. “The way that Brad breaks down his car is much different than Joey and much different than Ryan.’’

Menard compares his time with the Wood Brothers with his early time at Richard Childress Racing.

“When I first went there, we had some really fast cars and then we got off,’’ said Menard, who drove for RCR from 2011-17. “So in the last couple of years, every week was trying to dig out of a hole basically. This year there’s really no hole to dig out of, kind of have a proven package and more fine-tuning than swinging for the fences.’’

3. Father vs. son

Today’s Camping World Truck Series race at Dover will pit David Gilliland against his son Todd in a race for only the second time.

The only other time they ran against each other was in July 2014 in a Super Late Model race at Irwindale Speedway. Also in that race was David’s father (Todd’s grandfather) Butch to make it a three-generation race.

David Gilliland said Thursday he’s excited about today’s race.

“I’ve got into a lot of races in my career,’’ David Gilliland said. “I’ve looked forward to a lot of them and nothing’s been like this.’’

Said Todd: “It’s cool. We’re hoping to beat each other, but also you just kind of focus on the real race out there. It’s going to be good.’’

4. A different driver each race

The Xfinity Series has had a different winner in each of the first nine races of the season.

Should there be a 10th different winner Saturday at Dover, it would tie the 1987 season for the second longest streak of different winners to open a season. The record for most different winners to start a season is 13 in 1988.

The winners this year have been: Tyler Reddick (Daytona), Kevin Harvick (Atlanta), Kyle Larson (Las Vegas), Brad Keselowski (Phoenix), Joey Logano (Auto Club), Ryan Blaney (Texas), Ryan Preece (Bristol), Christopher Bell (Richmond) and Spencer Gallagher (Talladega).

5. Soon …

A week from today Matt Kenseth will be back in a Cup car. He makes his return in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 at Kansas Speedway in place of Trevor Bayne. Kenseth’s schedule hasn’t been released yet, but he will run at Kansas and the following week in the Monster Energy All-Star Race.

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Leonard Wood, Morgan Shepherd not slowing down in old age

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Mondays suck.

Do you know what doesn’t suck?

Watching a NASCAR legend wheel around a parking lot in a miniature motorized car like a carefree 5-year-old.

For your viewing pleasure is a Twitter video of Wood Brothers Racing’s Leonard Wood zipping around in a mini replica of the Truck that Jon Wood drove to a win at Martinsville Speedway in 2003.

Oh, and as Jon Wood makes note in the tweet, the Hall of Famer is 84.

Another NASCAR elder statesman who refuses to slow down is Morgan Shepherd.

The 76-year-old driver will attempt to qualify for his 1,000th national NASCAR race this weekend in the Xfinity Series at Texas Motor Speedway.

Shepherd, who won four times in Cup, will be just the eighth driver to reach 1,000 starts.

“I’m not never stopping,” Shepherd told ESPN. “When I stop, my toes will be turned up.”

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Friday 5: Driver data could be the key to success in Phoenix

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NASCAR’s decision to provide teams with more driver data could make a bigger impact this weekend at ISM Raceway than any other race so far this season, Ryan Blaney says.

NASCAR decided before the season to make steering, braking, throttle and RPM information available to all teams. Such information had been on NASCAR’s RaceView and some teams had created programs to mine that information to study competitors.

The decision to share all that information upset some drivers, most notably Kyle Busch.

“I’ve spent 13 years in this sport to figure out how to drive a racecar, make it go fast, do the things I do to win races and championships,’’ Busch said last month. “Now you’re going to hand all that on a piece of paper to a young driver, they’re going to figure it out, as long as they know how to read it.

“They still have to do it, but at least they know what I’m doing.’’

ISM Raceway, formerly Phoenix Raceway, challenges drivers with how much they brake. That’s where driving traces from competitors can prove helpful.

“I think it might be a little bit more of a factor this weekend where you’re off the throttle a lot and you’re braking pretty heavy,’’ Blaney said of the driver data. “You can see what other people are doing braking technique wise.’’

Blaney said such information is more valuable at a high-braking track than where the series has raced so far this year.

“Vegas and Atlanta, you’re completely off the gas and you’re light braking, you’re not really having a bunch of pressure on that,’’ he said.

Blaney said he’s mainly focused on the data from teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, along with Paul Menard of the Wood Brothers, which has an alliance with Team Penske.

“I can learn a bunch from Brad, Joey and Paul,’’ Blaney said. “There is some stuff that Ford shares, too. I looked at Harvick’s stuff a little from Vegas, but, no, I have not looked at any of the Toyota or Chevy stuff, just haven’t done that. I think there will be a little bit more to gain if you do look at that stuff, other team’s stuff.’’

Of course, seeing how someone drives doesn’t mean another competitor can duplicate it. But every little bit of information can help a driver close the gap with a foe.

2. Learning the way

As 20-year-old rookie William Byron races champions twice his age and others with much more experience, his biggest challenge might not be his competition but himself.

“The biggest difference and the biggest thing you have to learn as a rookie is to trust yourself and not do anything different than what has gotten you here,” he said. 

“You’ve got to make sure you drive the race car the same, the same intensity and not shy away from communicating just because you have a bigger race team behind you or a lot more people listening. I think you just have to approach it like you are racing anything.”

It’s not been an easy start for a driver anointed by some to be one of the sport’s standard bearers for the next two decades. He was collected in a crash at the end of the opening stage in the Daytona 500 and finished 23rd. He quickly fell a lap down and was running outside the top 30 at Atlanta before rallying to finish 18th. He struggled at Las Vegas, finishing four laps behind the leaders in 27th.

He says he’s learning as he goes.

“My team gives me more information than I’ve ever had before in terms of actual data to look at or actual timing down pit road, pit road speeds, all of that stuff that we get access to, we use that right away,’’ Byron said. “I would say I use all those tools as much as I can to make sure that I’m closing that gap quicker. 

“We had one thing at Daytona that I was really low on the bar with and didn’t really do it, didn’t know how to do that and by the second week I was like one of the most consistent ones with it within my teammates.  I’m learning those things that you never get access to previous.”

What did he struggle with at Daytona?

“It was more just like doing things under caution like keeping the motor cool and just things like that to make sure that you are maximizing your performance,’’ he said. “It was just trying to make sure that I’m doing those things and make sure I’m utilizing caution periods as much as I can and things like that. That stuff is much more important in this series.”

3. Hall of Fame wait

The 20 nominees were announced this week for the 2019 Hall of Fame class. Jeff Gordon is among the five nominees added to the 15 holdovers.

While Gordon almost assuredly will be selected, there are others who have been waiting years for their chance at induction.

Among the current nominees, Ray Fox, an engine builder, car owner and official, was nominated a seventh consecutive year. Short track specialist Larry Phillips was nominated a sixth consecutive year. Buddy Baker was nominated a fifth consecutive year.

Red Byron holds the record for most nominations before being selected at nine. Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Raymond Parks and Benny Parsons each were inducted after their eighth consecutive nomination.

The average number of years the 45 inductees were nominated before being selected for the Hall is 3.4.

Nine people were inducted in the first year they were nominated. That includes the inaugural class of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr.

The other four who were selected after their first nomination: Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty and Bill Elliott.

4. Leader of the pack

Stewart-Haas Racing’s drivers combined to lead 895 laps last season. Already this season, the organization has led 464 laps in the first three races of the season, led by Kevin Harvick’s total of 395.

5. West Coast ringer

Kyle Larson’s third-place finish last weekend at Las Vegas marked his fourth consecutive top-three finish in the West Coast swing, dating back to last year. Larson finished second at Las Vegas and Phoenix on the West Coast swing before winning at Auto Club Speedway last year.

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