Paul Menard and the No. 21 Menards/Jack Links team played their race strategy just right in a rain-shortened Firekeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway and came away with the team’s first top-five finish of the season.
Menard started 15th and dropped back on the initial start but worked his way back to 20th place by the time the competition caution flag flew on Lap 25.
But Menard was nabbed for speeding and had to restart at the rear of the pack. He passed seven drivers before another caution for a spin by David Ragan, one he narrowly avoided himself.
Menard continued his march forward and ended Stage One in 16th place.
Seven laps into the second stage, Menard was hit by the No. 19 of Daniel Suarez, an impact that caused damage to the rear fender – and possibly the suspension – of the Menards/Jack Links Fusion.
The team made repairs, and on the next caution flag, crew chief Greg Erwin elected to stay on the track, a move that put Menard in the lead but on older tires and with barely enough fuel in the tank to complete the remaining 31 laps of the second Stage.
On the restart, Menard fell in behind the No. 4 Ford of Kevin Harvick and remained in the top five for the rest of the Stage to finish fifth and earn six Stage points.
Menard then lined up eighth for the start of the final Stage but quickly drove his way back to fifth place, where he was running when rains halted the race after 133 of a scheduled 200 laps had been completed.
It was his 20th career top-five finish and his second of the weekend, his first coming in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race in which he drove the Menards/Richmond Mustang.
“We had a good car today and all weekend,” Menard said. “We didn’t qualify as good as we would have hoped and went from the back and got put to the back twice. Once I sped and another time we got door slammed.”
But in spite of all that, he came away with a great finish, thanks to some skillful driving and the quick work and smart decisions made by the Menards/Jack Links crew.”
“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 them. Gutsy call.”
“We had the car to hold on though, so it worked out.”
Team co-owner Eddie Wood said he too was pleased with the way the day turned out, especially with Ford drivers taking seven of the top eight finishing positions including the top three.
“We didn’t think we’d even get to race with the forecast like it was,” Wood said. “And then to come back from adversity to get a top-five finish was a bonus.”
“You always want to run well at Michigan since it’s the home track for Ford Motor Company. There were hundreds of Ford people here at the track, and we were especially glad to have a top-five finish with Ford executive Brett Wheatley with us on the pit box.”
Menard’s finish moved him into a tie with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for 16th place in the championship standings. The two drivers are four points behind Alex Bowman, who holds the final spot in the playoff standings with 11 races remaining in the 26-race regular season.
WBR PR/Photo Credit Jerry Markland/Getty Images