Paul Menard and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team earned the 15th starting spot for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during a qualifying session like none other in recent memory on an intermediate-length track.
The full implementation of a new lower horsepower/higher downforce package led to multiple drivers on the track during qualifying, drafting off each other, whereas in the past drivers mostly qualified one car at a time against the clock.
At Las Vegas, how drivers interacted with other cars appeared to be the key to a fast qualifying run.
“With everybody pretty much running wide open, what you need to do is to be catching a car in front of you just as you complete your second lap,” Eddie Wood said.
“The problem is that if the car you’re catching has a problem and has to back off, then you have a problem too.”
That unfortunate scenario played out for Menard in the second qualifying round when the driver he was running down got loose and had to lift, leaving Menard no opportunity to quickly close the gap and boost his speed on that lap.
Qualifying under the new rules is a learning experience. After posting the 16th-best time of 178.477 miles per hour on their first run against the clock, the team felt confident it would be among the top 24 that would advance to Round Two.
But just as the clock was winding down on the opening session a bevy of drivers returned to the track for another run against the clock and Menard quickly dropped to 23rd, which was still good enough to advance but too close for comfort.
Even though Menard’s drafting plan in Round Two didn’t play out exactly as planned, he still picked up speed, turning that lap at 179.575 mph.
Menard and the Motorcraft/Quick Lane team will have two practice sessions on Saturday to fine-tune the No. 21 Mustang before the start of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 w just after 12:30 p.m. (3:30 Eastern) with TV coverage on FOX.