Paul Menard and the No. 21 Menards/FVP Batteries/NRG Energy team showed up with good speed last year at Chicagoland Speedway and earned Menard the pole, the 119th for his Wood Brothers team.
But the notes from that qualifying session won’t be of much use for the team this year in time trials for the Camping World 400. Since that time, NASCAR has adopted a lower horsepower/higher downforce handling package, and the series has scrapped the three-round knockout qualifying format used last year and gone back to a one-car-at-a-time qualifying session.
Menard and the No. 21 team, however, do have the advantage of participating in a test session at Chicagoland earlier this year.
“We were pretty competitive,” Menard said of the performance of the Menards Ford Mustang at the test. “The weather was different. It was 40 degrees and rainy when we were there.”
He said qualifying and racing on the 1.5-mile oval near Joliet, Ill., definitely will be different from a year ago.
“Last year we had big horsepower and no grip,” he said. “This year we’ll be wide open the whole lap in qualifying.”
Menard said that he’s looking forward to the challenge of competing at Chicago.
“It’s a great track,” he said. “It has a good surface. It’s similar to Kansas Speedway, and we were pretty competitive there. We had some problems late and missed out on a top-10 finish.”
He said that overall, he feels good about where the No. 21 team is with its intermediate-track program.
“It’s solid,” Menard said, adding that the new handling package has changed the racing in some ways while in others it’s the same. “It’s harder to pass with less horsepower, and track position is as important as ever.”
Both practices and the qualifying session at Chicagoland will be held on Saturday, with one-lap time trials beginning at 5:35 p.m. (6:30 Eastern Time). The Camping World 400 is scheduled to start just after 2 p.m. (3 p.m. Eastern Time) with TV coverage on NBCSN.