Menard comes up short in bid for Michigan sweep
June 16, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Paul Menard, fresh off a win in Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Michigan International Speedway, finished fourth in Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 at MIS.
It was the eighth top-10 for the Richard Childress Racing driver this season, and his first top-five since a third-place run in March at Las Vegas in the Sprint Cup Series.
"The car was solid all weekend," said Menard, who started fifth in the 43-car field. "We got some good fuel mileage today and pulled it off. It was a good car from (the time we unloaded) Friday."
Menard was one of only two drivers finishing in the top 10 that failed to lead a lap in the 400-mile event. But he ran among the leaders most of the day, save for the few times green-flag pit stops briefly cycled the front-runners back in the field.
The timing of the cautions resulted in varying pit strategies, but Menard said the No. 27 team stuck to its game plan. Even when the opportunity to hit pit road presented itself.
"We just kind of did our deal," he said. "We knew if those guys (around us) pitted when we stayed out, they still needed to pit again. We were due for a long run (at the end of the race). It worked out."
While the start of the race wasn't typical -- there were two cautions for on-track incidents before the first 10 laps had been completed -- Menard said getting in a rhythm wasn't difficult on the wide, two-mile track.
"No, not really, I think some guys just underestimated the grip level and other guys just over-estimated it and that caused a couple of the early cautions," he said. "The groove actually widened out a lot more than I thought, it just took a little bit to get there. It was a pretty clean race after that."
The strong finish earned Menard four positions in the points standings, where he is now 13th. With 16 spots making up this year’s Chase field, he is one of seven drivers in the top 16 in points yet to win this season. Thus, the importance of a good finish, if not necessarily a win.
"It seems kind of weird staying out (under yellow), knowing you've got to pit in 12 laps, but we were hoping that all the cautions were done," crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe said of the team's pit strategy. "We just took a chance; we were probably a ninth-place car. We got behind, really loose at one point … took a chance and stayed out.
"At first I was second guessing myself, said, 'Hey, I think we’re going to stay out here.' Then I saw the 48, 88 and others do it so I didn't feel so bad then. I could have looked like an ass there for a minute."
Labbe said the car used on Sunday has been a workhorse for the team, with two top-five and four top-10s. "So we might just turn it around and take it to Kentucky (in two weeks)," he said.
With cars powered by Hendrick engines winning the last five races, and nine of this year's 15, Labbe said it's clear the Earnhardt Childress Racing engine shop has more work to do. But he said he's confident the group will close the gap.
"They're trying different packages," he said. "We were in Chicago testing this past Tuesday and Wednesday and we did 25 runs just working on stuff for the engine shop. It's a team effort; you can't beat anybody up. We've had really good engines and had sucky races, so it goes both ways.
"The main thing is not getting frustrated and letting the engine shop do their work. …The good thing is we've not blown up engines and that's the key. … I haven't said a word about it because I don't know a damn thing about engines. I can set a race car up, but when it comes to engines I trust those guys."