Menard wins at Road America
By NICHOLAS DETTMANN
Contributing Writer, Full Throttle magazine
ELKHART LAKE – At Road America, strategy and willingness to gamble seemingly play a larger role in the outcome of a race.
In Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series’ Road America 180 Fired Up by Johnsonville, it was no exception.
Eau Claire’s Paul Menard led the final six laps of the race, stretching his final fuel run 20 laps, with the help of a late-race caution period.
“I don’t know how it would’ve played out,” said Darrell Wallace Jr., who finished fifth, when asked about the fuel and pit strategy toward the end of the race.
Ryan Blaney finished second, followed by Brian Scott, Chase Elliott and Wallace to round out the top five.
“You try to do what you can,” Menard said when asked about conserving fuel. “… I was saving a ton.”
The last caution in the 45-lap race came out with 10 laps to go when Ben Rhodes spun off the track and got stuck in a gravel pit. Once he was pulled out of the trap, a slew of situations were added to the mix, such as drivers having mechanical and fuel issues or fluid being dumped on the track.
As the laps slowly ticked away, the caution laps benefitted Menard, Wallace, among others as they were stretching their fuel mileage, while Blaney grew frustrated because he had enough fuel to make it to the end.
“We had a good car all day,” Blaney said. “We were up toward the front most of the day. … We had a shot at the end. We just couldn’t get close enough to make a move.”
For Wallace, a fifth-place finish tied his career best.
“It was a good day to come out of Road America with a top-five finish,” he said. “A top-five is good for our team.”
It was Menard’s third career XFINITY Series victory, with two of those happening in his home state. He also won at The Milwaukee Mile in 2006 for his first career series victory.
Menard also won at Road America in 2001 with the NASCAR Midwest Series.
Menard’s only NASCAR Sprint Cup victory was in the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Road America were the three tracks that were really close to home for me,” Menard said. “I’ve been able to win at all three. So (I feel like I’m) a pretty lucky guy.”
As this race has become known for, it was all about fuel and pit strategy. With the track being more than 4 miles long, which is twice as long as the other road courses in NASCAR, the race has provided its share of drama as teams stretch every ounce of fuel they can.
“We didn’t have the best car,” said Danny Stockman Jr., Menard’s crew chief. “We had a fourth-, fifth-place car I felt like.”
“We had this race on our calendar as a race we wanted to win,” Stockman added. “You’ve got to take risks and you’ve got to stick to it.”
The risk was pitting with 20 laps to go on a race track where the fuel mileage was around 13-17 laps.
“We saved fuel right from the start,” Stockman said. “If you’re going to win these things on fuel mileage, you’ve got to do it that way. Paul did an excellent job.”
“It’s really special for me to do this as a team for Paul and his family because they’ve done so much for our sport,” he added. “It’s an awesome feeling.”
According to Stockman, the team engineer said Menard had enough fuel to go at least another lap, but a second lap after that would’ve cut it close.
And considering the frequency of the green-white-checkered finish at Road America, three times in the first five runnings, drivers and crew chiefs were nervous.
“This place is, it’s like two laps, one lap is two laps on a set of tires for the other road courses,” Stockman said. “They shortened the race this year to 45 laps.”
The other five races at Road America were 50 laps and Menard quickly joked, “That was good.”
“That made it an easier two-stop race,” Stockman said. “It used to be pushing a two-stop race, maybe three.”
Qualifying was wiped out because of fog and rain in the morning, so the lineup was set on the first practice session times. That put Ben Rhodes and Elliott on the front row. Menard started eighth.
At the drop of the green flag, Elliott was in control.
He led the first 12 laps and built up leads of 10 and 11 seconds. He retook the lead on lap 16 and led the next 10 laps. At that point, his car appeared to fall off and digressed into a relative nonfactor the last two-thirds of the race.
Elliott led a race-high 23 laps.
The focus for Menard shifts to making the Chase as the series restarts next week at Darlington.
Menard goes into the race 19 points ahead of the final Chase spot.
“Like we’re not safe, at all,” Menard said when asked of his mindset going into the last two races before the Chase begins at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 20. “We have a little bit of a cushion, but that can evaporate real quickly, especially at Darlington.
“You’re going to hit the wall at Darlington. It’s just a matter of minimizing the damage, make sure you don’t cut-down tires, things like that. We have a cushion, but we’re not comfortable at all.”
Follow Nicholas on Twitter: @dettmann_wbdn