As veteran driver Paul Menard makes his final preparations before leaving for Daytona International Speedway, where his first drive in the No. 21 Omnicraft Ford Fusion will also be his 400th career Cup start, his goals for the opening weekend are pretty simple.
“Hopefully we’ll sit on the pole,” Menard said, adding that his goal is within reason. “We have a fast Ford Fusion, and Fords typically are fast at Daytona.
“We have the horsepower and we have the aero. All we need to do is make it happen.”
While Menard acknowledges that in some ways, his 400th start is just another number in a long career, it’s also an important milestone in his career.
“Of the 399 starts I’ve had, you always remember bits and pieces of some races and some you remember it all,” he said. “But No. 400 is more special because it is my first race in the No. 21 Omnicraft Ford, and I couldn’t think of a better place to run my first race with the Wood Brothers than at Daytona.”
With the pairing with the Woods comes a sizeable fan base that has stuck with the iconic team through thick and thin for seven decades.
“That’s exciting for sure,” Menard said. “It’s neat to see the support they’ve had over the years.”
He said he experienced the loyalty of the Wood Brothers fan base during a recent autograph session at NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
“There were a lot of people there wearing Motorcraft logos and some even with earlier sponsors like Citgo,” Menard said. “It was pretty humbling. And then to look at that car and see my name above the door put it all in perspective.
“It was a very special feeling.”
While Menard has yet to run an official lap in the No. 21 Omnicraft Ford, he has spent time over the winter with his new crew chief, Greg Erwin, and other members of the team. They tested together at Las Vegas Motor Speedway a week ago were able to begin building team chemistry.
“The test at Las Vegas went very well,” Menard said. “We’ve got some new crew guys that are very talented and learning their roles and some veterans from the Wood Brothers team like Michael “Andretti” Smith and Roger Fenwick.
“I think we’ll be clicking just right before long.”
Even as Menard is looking ahead to the rest of the season, thinking about earning Stage points and qualifying for the Playoffs, he does allow himself to imagine what could happen a week from Sunday in Daytona.
“Having the Wood Brothers get their 100th win in my 400th start and my first in the No. 21 and at the Daytona 500….
“You couldn’t write a better script than that.”
Menard and the No. 21 Omnicraft team will hit the track for practice on Saturday afternoon with sessions starting at 1:05 p.m. and 3:05 p.m.
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is on Sunday, Feb. 11, at 12:15 p.m. The twin Can-Am Duel qualifying races are set to begin on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 7 p.m., and the Daytona 500 is scheduled to start just after 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 18.
Monster Energy Cup Qualifying and the Daytona 500 will be broadcast on FOX, while the Can-Am Duels will be carried on Fox Sports 1.