Paul Menard and the No. 21 Omnicraft Ford Fusion came away with a seventh-place finish in the second of Thursday’s two Can-Am Duel qualifying races at Daytona International Speedway. And along the way they showed that they are capable of contending for victory in Sunday’s 60th annual Daytona 500.
Menard, who will make his 400th career Cup start on Sunday, drove aggressively and made smart moves, with the assistance from his veteran spotter, former driver Stevie Reeves.
He started the race from the sixth position but had raced his way into second place before 10 of the race’s 60 laps had been completed.
He made a pit stop for fuel only on Lap 14, returned to the track and lined up in third place for the ensuing restart.
Menard soon drifted to the rear of the lead pack after an close call with Denny Hamlin but passed his way back into the top five, one car at a time.
As the laps wound down, Menard was poised to team up with his fellow Ford drivers Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick and make a run for the checkered flag – or at least a top-three finish – but didn’t get the drafting help he needed and wound up seventh, which means he’ll start the Daytona 500 from the 16th starting position.
“Our Omnicraft Ford is really fast,” Menard said. “We can make some moves. We got shuffled back and could drive back through the field.
“I was riding behind Clint and Kevin trying to make my move, and I might have pulled out too soon on Clint into (Turn) Three and just didn’t have anyone come with me.”
Even though he came a little short of his expectations on Thursday night, Menard said he feels good about his chances in the 500.
“We had a really fast car,” he said. “I thought that we had a shot [at the win] if we could get some cars lined up.
“We have a really good car. The Fords worked really well together. Kevin and Clint do a good job just staying in line and biding their time. We just never got all in line.”
Menard also said that his veteran crew chief Greg Erwin and the Omnicraft crew have done a great job of tuning his car for Daytona.
“The balance is really good,” he said. “It was a little loose, not bad at all.”
Team co-owner Len Wood echoed Menard’s comments about the No. 21 Ford and its strong run in the Duel.
“I was really happy with the performance,” Wood said, adding that he was especially impressed with Menard’s comeback after the incident with Hamlin that led to him dropping back to 14th place. “He drove back to fifth place on his own, without any drafting help. Not many people can do that.”
Wood said Menard was hampered at the finish by a fender crumpled a bit from a brush with the wall, but that damage can be easily repaired.
“A lot of people are going to back-up cars,” he said. “All in all, we’re in good shape.”
Wood also said he was happy for Edsel Ford and John Menard, Paul’s father, both of whom got to see Menard’s strong run from atop the Wood Brothers pit box and also visit Victory Circle with Team Penske’s No. 12 Menards team and their driver Ryan Blaney.
“Congratulations to all of them,” Wood said. “I’m glad they got to go to Victory Circle.”
The Daytona 500 is set to start around 3 p.m. on Sunday with TV coverage on FOX.