The season-opening Daytona 500 always brings an air of optimism to the NASCAR race teams who have spent a big portion of the off season preparing for the event that has come to be known as the “Great American Race.”
Adding to the positive vibes for Paul Menard and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team is the upcoming competitive debut of the Ford Mustang, which will be making its first appearance in a points-paying Monster Energy Cup Series race.
Menard, like his fellow Ford drivers, is confident that the folks from Ford Performance have come up with a car that can be even better than the Fusion that Ford teams have campaigned in recent seasons.
“The people at Ford Performance definitely did their homework on this Mustang,” he said. “It really resembles the cars in the showrooms, and it’s going to be a good race car.
“I’m anxious to see just how good it’s going to be. If it fires off with good speed, the sky’s the limit.”
Last year, in his first season driving the No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers, Menard had his Fusion in the hunt for the win in the closing laps of the Daytona 500 and brought it home in sixth place.
He said he’s had a few “what if?” moments as he re-ran those last few laps in his mind in the months since.
“I watched the end of that race a couple of days ago,” he said. “I wish I’d moved to the middle instead of the bottom. When I went to the bottom it broke my momentum.”
But throughout his career, Menard has made plenty of good drafting moves too.
He has two top-five and six top-10 finishes at Daytona and three top-fives and seven top-10s at Daytona’s sister track, Talladega Superspeedway.
“If you make good moves, you run good, and if you make bad moves you crash,” he said of racing in the draft created by the use of speed-slowing restrictor plates.
Menard said he and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team hope to get their Daytona 500 week off to a good start with a strong run in Sunday’ qualifying session, which will lock in the front-row starters for the 500 and set the line-up for Thursday’s Gander RV Duel qualifying races.
“We’re putting more focus on qualifying this season,” Menard said. “And if we were to wind up on the front row for the 500 that would be huge.”
After that, it’s on to the Duels, which set the remainder of the line-up for the 500.
“The Duels are really important.”
And the sport’s biggest week concludes on Feb. 18 with the 61st running of the Daytona 500.
“It’s a huge race for our sport, and it’s the biggest one for the Wood Brothers,” Menard said of his team, which has five Daytona 500 triumphs.
Qualifying for the Daytona 500 is set for Sunday, Feb. 10, at 12:10 p.m. with TV coverage on FOX.
The Gander RV Duels are scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, with TV coverage on Fox Sports 1, and the green flag for the Daytona 500 is set to fly at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2:30 p.m., with TV coverage on FOX.