The season-ending Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway often is a time for mixed emotions.
A long season that began back in February is coming to a close, and often there will be changes to the sport and its race teams before the new season comes around.
For Paul Menard, this weekend marks the end of his 16-year, full-time driving career. After Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, he’ll turn the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford Mustang that he’s driven for the past two seasons over to Matt DiBenedetto and head off into a new phase of his life.
As much as he’d like to treat this weekend like any other in his career, Menard knows that isn’t a realistic expectation.
"Honestly, I’m trying to take it as just another race," he said. "But I know that will change when I get down to Homestead.
"I’ll probably get emotional at some point, but I’m still down there to drive the car and try to get the Wood Brothers their 100th win."
Menard said the NASCAR community has been a big part of his life since he decided to pursue a career at the top levels of the sport.
"The people are what I’ll remember most," he said. "I’ve been in North Carolina for 16 years and met a lot of great people and made a lot of friends."
He counts the members of the Wood family among those that have meant a lot to him.
"Eddie and Len are like father figures to me," he said. "And Leonard always has a smile on his face and a story to share.
"I’ll always cherish my time with them."
Eddie Wood said that for him and his family the feeling is mutual.
"We had a great couple of years together, and we are sad to see Paul go," Wood said. "But we understand and support his decision. He’ll get to spent more time with his wife and children at an important time in their young lives."
Wood also said Menard leaves a strong legacy in NASCAR.
"He’ll be remembered for his professionalism and for all he and his family have done for this sport.
"Paul will always be a part of our family, and we’re honored to have his picture hanging in our museum in Stuart along with all the other drivers who have driven our cars over the years."
Qualifying for the Ford EcoBoost 400 is set for Saturday at 2:05 p.m. Eastern Time, and the race is scheduled to start just after 3 p.m. on Sunday with TV coverage on NBC.