On Friday afternoon at Daytona International Speedway, Len Wood walked over and asked, “So, what did you think about our guy in the 21 being crashed last week?”
“Well, I about threw a lamp at our TV.”
“Paul is a good speedway racer,” continued the Wood Brothers Racing chief. “We had kind of a learning curve last year with him running with a different manufacturer for several years, but Paul is very easy to get along with and he knows what he wants in a race car.
“We made a change for him this year — a new the spotter that is going to give him a different type of information,” Wood added. “So far, and listening to them work together the last two races here with the Clash and the 150s, it seems to be working nicely.”
After looking strong while up front in the Clash and after posting up a hard-fought third in the opening 60-lap 150 on Thursday night, Menard smiled when asked for his take on Daytona thus far.
“So far, so good, you know?” he nodded, leaning up against the team’s 18-wheeler. “Unfortunately, we tore up that car in the Clash, but both of our cars have had a lot of speed. With our 500 car, we figured we didn’t have a shot at the pole, so we put a little raceability into it; we weren’t in full-on speed mode. Still, we qualified 11th on speed, and we obviously raced pretty good on Thursday night, so yeah, we have a couple of more practices just to fine-tune and try a couple little things before Sunday.”
So what will he and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing technicians and engineers be focusing on in Saturday’s final practice session?
“We basically had different setups in both the Clash car and the 500 car, and we’ve basically taken a part of what we like about the Clash car and put it in the 500 car just to try it,” Menard said. “There isn’t a whole lot we can do now. Maybe just see if you can get a different ride-quality feel.”
Is he confident in knowing he just might be in possession of a car that can bring it to the house Big Bill France built?
“Yeah, we ran up front in the Clash, so we didn’t really race a whole lot. We had some good restarts and managed lines and things, but we were up front. On Friday night, we were in more dirty air and traffic, and found a couple little things with handling and how the car changed throughout the run.
“We were just learning; we’re just trying to learn all we can when we can.”
Learn what you can as fast as you can. The Daytona 500 really is the great unknown.
“Yeah, exactly. It’s the Daytona 500, so it’s special, for sure. Still, it’s restrictor-plate racing which really puts you on edge all weekend. You ride around and try not to get wrecked for the first half of the race, and then after the last fuel runs, that’s when you really get after it hard and that’s when you see the accidents really happen.
“You just try to be patient. You try to feel your car and you try to put yourself in, maybe, a couple of kind of conservative situations, but situations where you can learn what your car is going to do and then adjust for it. And then in anticipation, later on, you’re going to have to be in that position to make a move.”
As Len Wood inferred, when the time to make a move comes, it will be coached by a new spotter. That’s another factor in Menard’s optimism – subject, of course, to the fact that restrictor-plate racing is, well, restrictor-plate racing.
“This new rules package this year with the higher downforce, less horsepower, it’s really going to change how we race,” explained the Wisconsin native. “It’s basically a new era of racing. You’re going to see a lot more pack-type racing at some of these higher-grip intermediate tracks, too. We’re all going to learn as we go, you know?”