Friday, July 20, 2018

Sports

Eau Claire native Menard wins pole at Chicagoland

JOLIET, Ill. — Paul Menard won the pole Saturday for today’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway.

It’s the second career pole for the Eau Claire native, who has just one top-five finish this season. He also qualified first for a race at Daytona almost exactly 10 years ago.

“Ten years, it goes by quick. I feel old now,” the 37-year-old Menard said with a wry grin.

Menard turned a lap at 180.012 mph in his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. He has one career win, taking the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ryan Blaney joined Menard on the front row. Blaney was second at 179.880 mph in his No. 12 Team Penske Ford.

Blaney drove Menard’s car with Wood Brothers Racing in the previous two seasons.

“We’ll see,” Blaney said. “It’s always up in the air. ... It’s always good to have raw speed in the car like that for qualifying and you just hope it carries over.”

Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch rounded out the top five. Martin Truex Jr., who has won the last two NASCAR Cup Series races at Chicagoland, qualified 12th.

Truex appears to be picking up some momentum as he tries to become the first repeat NASCAR Cup Series champion since Jimmie Johnson won five in a row from 2006 to 2010. He goes for his third consecutive victory at Chicagoland today.

“This track has always been really good for me. Obviously, the last two years, it’s been really good,” said Truex, who turned 38 on Friday. “I had to overcome a lot of issues here both years it seems like to be able to get the win. That’s kind of neat looking back on our two races here, what we had to overcome to win. This year is going to be different, I think.”

Truex had to deal with a completely unraveled tire on his way to the Chicagoland victory in 2016. He had an early pit-road penalty last year, but he led for 75 laps and finished more than 7 seconds ahead of second-place Elliott.

Truex and the rest of the Cup Series face a different challenge on this visit to the bumpy 1.5-mile oval. Chicagoland was being staged in September as NASCAR’s playoff opener, but it has a mid-summer date this season and the forecast calls for temperatures in the 90s.

“Grip’s been tough to find this weekend for a lot of guys,” he said. “New tires as well, so I mean there’s a lot of new things going on. It’s definitely going to be tougher, I would imagine that the groove’s going to be probably on average a little bit higher than when we run here in the fall. I think more guys are going to get the top working. It’s definitely going to be different, but how much it’s hard to say right now.”

Truex is coming off a win last weekend at Sonoma, outdueling Kevin Harvick on the road course for his third victory of the season in his Furniture Row Racing Toyota. He also won at Pocono on June 3, holding off a hard-charging Kyle Larson.

Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch have combined for 12 wins in the first 16 races on the Cup Series. The only other winners this season are Austin Dillon, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano.

With his three victories, Truex could use the rest of the summer to experiment with his car ahead of the playoffs. But Truex called that strategy “a little bit overblown.”

“The experimentation thing I think is something that is more old school,” he said. “This day and age you want to have confidence in the things you’re doing and continue to do them. So that’s kind of the approach we’ll take.”

Here are a few more things to watch in the Cup Series’ return to Chicagoland:

— Johnson is still looking for his first win this season, and Chicagoland is one of three tracks on the Cup Series schedule where he is without a victory. He finished second in 2004, 2008 and 2012. But the track also is the site of his only win in 83 starts on the Xfinity Series. He has 83 Cup wins, one away from matching Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.

— A couple drivers were planning to pay tribute to Jason Johnson, a sprint car driver who died last weekend at age 41 following a crash at Beaver Dam Raceway in Wisconsin. Larson said he will have a “Forever 41” sticker in place of where his name would be on his car.

— Daniel Suarez finished 15th last weekend at Sonoma. He is 19th in the season standings and needs to get going to make the playoffs, but he remains confident. “We’re going to make it. I will tell you that,” he said.

Larson wins Xfinity

Kyle Larson used the high line Saturday at Chicagoland to pass Kevin Harvick and drive away to a dominant victory in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“You can look at any track where you can run inches off the wall and I’ll be faster than anybody,” he said. “Once the lap times dropped off enough around the bottom I could move up there and go really fast.”

Riding as high as he could go on the bumpy 1.5-mile oval, Larson passed Harvick with about 60 laps remaining in the 300-mile race. Brandon Jones moved into the top spot when he stayed on the track while the leaders went in for a pit stop, but the caution he needed never materialized and Larson pulled away when Jones finally went into pit road on a really hot day all over the Midwest.

Larson also won the pole, but was sent to the back of the field because of an unapproved tire change after qualifying. It was his second win in three starts on the Xfinity Series this season, joining his victory at Las Vegas in March.

Harvick finished second, and Cole Custer was third after also starting at the back of the field due to a tire issue. It was the fifth consecutive top-five finish for Custer, who moved into the lead in the series standings by three points over Daniel Hemric. Daniel Suarez and Hemric rounded out the top five. Elliott Sadler was sixth and dropped into third in the series after beginning the weekend on top of the standings.


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