No Longer a First-Timer at Historic Darlington Raceway, Menard Set for Saturday's Bi-Lo 200 NASCAR Busch Series Race
DARLINGTON, S.C. (Nov. 9, 2004) -- Saturday's Bi-Lo 200 won't be the first NASCAR Busch Series race at historic Darlington Raceway for Raybestos Rookie of the Year contender Paul Menard, but it will be his first behind the wheel of the #11 Menards/Moen Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
The 24-year-old Menard got a taste of this storied, 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval -- even earning his first "Darlington Stripe" after a slight brush with the wall during qualifying -- behind the wheel of an Andy Petree Racing entry last March. Now, in his 14th race weekend with the DEI team he switched to in late July, Menard is set for a full-scale assault on one of the most grueling tracks on the NASCAR tour.
Last March, just four races into the season, Menard qualified 22nd and ran a strong race that had all the makings for a top finish. But he finished an unsatisfying 26th after a late-race gamble on tire strategy didn't work out, leaving him looking forward to this weekend's return trip for what will be the final fall race weekend here.
"It was an eventful race last March, with yellows every 20 laps or so," Menard said. "We were banking on it being that way to the end of the race, so we held off on our last set of tires. It just figured we were green for the final 43 laps. We were stuck out there on old tires and just couldn't make a run at the finish. Live and learn, I guess. It was a good call at the time, and I'd probably call for the same thing, again."
With just two races left in his official rookie season, Menard and his DEI teammates are looking for top finishes at Darlington and Homestead to help build momentum as they set their sites on their first full season together in 2005. They've experienced a mixed bag of results in 13 race weekends together, mostly positive but definitely more and more consistent each time out. The last three weekends saw Menard knocking on the door of his first top-10 finish of the season, which he and his teammates hope to finally see this weekend here at Darlington.
"It's been a valuable learning experience, which is how we've positioned this season from the very first race," Menard said. "Whether the results are good, bad or in-between, we're definitely better off whenever we pack up the truck and move on to the next race. We have high expectations everywhere we go, but we're also realistic in knowing these things take time. Before we know it, these early days just might be a distant memory."
Practice for Saturday's 147-lap race begins at 9 a.m. EST Friday, followed at 1:30 p.m. EST by qualifying that will be carried live on SPEED-TV. Race time Saturday is 1 p.m. EST with the TNT cable network providing live coverage.