Menard masters Phoenix mile. Phoenix, Ariz. Paul Menard from Eau Claire, Wisc. scored his first Featherlite Southwest Series, NASCAR Touring victory in the Cruise America "125" at Phoenix Int'l Raceway. Menard moved to the top spot from his ...
Menard masters Phoenix mile.
Phoenix, Ariz. Paul Menard from Eau Claire, Wisc. scored his first Featherlite Southwest Series, NASCAR Touring victory in the Cruise America "125" at Phoenix Int'l Raceway. Menard moved to the top spot from his 26th starting position to pass Winston Cup veteran Ken Schrader on the last lap and collect $12,875 from the more than $110,600 posted awards. Schrader held on for second, with Dan Holtz scoring his best career finish in third. Matt Crafton and 2002 Raybestos Brakes Northwest Series champion Kevin Hamlin rounded out the top five. Eddy McKean from Jerome, Idaho clinched the Featherlite Southwest Series championship after finishing a disappointing 24th.
Burney Lamar led fifty-nine qualifiers that included drivers from all four of NASCAR's Regional Late Model Touring series', along with a Winston Cup and Craftsman Truck Series regulars. Lamar's lap of 27.393/131.420 mph top the speed chart for his fifth Bud Pole Award of the season. Schrader clocked in second fast, followed by Frank Maronski Jr., Benny Gordon, and the surprising Danny Burson. Burson debuted a new Chuck Carruthers chassis, and the combination obviously worked as Burson was able to parlay his qualifying effort into a seventh place finish after 125 laps.
With 33 cars making the show on time and eight provisional starting positions doled out, that left eighteen drivers to load up and think about returning in February. 1.6 seconds separated the entire field, making qualifying the big race of the weekend. Not making the show included RE/MAX regular Tim Schendel, Stanley Smith from the All Pro Series, and Scott Hansen a five-time winner at the Desert Jewell.
The other big story of the race was the fact that second in the point standings, M.K. Kanke, was not in the starting lineup. Kanke withdrew his car after practice citing mechanical problems. The Featherlite Southwest Series has a rule that has been enforced all season which is, a backup car can only be introduced if the primary car is damaged beyond repair. Since Kanke was simply not satisfied with the performance of the car, he was not allowed to attempt to qualify his backup car. With Kanke withdrawing from the event, that meant series point leader Eddy McKean needed only to finish 28th or better to claim the championship.
Lamar got a terrific jump on Schrader at the green flag and led the first nine laps before caution flew for the car of Kenny Shepherd. Shepherd backed his #9 Race-n-shirt.com Chevrolet into the turn one wall. No other cars were involved and Shepherd was unhurt. Racing resumed on lap 12 with Lamar still setting the pace. Schrader's car was working well on the inside and past Lamar on lap 13.
By lap 20 the pace settled down with Schrader leading followed by Benny Gordon, Lamar, Auggie Vidovich Jr., and Frank Maronski Jr. Lap 23 saw the #26 of Zach Niessner slow as he lost fire under the hood and retired with ignition failure. The second caution flew when the #7 of Maronski lost the handle exiting turn four and the Chevrolet of Doug McCoun spun to avoid the car of Maronski. 2001 Featherlite Southwest Series champion Craig Raudman had no where to go and hit the car of McCoun in the drivers door. The resulting front end damage relegated Raudman to a 38th place finish.
Eddy McKean made his presence known by entering the top-five by lap 35. McKean inherited the lead when all the leaders pitted on lap 40. McKean led the next 26 laps before caution flew on lap 66 for the car of Scott Lynch who hit the turn four wall and came to rest in turn one. Lynch was unhurt but his car was finished for the day. McKean pitted handing the lead back over to Schrader. McKean blended back into the lineup in 17th but experienced trouble as soon as the field went back to green.
McKean's right rear was flat, but he managed to keep the car on the track, but lost two laps in the process. He would pit again on lap 104, but by that time it was to late. He would finish 24th.
Schrader continued his dominance up front and looked to collect yet another win at PIR. At the lap 100 mark Schrader led Dan Holtz, Matt Crafton, Paul Menard, and Kevin Hamlin. A caution on lap 112 allowed drivers the opportunity to cool their tires and that played into Menard's hands. When the field took the green on lap 116 Menard moved past Crafton and Holtz and started to apply pressure on Schrader. Menard's car worked really well on the bottom and he could see that Schrader was starting to push exiting the corner. Exiting turn four on lap 123, Menard dove to the bottom and passed Schrader as the duo took the white flag. Menard lengthened his lead by turn one and held on to win his first Featherlite Southwest Series and second NASCAR Touring win. Schrader, Holtz, Crafton, and Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers.
"My guys gave me a great car," Menard said. "I had my doubts this morning. We changed springs, shocks, and bars before happy hour this morning. The car really worked the longer we ran." When asked about passing Ken Schrader on the last lap, Menard offered, "Ken Schrader is to Phoenix what Dick Trickle is to Midwest short track racing, and to beat Schrader is awesome."
Schrader was complimentary of Menard. "The kid was coming," Schrader said. "His car was a lot better on the bottom there at the end and knew I was running out of laps."
Finishing third to record his best series finish was Dan Holtz. "I am real happy to finish so well at Phoenix," Holtz said. "We are a new start-up team this year and we have faced some big challenges this season. We have really started to improve over the last four races and to finish third gives us a lot of momentum going into next year."
McKean was emotional about his championship but disappointed about his finish in the race. "The guys have worked hard all season and it is fantastic to win the championship," McKean said. "I just wish we could have raced better today. I came in the pits after leading and changed rights only to have the rear go flat. I held on but saw it all slipping away. My crew chief let me know about lap 116 that we had one it (the championship) so I started to relax."
Burney Lamar gave credit to McKean. "My hats off to Eddy," Lamar offered. "He and his team deserve it, they have worked hard all year and they had the least amount of bad luck. I am excited what we have been able to accomplish as a team this year. I know we showed people what we are capable of."
Thirty of the forty-one starters where running at the end, including 17th place finisher Brandon Whitt. By taking the green flag, Whitt claimed Rookie-of-the-Year honors over fellow competitor Steve Belletto. Belletto finished 18th. "We accomplished what we set out to do," Whitt said. "This series is so competitive, I am most proud of the fact that we qualified for every race and did not have to use a provisional. Winning the Rookie title is important to our team and gives us a lot of enthusiasm for next year. Steve (Belletto) has been great to race with all year, he is as deserving of this award as I am."
The race took 1 hour, 26 minutes, and 46 seconds to complete. The racing action was slowed seven times for 34 laps of cautions and ran at an average speed of 86.438 mph. There were four lead changes among four drivers with Ken Schrader leading the most laps (80) and picking up the Gatorade Front Runner Award of $500. Burney Lamar claimed his fifth Bud Pole Ward of the season with a lap of 27.393/131.420 mph and the $300 award. Whitt claimed Rookie-of-the-Race honors for the sixth time this season.
The final point standings has McKean winning the championship over Lamar, Pettit, Kanke, and Todd Souza. The rest of the top-ten include Doug McCoun, Frank Maronski Jr., Steve Belletto in eighth, followed by Whitt and Joe Herold in tenth. The Featherlite Southwest Series will take two and a half months off before returning to Phoenix and February 2, 2003 to begin the 18th season of competition. The annual series awards banquet will be held on Saturday, December 14 in Reno, Nevada at the Eldorado Hotel and casino.
The Featherlite Southwest Series is one of eight NASCAR Touring Series that blanket the United States. NASCAR Touring brings special events to many NASCAR Weekly Racing Series tracks and some NASCAR superspeedways and road courses. A NASCAR Touring Series can provide a competitor with an entire career, or they can provide valuable experience to competitors moving through the NASCAR ranks. Corporate sponsors make significant contributions to NASCAR Touring Series point funds. The sponsors include Anheuser-Busch, Featherlite Trailers, Gatorade, Goody's Headache Powders, Raybestos Brakes, Hills Brothers Coffee, RE/MAX International, Inc., and R.J. Reynolds brand Winston.