By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Correspondent
Late-race pit strategy by crew chief Greg Erwin earned Paul Menard his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series top-10 finish of 2019.
Menard was one of just four drivers, including race winner Kyle Busch, that elected not to pit under caution with 20 laps go in the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. After running just outside the top-10 prior to the caution in the No. 21 Menards / Sylvania Ford Mustang, he found himself in prime position to attempt an upset.
On the restart, Menard struggled to hold off those with fresh tires. Fellow Ford Performance drivers Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney quickly moved past the Wood Brothers Racing machine. With the limited number of laps remaining however, Menard cruised to a sixth-place finish.
“We qualified really well and had good track position from the start,” Menard explained. “I messed up our first pit stop and got us behind. I went to neutral to stop and it popped into third, so I killed the car. I put us behind doing that and track position is so important. Greg made a good call to stay out and came home with a top 10.”
After he qualified ninth, Menard avoided the early mayhem to finish the first stage in eighth. During pit stops however, the car popped into the wrong gear. Menard was lucky not to damage the motor but lost crucial track position.
With a ’50/50 mixture’ of the traction compound in the lower groove, drivers had more lane choices than the average Bristol race. Track position was paramount as the multi-groove options made passing difficult. The traction compound was still on the racing surface at the end of the race.
“I felt there was more options than normal,” Menard admitted. “That PJ1 stayed pretty much the whole race, where normally that goes away and you’re just going to the top, so I thought we had more options.”
The sixth-place finish is the first top-10 finish for Menard this season. It is also the 66th of his career, extending a streak of consecutive seasons with one top-10 finish or more to 10 for the 38-year-old driver.
Despite the top-10 finish, Menard is mired 19th in the championship points standings, 178-points behind points leader Busch. He is also just four points behind the cutoff for the playoffs currently held by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.