The finish was Menard’s first of the season. It’s also his first last-place finish in a Sprint Cup race since his rookie season in 2007, when he raced for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. That finish came 225 races ago in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega on April 29, 2007 when his #15 Menards Chevrolet lost the engine after 22 laps. That was the final Talladega race for what is now known the “Gen-Four” chassis, which was phased-out at the end of that season. Menard has yet to finish last in 186 combined Nationwide and Truck Series starts.
Menard is competing in his third season with Richard Childress Racing as driver of their bright yellow #27 Chevrolets. In that time, the 32-year-old Wisconsin driver scored his first Sprint Cup victory in the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. He came home 17th in points that year, then improved to a career-best 16th last season.
Entering the Daytona race, Menard was 15th in points with four top-ten finishes. Three of those runs came in consecutive races at Las Vegas, Bristol, and Fontana, the latter bringing a season-best 8th-place run in the Auto Club 400. However, in the twelve races since, Menard had finished outside the Top 15 seven times, including a 30th-place run last week in Kentucky where he was caught up in a multi-car wreck with Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski.
Menard showed signs of a turnaround at Daytona. He qualified a strong 6th at an average speed of 193.075 mph, his second-best starting spot of the year and his third Top Ten start in the last five races. All 43 entrants made the show.
In the race itself, Michael McDowell was the first driver to pull behind the wall, making the left-hand turn after six laps. Radio communications indicated McDowell had a severe vibration, and the team changed out the rear gear and both rear axles. McDowell had finished last in the 400 in 2012, and without sponsorship for his #98, it appeared he was set to finish last once more. He could have tied Mike Bliss for the LASTCAR lead as Bliss and the #19 Humphrey-Smith Motorsports team were not entered in the event.
However, while running with the leaders off Turn 4, Menard’s car showed a huge plume of smoke, and flames fanned out from beneath the car’s fenders. Menard slowed quickly as the caution flew, nearly colliding with Kurt Busch on the apron. Somehow, he avoided being collected by the entire field, and he pulled off the track on an access road exiting the tri-oval. Menard looked under the hood himself, but the problem was terminal, and he was done for the night.
McDowell returned to the track to run twenty-seven more laps, ten more than Menard, nudging the #27 back to the 43rd spot. The vibration sent McDowell behind the wall for good, leaving him 42nd. Fishing 41st was Martin Truex, Jr., who on Lap 98 pounded the inside wall in a three-car crash coming off Turn 4. 40th went to Joey Logano, who lost the 10th spot in the point standings when he cut a tire and hit the wall on Lap 70. 39th went to the damaged car of Juan Pablo Montoya, whose #42 was collected in the Truex wreck.
*This was the first last-place finish for a Richard Childress-owned car since 2007, when Jeff Burton’s #31 Cingular Chevrolet lost the engine after 91 laps of the UAW-Ford 500 at Talladega. That race was the first restrictor-plate start for NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow.”
*This was the first last-place finish for the #27 in a Cup race since 2006, when Kirk Shelmerdine’s #27 Catdaddy Carolina Moonshine Chevrolet broke the rear end after he completed 28 laps of the Pepsi 400. Shelmerdine, a former crew chief of Dale Earnhardt, attempted seven more races after that night, but that race was the 26th and final of his Cup career. Earlier in 2006, Shelmerdine was the feel-good story of SpeedWeeks 2006 when he raced his way into the field for the Daytona 500. He obtained funding from several well-wishers, including Richard Childress, who footed the bill for his tires. Shelmerdine finished a career-best 20th.
*Menard’s 6th-place qualifying run was the best starting spot by a Cup last-place finisher since last fall at Phoenix, when outside-polesitter Martin Truex, Jr. lost the engine after ten laps. It is the best start by a Cup last-placer at Daytona since this race in 2007, when outside-polesitter Denny Hamlin finished 61 laps down after an early crash with teammate Tony Stewart during the Pepsi 400.
THE BOTTOM FIVE
43) #27-Paul Menard / 23 laps / engine
42) #98-Michael McDowell / 33 laps / vibration
41) #56-Martin Truex, Jr. / 97 laps / crash
40) #22-Joey Logano / 105 laps / running
39) #42-Juan Palo Montoya / 126 laps / running
LASTCAR CUP SERIES DRIVER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Mike Bliss (4)
2nd) Michael McDowell, Scott Riggs (3)
3rd) Bobby Labonte (2)
4th) Trevor Bayne, Dave Blaney, Jason Leffler, Paul Menard, Joe Nemechek, Scott Speed (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES OWNER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) #19-Humphrey-Smith Racing (5)
2nd) #44-Xxxtreme Motorsports, #98-Phil Parsons Racing (3)
3rd) #7-Tommy Baldwin Racing, #21-Wood Brothers Racing, #27-Richard Childress Racing, #47-JTG Daugherty Racing, #51-Phoenix Racing, #87-NEMCO Motorsports, #95-Leavine Family Racing (1)
LASTCAR CUP SERIES MANUFACTURER'S CHAMPIONSHIP
1st) Ford (8)
2nd) Toyota (7)
3rd) Chevrolet (3)