McMur­ray, Me­nard pro­ceed cau­tiously

Chase rook­ies try­ing to avoid ‘a bad race’

SundayXtra - - SPORTS - By Jenna Fryer

JOLIET, Ill. — When the green flag drops on the open­ing round of NASCAR’s play­offs, Jamie McMur­ray and Paul Me­nard will be rac­ing for a Chase for the Sprint Cup cham­pi­onship for the first time in their ca­reers.

Un­like the other 14 driv­ers in the Chase, they have no ex­pe­ri­ence in rac­ing for the ti­tle. They don’t know what strate­gies will get them through to the sec­ond round, and haven’t seen first­hand how the in­ten­sity will pick up start­ing t0da7 at Chicagoland Speed­way. It may not be the worst thing. “I’ve never been in this po­si­tion be­fore, so I’m just tak­ing it like I take ev­ery week,” said Me­nard. “I feel good about how we’re ap­proach­ing it. We’re just go­ing to put our heads down and go as far in this deal as we can.”

The elim­i­na­tion for­mat was im­ple­mented last year, and driv­ers used vary­ing ap­proaches to nav­i­gate their way through the three rounds that lead to the fi­nale at Homestead-Mi­ami Speed­way. A win in any of the first three seg­ments guar­an­tees a driver a spot in the next round; four driv­ers are elim­i­nated ev­ery three races.

Con­sis­tency can push a driver into the fi­nal round, as Ryan New­man proved last year by us­ing solid fin­ishes in a win­less sea­son to have a shot at the ti­tle.

Both McMur­ray and Me­nard are win­less this year, and both used con­sis­tency to make it into the 16-driver field. McMur­ray thinks that’ll be good enough to get him out of the first round, which is com­prised of Chicago, New Hamp­shire and Dover.

“When I look at our strat­egy go­ing in, we would love to win the first round. But mostly, we don’t want a bad race,” McMur­ray said. “I don’t know if any­one se­lected (New­man) for get­ting to the fi­nal round. If we can do what he did, get­ting to Homestead would be a re­al­is­tic goal.”

McMur­ray and Me­nard have to pick up their per­for­mance, though, to make it through the first three weeks.

McMur­ray has just two top-five fin­ishes this year, has led only 14 laps and only has seven top-10 fin­ishes. Me­nard also has two top-five fin­ishes, but only four top-10s and has led just one lap. His av­er­age fin­ish is 16.7 through the first 26 races. PRAC­TICE PA­TIENCE: Denny Ham­lin knows ex­actly what he needs to do Sun­day, and he isn’t sure how easy it’ll be at the start of the race.

His Joe Gibbs Rac­ing team strug­gled in Fri­day’s only prac­tice ses­sion, and when qual­i­fy­ing was washed out by rain, their poor show­ing earned them the 29th start­ing po­si­tion — the low­est of the 16 Chase driv­ers.

He be­lieves his first task will be stay­ing out of trou­ble at the start of the race as he tries to pick his way through traf­fic.

“I’ve got to be care­ful, first of all,” he said Satur­day. “It is 400 miles, so the goal is don’t get too anx­ious when they tell me the leader is on the same straight­away as I am. I think that’s go­ing to hap­pen.

“I’ve got to just rely on the car to do its thing, it’s been re­ally fast here lately. I think just be­ing pa­tient and not get­ting too caught up in the first part of the race is my big­gest chal­lenge.”

Ham­lin said the is­sues with the No. 11 team be­gan when they switched into qual­i­fy­ing trim Fri­day and dis­cov­ered some­thing amiss with his Toy­ota. It took too much time to fix the is­sues, and he never got in a fast lap that would have stood for seed­ing the field once qual­i­fy­ing was can­celled.

“We got be­hind, we found some­thing wrong with the car that was caus­ing us to be be­hind,” he said. “I felt like we were re­ally fast in race trim. We switched things over and had some things wrong with the car and just couldn’t get it iden­ti­fied un­til too late.” RESTARTS TO BE AD­DRESSED: NASCAR will ex­plain to driv­ers in the pre-race meet­ing about its restart pol­icy dur­ing the Chase.

Driv­ers have com­plained about a lack of con­sis­tency on the pol­icy and that NASCAR has not in­ter­vened when driv­ers have gone too early on re­cent restarts. The most re­cent gripe came on the fi­nal restart last week­end at Rich­mond, where many be­lieved Matt Kenseth jumped the start and shed Joey Logano to pull away for the win.

NASCAR made no call against Kenseth, and driv­ers this week have called on the sanc­tion­ing body to take a stance.

NASCAR ap­par­ently plans to both re­po­si­tion some at-track cam­eras to give the of­fi­cials in the tower a bet­ter look at restarts, and there will be a ded­i­cated of­fi­cial who will mon­i­tor the restart zone area.

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