Paul Menard returned to the driver’s seat of the No. 33 Menards Chevrolet Impala at Michigan International Speedway for the 15th race of the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series season. Menard and the Kevin Harvick Inc. (KHI) team qualified on the pole for the Saturday afternoon event and brought home a solid fourth-place finish, the team’s sixth top-five and 10th top-10 finish this season.
The Eau Claire, Wis., native joined the KHI team for the third time this season at the Brooklyn, Mich., facility. Menard captured his third-career Nationwide Series pole, and the No. 33 team’s second pole award in 15 races.
Menard led the 43-car field to the green flag and battled three-wide around the 1.5-mile track in the opening laps. After swapping positions several times, the driver settled into the second position on lap 10.
Menard communicated to crew chief David Hyder and his KHI crew that he was fighting a tight-handling Chevrolet. By the lap 20 mark, he fell back to the fourth position.
The KHI team planned on a lap 38 pit stop, but as other competitors began to make their green-flag stops Hyder made the call for Menard to come down pit road a lap early. The driver wheeled the car into his stall for four tires, fuel and the removal of a rubber from the left-rear spring. Menard, running fifth when he entered pit road, returned to the track in the same position.
Menard advanced to the fourth position as NASCAR waved the yellow flag for the first time on lap 43. As the field slowed, he radioed to his crew that the changes made on the previous pit stop had improved the handling of the Chevrolet. Given the positive feedback, the team opted to remain on track during the caution to gain track position and the decision paid off as the No. 33 restarted second behind KHI teammate Elliott Sadler in the No. 2 OneMain Financial Chevrolet on lap 48.
As the field returned to full speed, the driver traded positions several times before moving into the second position. Menard was on the rear bumper of the race leader as the second caution of the race came on lap 56. Having not made a stop during the first caution, Hyder called Menard to pit road for four tires and fuel. Happy with the overall handling of the car despite being tight in turns one and two, the team made no adjustments to the No. 33 KHI Chevrolet.
Green-flag racing resumed on lap 60. Running three-wide, Menard powered the No. 33 Menards Chevrolet from the 12th position up to sixth on the restart. By lap 65, he was back fighting for position in the top five.
Menard continued his charge toward the lead, running in the third position by lap 80. Another round of green-flag stops began on lap 87 and on lap 88, the No. 33 team followed suit. Menard came to pit road to the attention of his crew for four tires, fuel and an air-pressure adjustment. The team had trouble with the right rear on the stop which put Menard back on track in the 19th position, one lap down to the leaders.
As Menard was working his way through traffic, the third yellow flag of the day waved with 32 laps to go. The No. 33 was the first car one lap down and with the caution, regained lead-lap status. After receiving the Lucky Dog, Menard came to pit road for four tires, fuel and an air-pressure adjustment and took the lap 100 restart from the 11th position.
Menard showed the fans more exciting three-wide racing as he shot past several competitors and raced his way to the seventh position on the first lap back under green. He continued to muscle his way forward, and reached the fourth position with 20 laps remaining in the 125-lap contest. In the closing laps Menard battled door-to-door for the third position, but with the wave of the checkered flag, he ended the day in the fourth position.
The NASCAR Nationwide Series heads to Elkhart Lake, Wis., next weekend for the first road course event of the season at Road America. Driver Max Papis will pilot the No. 33 Menards Chevrolet Impala in his first event with KHI this season. Tune in to ESPN at 5:30 p.m. ET to watch the action live.