As the laps wound down in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Michigan International Speedway, it appeared as if Joey Logano was going to coast to his first NNS victory of the season.
However, with just four laps to go, Logano was forced to pit road with a cut right rear tire, handing the lead to Richard Childress Racing’s Paul Menard.
Hanging on over the next four circuits, Menard took the checkered flag to score his first Nationwide Series win since 2006 at The Milwaukee Mile.
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"Everyone at ECR (Earnhardt Childress Racing Engines) built a great race car here," Menard said in Victory Lane. "It’s a new body, brand new car from the top down. ECR gave us a little something under the hood, trying a new piece.
"Man, good to be back in Victory Lane for win No. 2 (in the Nationwide Series)," he said. "I think we finished second and third a ton the last couple years, so this feels really good."
Chasing Logano in the closing laps, Menard knew he wasn’t going to catch the Team Penske driver unless something happened out front.
"I was trying to run him down and would catch him just a little bit. I wasn’t going to get him," Menard said. "I thought the best car is going to finish second again. We had that happen to us a couple times last year."
Sam Hornish Jr. overcame a Lap 2 spin to finish second, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Brian Scott, Chase Elliott, Regan Smith, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher.
A constant figure near the front of the field, Menard led a total of 18 laps en route to his win, but did not have one of the most dominant cars.
That distinction went to Larson, who led 46 of the 125 laps. Starting fourth, Larson wasted no time getting to the lead on Lap 17. Out in clean air, Larson set the pace for much of the day.
However, on the final stop of the day, Larson, along with Elliott and Kyle Busch — two of Larson’s biggest challengers — took four tires while a host of others took fuel only or two tires.
Larson was forced to restart the race in the 15th spot and was only able to work his way to eighth when the checkered flag flew.
"That strategy really sucked there," Larson said. "We had to take fuel when a lot of guys didn’t, and they got out in front of us. We were really, really loose in dirty air. Oh well. The Chartwell Chevy was fast out front, but not so good in traffic.
"Kyle Busch did a really good job getting through traffic, and me and Chase were battling loose race cars back behind people. Sucks, but that’s the way it goes."
On that final pit stop, Logano’s team opted for fuel only, which gave his driver the lead. With track position at a premium, the clean air out front allowed Logano to stretch the lead once he cleared Earnhardt Jr. on the final restart of the day with 36 laps to go.
After his late-race stop for the flat tire, Logano finished the day 16th, one lap down to Menard.
"I ran over something at some point," Logano said. "Pretty much sucked. Had a really good Discount Tire Ford this whole race. We kept fighting through the field, coming up to the front and actually having a lot of fun. Once you finally got clean air you were able to pull away. The 33 (Menard) was quick there and had a fast car, also.
"We were going to have a race, because he was catching me a little bit. I could tell it was going down on the back straightaway, and I went into (Turn) 3 there and chased it up the racetrack and had to pit. I hate giving them away like that."
The biggest incident of the day came when rookie Dylan Kwasniewski got loose under Trevor Bayne entering Turn 1. The two made contact and both cars shot hard into the outside wall to bring out the fourth caution on Lap 78.
"I just lost it," said Kwasniewski, whose 31st-place finish was his third DNF in 13 starts. "I’ve got to start driving smarter. This is all my fault. It’s a shame for the 6 car (Bayne). We got up into him and unfortunately ended his day as well. Just got to drive smarter.
"I’ve done this a bunch of times. I should know not to do it and just lost it under him and got a little aero-loose and that’s what happens. … We just have to stay out of trouble and I’ve got to stop making these mistakes."