Oh, baby: Dad-to-be Paul Menard gets best result since 2012

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Paul Menard’s third-place finish in today’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will no doubt earn him a tidy bit of prize money.

And there’s likely no doubt some of that moolah is going toward a steady supply of diapers.

Menard and his wife are awaiting the birth of their first child, which caused Richard Childress Racing to have Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton on standby to take over the No. 27 Chevrolet in case its regular driver had to book it back to North Carolina.

Crafton finished 12th in yesterday’s Nationwide Series event but was not needed for today’s main event as Menard stayed in town. The Wisconsin native then drove like, well, a guy trying to get to the hospital for the birth of his kid, and earned his best result since a third-place finish at Kansas in October of 2012.

“The due date is Tuesday,” Menard said after the race. “My phone is back at the hauler so she might have called, but I told her to call. Matt Crafton is my backup and he really wants to get in the car, so I told Jennifer if it’s important, call Matt because he’s sure as hell going to tell me.

“I didn’t get the call, though, so I guess everything is good.”

And for this week at least, everything was good on track as well for Menard and the No. 27 team. The group knew it had a strong car in race trim during Thursday’s test session, but lacked the pace in qualifying trim and had to start in mid-pack.

Still, the team tinkered away.

“We did a few adjustments from yesterday, felt like we ended [final practice] good, did a few adjustments overnight, anticipating the track was going to be a little bit hotter, slicker, [and it] kind of played into our favor, and really had a solid car from the green flag,” he said.

“We tightened it up a little bit the first couple runs, then we freed it back up and kind of bounced back and forth. [We] felt like we had definitely a top 3 car and at times, the best car.

Menard even got a turn at the lead, managing to get past defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson with around 70 laps to go and staying at P1 before pitting under green with 62 laps left.

“It was cool going up and passing Jimmie for the lead and passing him for a few laps, but [I’m] just proud of my guys,” he said. “We’re clicking really well, we got a couple new engineers and of course [crew chief] Slugger [Labbe]…So, a good group of guys. Our pit crew’s pit stops were awesome.”

As for whether he thought RCR could contend across the board at this point of the year, Menard said it was too early to tell.

“Our short track program, I feel like is where we need to focus on,” he said. “Intermediate track – I think Ryan [Newman] finished 7th and Austin [Dillon, finished 16th] had a good car all day. We just need to – we’ve got a good baseline for intermediate stuff, we’ve just got to work on our short track stuff more.”

IMSA: Sebring test notes

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Ahead of next month’s Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, teams from the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship took to Sebring International Raceway to round out a week of IMSA testing at the 3.74-mile road course.

Below are news highlights from Friday and Saturday at Sebring.

Derani Aiming for a Repeat of 2016 Victory

Tequila Patrón ESM’s Pipo Derani burst onto the American racing scene in 2016 with standout performances at the Rolex 24 and 12 Hours of Sebring to lead the ESM team to victory at both races.

His Sebring triumph was particularly impressive as he charged from fourth to first in the final ten minutes to secure the victory in one of the most thrilling finishes the race has ever seen.

Now two years removed from those successes, Derani appreciates the impact those 2016 triumphs had on his career.

“If you’re talking about sports car racing, you’re talking about Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Petit and those races that are known worldwide,” said the now 24-year-old Derani. “After winning Daytona and immediately coming here at Sebring – which if I’m not wrong, I was the first guy winning both on debut and the first Brazilian, probably to win back-to-back on those two races. It definitely changed my career. It opened many doors for myself and I’m really glad that it happened. Nothing comes easy. I’m really glad that ESM gave me the chance in 2016 to be in those races. Two years later, I can’t wait to win again.”

With testing now in the rearview mirror, Derani hopes he and the ESM team have found the right setup package to give them another chance at a victory.

“(Thursday) was a day that we managed to get a lot of information,” he explained. Most importantly, we ran a lot. We were out on track, and that is really good for us. Hopefully, this work is going to pay off really, really soon.”

United Autosports Continues American Odyssey at Sebring

Although two-time FIA Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso won’t be in the mix, United Autosports will be continuing the American adventure they started at January’s Rolex 24 with entries at the three other Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup events in 2018, beginning with March’s 12 Hours of Sebring.

The No. 32 Ligier JS P217 Gibson will be the team’s entrant at the remaining NAEC events and they will look to build on a fourth-place finish at the Rolex. However, while fourth looks like a strong result, team co-owner Richard Dean felt a victory may have been within their reach.

“We were a little bit disappointed in the end, even though we finished fourth because I think with three hours to go we sat in third place and the two Cadillacs were looking like they were struggling, we felt like we had an opportunity that 24-hour races can give you,” said Dean. “But everybody’s got a story, so we came out of there with a fourth place.”

Drivers Phil Hanson and Paul Di Resta returned to the team to complete the Sebring test, while Alex Brundle filled in for an ill Bruno Senna, who is scheduled to race with the team at the 12-hour enduro.

Dean emphasized, though, that Senna’s previous experience around the track should make up for his absence.

“Bruno couldn’t travel, he wasn’t well enough, and there was just no point in him getting on a plane and being ill here,” Dean asserted. “He knows the track. Of the three drivers we’ve got, he’s the one who needed the least laps around here.

Dean added that the team is beginning to get a better foothold on American soil, citing help from Andretti Autosport, which should improve their prospects for the remaining NAEC rounds.

“We feel a little bit more organized, we’ve got our own truck now, and we’ve got a little base here, and (Andretti Autosport) have been helping us out an awful lot, so our little collaboration or alliance with Andretti has certainly steadied the ship a little bit for us and helped us,” Dean said. “We’re excited to do these remaining races, and now that we’ve got Daytona experience with us, it’s definitely going to help us do a much better job in the approach for Sebring, Watkins Glen and Petit.”

Lally Samples New Continental Tire Design

Continental Tire, the current tire supplier for the Prototype and GT Daytona classes in the Weathertech Championship, rolled out a new tire design for the Sebring test, and Magnus Racing’s Andy Lally was the first to sample it on Thursday.

“Basically, we’re all going through sweeps right now and feeling things out. What does the tire feel like when you’re in qualifying mode versus full-fuel mode?” Lally said after the initial running. “There are all sorts of stuff when you get such a change like what we’ve got here. This is a relatively big change for the GT cars. Maybe for the Prototypes, it’s not as big a change, but for the GT3 cars, it’s quite a different feel on the platform. We’re just going through that.”
The new tire design comes after a Rolex 24 that was plagued with tire problems, as several teams suffered failures, especially on the left-rear, during the 24-hour race. Wayne Taylor Racing even elected to retire their No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R after suffering five tire failures.
Miller, Bechtolsheimer Sample New CJ Wilson Racing Acura NSX GT3
Marc Miller and Till Bechtolsheimer got to work quickly with new Weathertech entrant CJ Wilson Racing, with both drivers sampling their new Acura NSX GT3 on Thursday and Friday.
Miller is a veteran of GT3 machinery and has won big races before – he was a GTD class winner at the 2016 Motul Petit Le Mans. Bechtolsheimer, however, is all new to GT3 machinery, having primarily raced vintage cars along with forays into the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.
“I’ve not driven anything close to a GTD car before,” quipped Bechtolsheimer. “The first time driving it properly here at Sebring is kind of fitting because the first time I drove a car on slicks was at Sebring two years ago in moving to Continental Tire, which was at least as daunting at the time as moving into GTD now.
“The first time I turned a lap or two in the car, even though I was just trying to figure out where all the switches were and so on, I straight away felt that this is a car that’s going to be fun to drive. It’s going to take me time to build up to be on pace, but it’s a confidence-inspiring car and its yeah, it’s a lot nicer than perhaps I was expecting.”
The Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring rolls off on March 17.