@nascarcasm imagines Menard's Facebook page after his XFINITY win RELATED: All content from @nascarcasm " Follow @nascarcasm
RELATED: Meet all 16 drivers in the Chase JOLIET, Ill. -- Thursday's playoff-opening media day for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was graced by the arrival of two newcomers in the 16-driver field. Neither was new enough to need a name tag, but Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard both savored the spotlight that comes with their newfound championship eligibility. "Quite honestly, I've never paid attention to what happens at Chase Media Day," McMurray said as he made media rotations at The Murphy in downtown Chicago. "I don't know that I had any idea what all of this was. When we showed up today and took our photo out front when we initially got here, I thought we were literally here for a photo in front of this building and I wasn't sure why. And then when I walked in and saw all this -- amazing. It somewhat reminds you of a condensed version of what we do at Daytona every year." With the meet-and-greets out of the way, both first-timers settle down to the business end of their Chase debut this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway , site of Sunday's MyAFibRisk.com 400 (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the first of 10 playoff races that will determine the Sprint Cup champion. Both found out quickly that the event is no ordinary race, as evidenced by the build-up and obligations before the Challenger Round opens. Both drivers participated in Chase Across North America activities Tuesday: McMurray loaded into Talladega to help a group of middle school students paint a car in Victory Lane, while Menard traveled to Martinsville for a parade and the key to the city. Both then traveled to Kansas Speedway for Wednesday's test session before arriving for Thursday's festivities in the Windy City. The Chase marks uncharted ground for both, but on-track activity and the normal flow of the weekend schedule should provide some familiarity. "I've never been in this position before, so I'm just taking it like I take every week with a busier week leading up to the event this week obviously," Menard said. "But ... 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 wait for a Chase berth has been a lengthy one for McMurray, whose first premier-series start came roughly a year and a half before the 10-race playoff system debuted in 2004. Since then, his career has been dotted with Chase near-misses, but he secured his spot in the field as the top points-earner among non-winners. The Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver doesn't see the zero in his win column as an impediment, citing the example of Ryan Newman last year in the first go-round for the new-look Chase. Newman weathered eliminations all the way to the championship round without a win in 2014, something McMurray said he's capable of replicating thanks to the No. 1 team's consistency this season. "For sure, it obviously has been a long time," McMurray said. "I'm really proud of our team and what we've been able to do to make the Chase. I think I'm most proud that we would've made it in any format. It wasn't necessarily that you're the last guy to get in. We were in the top 10 in points all year long and that's a huge accomplishment for us." The wait has been slightly less prolonged for Menard , who joined the Sprint Cup Series full time in 2007. He wound up as the final driver to qualify for the Chase, 17 points ahead of Aric Almirola . RELATED: Top quotes from Chase Media Day If the Richard Childress Racing driver has an X-factor, it could be from his cult following in social media circles. Though he's among a handful of drivers who aren't on Twitter, he said he's felt the modest groundswell of support from the loyal Menard faithful. "What is there -- 15 nations and one empire? Is that what they say?" Menard said, referring to both the Chase "driver nation" branding and the @PMenardEmpire Twitter account. "No, it's cool. I've actually met Jory, who does the Paul Menard Empire. He's been to a few races and I've met him. Then just randomly … somebody came up -- it was in Richmond -- and said they wanted to meet the emperor. So I signed an autograph. It's cool. I hear about it and it's a pretty cool deal."
RELATED: Full Richmond results RICHMOND, Va. -- There were no last-second heroics, no pit-road gambles or stunning strategy in an effort to beat the odds. For Jamie McMurray , Ryan Newman , Jeff Gordon , Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard , points positions proved crucial. And in the end, proved to be enough. The group collected the final five positions in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup by failing to fail, running well enough to earn the final berths in this year's 16-team field. "It was still stressful, because we had that last restart," Gordon, a four-time champion making his final Chase appearance, said after bringing his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet home seventh in Saturday night's Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway . "It was nice not to have to really be sweating it." Gordon needed a finish of 17th or better to clinch. "I know this guy's happy," Gordon said as team owner Rick Hendrick eased up behind his driver to give him a congratulatory hug. "He was sweating it a little bit like the rest of us were. So that feels good to make him happy. This team, they deserve it." Hendrick, who has seen Gordon evolve from a promising young talent into one of the most successful competitors in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, provided a news flash: "Let me be the first to tell you," he said, "he's going to drive another year. He's not doing good enough, so he's got to go one more." Hendrick was kidding. Sort of. GALLERY: 2015 Chase drivers celebrate at Richmond McMurray locked in his first career Chase spot by simply taking the green flag to start the 400-lap event on the .75-mile track. Although he started 31st in the 43-car field, by night's end McMurray ( Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates) had raced his way up to 13th. "I'm super relieved," McMurray said. "I've been the guy on the outside trying to fight my way in, and I've also been in this a couple of times and been knocked out at Richmond." Like McMurray, Menard ( Richard Childress Racing ) will be making his first Chase appearance when the 10-race playoff begins next week at Chicagoland Speedway . The excitement of qualifying was tempered a bit by a difficult night on the race track -- Menard finished 26th, three laps down to race winner Matt Kenseth ( Joe Gibbs Racing ). "We had a fast car, it just burned the left-front tire off after like 30, 40 laps and we started going backwards," said Menard . "Try to figure out what happened there." His No. 27 team wasn't the only one to have issues with the left front, he said. But others had no similar problems. "Some guys," he said, "obviously figured it out. "We've had a lot of good runs this year; obviously this wasn't one of them." Bowyer's Chase appearance will be his final showing with Michael Waltrip Racing -- the two-car organization will cease to exist after the '15 season. "I hate to say this but it's actually nice to go into the Chase the way we are; the pressure is off," Bowyer said. "Hell, we were trying to make the Chase, that's big, that's monumental for our organization and our team. "Let's just go have fun, let's get everything we can out of every single weekend and see what happens. Literally, the pressure is off until somehow, some way you're in the thing (for) two rounds or three rounds then all of a sudden the pressure kicks back up. But that's the neat thing about being in our situation, being part of this Chase. Right now, in the next three or four weeks, there is no pressure." Bowyer's status as a Chase participant was the most tenuous -- a slip could have opened the door for someone else to bolt past. His 10th-place finish proved more than enough to accomplish what was required. RELATED: Bowyer wants to end MWR run on a high note "At the beginning we weren't real great," crew chief Billy Scott admitted. "We had to work hard on it. Just stayed calm, it was a long race. After that we just kind of found a place and ran our race. "We were keeping an eye on guys that hadn't won and were running up front, where the guys were that we were racing in points and felt pretty comfortable with getting in on either side of that. "There was no need to gamble. We just ran a pretty conservative race and brought it home in one piece."
Paul Menard spins David Ragan and leaves him with heavy damage after hitting the wall.
Greg Biffle will start on front row for Friday's night event RELATED: Learn more about the Sprint All-Star Race MORE: Full qualifying results Paul Menard took the pole for Friday night's Sprint Showdown (7 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM) at Charlotte Motor Speedway . Menard used a fast lap of 189.673 mph in the second of two round of group qualifying to take the top spot. Joining Menard on the front row will be Greg Biffle (189.660 mph). The Roush Fenway Racing driver topped the opening round at 189.960 mph. The second row will be made up of Michael Waltrip Racing teammates David Ragan (189.049 mph) and Clint Bowyer (188.298 mph). Bowyer won last year's Sprint Showdown. Second-year drivers Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson will make up the second row. Starting in the first three rows has been a theme of success in recent Sprint Showdowns. Eight of the past 11 winners of this event have started in the top six. The lone exceptions being Martin Truex Jr . (started 11th in 2007 win and started 20th in 2010 win) and Sam Hornish Jr . (started 8th in 2009 win). Truex will start seventh while Hornish will be starting 13th on Friday night. Danica Patrick will start 8th as she looks to race her way into the Sprint All-Star Race. Chase Elliott will start 11th as he attempts to get a fifth Hendrick Motorsports car into the field for the Sprint All-Star Race. Should he make the race, it will be a busy weekend for the defending XFINITY Series champion as that series competes at Iowa Speedway with practice and qualifying on Saturday and the 3M 250 on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM). The Sprint Showdown will be on Friday night at 7 p.m. ET (FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM). The two winners of each 20-lap segment will advance to Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race (9 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM). The winner of the first segment will report directly to the garage at the conclusion of the first segment. The Sprint Fan Vote winner will round out the field for the Sprint All-Star Race.
RELATED: Complete race results " Updated standings ELKHART LAKE, Wis. -- The decision to compete in Saturday afternoon's NASCAR XFINITY Series sixth annual Road America 180 Fired Up by Johnsonville at Road America (Wisconsin) paid off in a huge way for Paul Menard , who scored his third career XFINITY victory at his hometown track. Menard , a native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, started eighth and saw a decision to stay out after pitting on Lap 24 work to his advantage as he edged out a relentless Ryan Blaney by 0.573 seconds at the 14-turn road course. After the contest, Menard said had the race extended a lap farther, he would not have collected his first XFINITY win since Michigan International Speedway last June. "I've been really fortunate to win at some of the coolest tracks, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Road America is right there," Menard said. "These guys called a great race. We didn't have the fastest car. We had a really good short run car. We really burned off the rear tires as we ran, but the Richmond Water Heaters/Menards Chevrolet was fast and (crew chief Danny) Stockman made a hell of a call at the end." If wondering about running out of fuel wasn't enough, Menard also had to fend off a hard-charging Blaney. "I was definitely concerned," added Menard on both circumstances. "I was saving as much as I could under caution, but then when we fired off I was just chattering the left rear tire really bad. It took a couple of laps for it to come in, then the (No.) 22 started burning his stuff up, but it just didn't fire off very good in the end, but it came to us." After inclement weather forced the cancellation of Coors Light Pole qualifying, Ben Rhodes earned the top starting spot based upon turning the fastest lap at the 4.048-mile road course in the first XFINITY Series practice session Friday afternoon. Rhodes, a NASCAR Next alum, would find himself under pressure from the drop of the green flag when JR Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott made the move for the lead in Turn 1. Quickly, though, the field would be under the first full-course caution of the day when Tomy Drissi found himself stuck in the gravel trap in Turn 5. Racing resumed on Lap 4 with Elliott checking out from the field and before the first round of green-flag pit stops. The reigning champion stretched his lead to over 10 seconds, when he relinquished the top spot on Lap 11 for a routine pit stop. Championship contender Ty Dillon inherited the lead when Elliott pitted. Dillon, who finished 10th, stretched his fuel run an extra lap to earn a crucial bonus point toward the championship picture. When pit stops cycled through, Elliott reclaimed the point on Lap 16 and built a 13.7-second lead over second-place Brian Scott at the halfway mark. On Lap 22, the second caution waved for fluid on the track, erasing Elliott's substantial advantage. Despite half of the field electing to come to pit road for service behind them, Elliott and his JRM team stood firm on their plan and stayed out. On the restart, Elliott withstood a challenge for Brian Scott and Ryan Blaney , but in Turn 14 and through the frontstretch, Scott mounted the pressure and made the move on Elliott to take the lead on Lap 27. Unable to make it to the end on fuel, Scott pitted under green on Lap 29 handing the lead to defending race winner Brendan Gaughan . Three laps later, though, Gaughan pitted, handing the lead to hometown hero Paul Menard who pitted during the second caution with 13 laps remaining. Planning to stay out till the end, Menard in saving mode purposely gave up the lead to Blake Koch ,who led with 10 laps remaining when pole-sitter Rhodes found himself stuck in the gravel trap in Turn 7 issuing the third full course caution. During the extended caution, Koch lost power, putting Menard back at the point. On the Lap 41 restart, Menard withstood challenges from Darrell Wallace Jr . and Blaney to seal the win in his 197th career start. Next up for the NASCAR XFINITY Series is a trip to the track dubbed "Too Tough To Tame" at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway for the VFW Sport Clips Help A Hero 200 on Sept. 5 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
Paul Menard holds off a hard-charging Ryan Blaney to capture his first NASCAR XFINITY Series win at Road America.
Paul Menard struggled at Richmond, but manages to make it into the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time, while Clint Bowyer bring Michael Waltrip Racing back into the Chase Grid.
RELATED: Practice 2 results The NASCAR XFINITY drivers were battling some weather conditions during the second practice session on Friday afternoon with light rain. Despite the rain, Paul Menard was the fastest during the second practice at Road America . Menard's No. 33 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet clocked in at 108.202 mph. Second on the leaderboard was the No. 54 Toyota of Boris Said , soaring around the 4.048-mile road course at 108.044 mph. Chase Elliott 's No. 9 Chevrolet had some speed in the second session with a quickest lap of 107.672 mph, followed by the No. 22 Ford of Ryan Blaney (107.656 mph), for fourth on the leaderboard. Rounding out the top five was the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet of Ty Dillon (107.636 mph). NASCAR XFINITY Series Coors Light Pole Qualifying for the Road America 180 Fired Up by Johnsonville is set for Saturday afternoon at 12:15 p.m. ET (NBCSN/ Live Extra ). The Road America 180 Fired Up by Johnsonville will be held on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET (NBCSN / Live Extra. , MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). RELATED: Practice 1 results Ben Rhodes topped the leaderboard for Friday afternoon's first NASCAR XFINITY Series practice session at Road America for the Road America 180 Fired Up by Johnsonville. Rhodes' No. 88 JR Motorsports Chevrolet posted a fastest lap of 108.500 mph. The No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet of Chase Elliott was next on the leaderboard, clocking in a fastest lap of 108.133 mph. Last week's winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Ryan Blaney , rounded out the top three with a fast lap of 108.039 mph in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford. The No. 42 Chevrolet of Justin Marks (107.948 mph) and the No. 2 Chevrolet of Brian Scott (107.947 mph) came in fourth and fifth, respectively. Points leader Chris Buescher just missed the top five as he had a fastest lap of 107.879 mph and was sixth on the leaderboard. The race at Road America is the final road course race of the 2015 season for the XFINITY Series.
NASCAR.com's Roshawn Brown recaps all the highlights as Paul Menard holds off Ryan Blaney to win at his hometown track of Road America.