Published September 20, 2015
JOLIET, Ill. (AP) 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 Sunday 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.
But he is teammates at Richard Childress Racing with Newman, and that organization proved last year it can game a system that was supposed to reward winning.
''I'm not going to change how I race,'' said Menard. ''This has gotten us to this point. We just need to step it up a little bit. We'll all fight tooth and nail.''
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 canceled.
''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.
''It was just a bad effort by me and the team, just not getting a decent lap.''
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.
HENDRICK SPIES: It's no secret Hendrick Motorsports is lagging behind some of the championship competitors, but the organization isn't conceding its title chances.
In fact, four-time series champion Jeff Gordon said Hendrick officials are scouring the garage to determine where the team is lacking.
''You know what you've got to do to make your car better. How you do it is another challenge, and you learn from your competitors,'' Gordon said. ''We have spies everywhere. We constantly are looking at our competitors.''
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson scoffed at the idea Hendrick was using actual ''spies,'' and pointed out it's very easy to see what other teams are doing during the course of a day in the garage.
''When we park next to each other, everyone is looking at each other's cars, and you can see things,'' Johnson said. ''The photos we receive during practice, you can see the attitude of the car, and how low it is, and speculate on springs and stuff going on, but it takes so many small details to separate yourself and find an advantage.
''I know our guys are digging deep, and I'm not sure if it's been the spying aspect.''