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Kenseth and Menard, who tangled at Richmond, are 1-2 for the Chicago 400; NASCAR clears Menard in controversy; Keselowski wins 300

  Paul Menard looks over Slugger Labbe's Chicago Chevy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   JOLIET, Ill.
   Paul Menard fired right back at his critics Saturday by taking a front row spot for Sunday's Chicago 400, and then the Brickyard 400 winner said the Richmond controversy was all behind him now.
   Matt Kenseth, one of the championship chase contenders, took the pole for the 2 p.m. ET start.

   But it was Menard, whose late-race spinout Saturday night last weekend was questioned by Jeff Gordon, who held centerstage.
   Menard said NASCAR still hadn't officially told him anything about the Richmond controversy, but he insisted that flap is over.
   "Yeah, it's behind me," Menard said. "If they had something, I'd love to see it…because I don't know what we would have done."
   Menard ironically missed making the chase when he tangled with Kenseth midway through the Richmond race. And he said he was trying to get back to Kenseth that night, after repairs, to let him know he wasn't happy.
    "We needed something good to happen," Menard said of Saturday's run here. "Since Pocono (five weeks ago) we've been on a downward slide. So this definitely feels good.
    "We've been scratching our heads a little bit. Watkins Glen was going to be a great points day for us; I think we were running 14th or something, but we wound up blowing a tire.
    "Then we went back to Bristol and Michigan, where we'd had top-five runs earlier in the year…and expected to have the same things work, and both those races were pretty much disasters.
    "So we're scratching our heads a little bit."

   As wild as last weekend's regular season finale at Richmond was, what to expect here?
   And what really went on at Richmond anyway? Why was everyone driving so crazy?
   "I think it was a race where a lot of people had nothing to lose, really," Denny Hamlin says. "You knew it was 'Win or nothing' with most everyone -- because they knew they had to get the win to get those chase points, but if they didn't, it made no difference where they finished, because points were going to reset after that race anyway. 
    "That racing is what it's like when you don't race for points."
    Ah-hah! Maybe that's something to remember.
   And maybe that's part of this 'thing' between Kurt Busch and Jimmie Johnson. Did Jeff Gordon really ask Busch the other day why he was expending so much energy giving everyone a hard time lately, journalists and rival drivers alike? That's the word. So this 400, and particularly next weekend's Loudon, N.H., stop – where, remember, Busch and Johnson had a run-in too – could show us if the two have really made a truce for the chase.
   Hamlin and Kenseth both say stuff like that is fun to watch, as long as they're not part of it:
  "I think our sport lacks the physicality part of it, for a couple years or so," Hamlin says. "It's kind of tamed down. 
   "A lot of that is because there is so much sponsor pressure, so everyone is trying to mind their P's and Q's and make sure they stay on the good side of the sponsor. 
    "That part of it has been tough to overcome.
    "But I think some of it too has been the switch in the car and the tires. The whole thing has made it tougher for us to get around each other. 
    "And now when we do get around each other -- especially on restarts – we're trying like hell to get around each other for a few laps, because we know that's one of the few opportunities we get (to pass). 
    "Everyone is trying to get as much as they can on restarts, because we know after five laps it's just extremely hard to pass."
    And when it comes to rough-house driving, "I'm a fan of it, yes," Hamlin says. "But do I like the retaliation part of it? No."

   With five of the 10 playoff races set for 1-1/2-mile tracks like this one, Sunday's 400 could show which of the 12 title contenders have a solid mid-sized track program for this championship run.
   However Kenseth says he's not going to read that much into this 400: "I know we always group them together, because they are the same size, and there are guys that seem to run good at all of them, or not as good.
    "But they are all really a lot different. I think this is similar to Texas but a lot different than Charlotte, for instance.
    "You want to start off running good here, but it is a little unique -- a little like Texas and Kansas.
    "And we only come here once a year and haven't been here in a long time. Last year (the summer of 2010) we saw David (Reutimann, the winner) get the set-up perfect and blew everyone away. And some other guys you maybe expected to run better kind of missed it.
    "I think it will be a little bit of a race like that: a few guys will hit it better than the others, and it will be hard for the rest to keep up.
    "The key is getting through the bumps in turn three. It reminds me of the bumps in turn one in Vegas.
     "It is not just about who can get through the bumps but the way they are in turn three, especially with the tailwind today. That is an important part of the track: Where the biggest bumps are it's kind of your entry, and where you are trying to get to your marks in turn three.
    "Turn one and two is not bad.
    "Certainly if you go high enough you can go around them (in turn three), but I would assume most guys are going to be on the top on a long run, and if you expect to pass you will have to get through there (low)."


   Brad Keselowski, during a pit stop, on the way to winning Saturday's Nationwide 300 at Chicagoland (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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