2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 27 Menards Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Slugger Labbe
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2013
Best points finish: 23rd (2010)
Hometown: Eau Claire, Wis.
Born: August 21, 1980
There’s one thing about having a guaranteed sponsor: There will always be a market for your services. Having his family’s business available to put on the hood has given Paul Menard several opportunities that other drivers of his caliber haven’t been able to find. Having that package deal in place also reopened the door to a fourth team for Richard Childress Racing, so bringing Menard into the fold creates a win-win situation for both driver and owner.
Or so it seems on the surface. Menard has more potential than most other drivers who find their way to NASCAR’s top ranks via family money, but he’ll still be the fourth fiddle in Childress’ band. With his fourth organization in as many years, this stop — he’s under contract through 2013 — may be Menard’s last, best chance to capitalize on the opportunities he has, following just eight top-10 finishes to show for a 147-race career in high-caliber equipment. Six of those occurred in 2010 during what could be called a “breakthrough” season for him — if, of course, your definition of “breakthrough” is 23rd in the series standings. Other than intermediates, the bullrings, road courses, and other challenging ovals leave him long on desire, short on results.
Menard does have a few things on his side. He’s fairly marketable, and a decent racecar driver to boot; he has a win and 60 top 10s in 165 Nationwide Series races.
Menard brings with him an experienced crew chief in Slugger Labbe, with whom he has worked with since his days at what was then Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Labbe knows how to win, and the team also has another ace up its sleeve in powerful Earnhardt-Childress engines, whose power put three RCR teams in the Chase in 2010.
Among insiders, Menard is known as a good teammate, a man whose yeoman’s work in testing helped turn Ford around behind the scenes after bad simulations nearly derailed its 2010 season. On the other hand, a fourth team turned out to be more than RCR could chew in 2009, and Menard will really have to bring his “A” game each week to make sure wrecks and wrong decisions don’t sap the organization of resources.
This year could really go either way: The breakthrough where Menard finds the top 10 on a semi-regular basis, or the year his reputation is sealed as a mid-pack driver racing on his daddy’s dollar.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Menard moves to his third team in four years, and many cite family money (his father’s company is his primary sponsor) as the 30-year-old’s meal ticket. “There’s not really much I have to say about Menard as a driver,” says a crew chief. “I just haven’t noticed that much, but I haven’t been paying that much attention, either. He’s competent, but what’s important about Paul Menard is that he brings money, and money is a crucial part of the industry, especially with the economy the way it is. That money may help the whole RCR operation, whether or not it actually benefits Menard.”
Another says, “Menard’s a decent driver. He won a Nationwide Series race (Milwaukee, 2006) one time. He might get by with some help from his dad, but I don’t think you can say the guy hasn’t paid his dues.”
Another scoffs: “What? Didn’t he have a top-5 finish (fifth, Atlanta) last year? That’s two in his career.”
Top 5s: 1
Top 10s: 6
Laps Led: 17
Laps Completed: 10,669
Lead Lap Finishes: 0
Bonus Points: 25
Races Led: 5
Average Start: 19.6
Average Finish: 19.8
After First 26 Races: 23rd
Final Points Standing: 23rd
Driver Rating: 70.9 (23rd)