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Is Menard's best good enough in a deep Sprint Cup field?
Paul Menard has spent the past few seasons of his Sprint Cup career on the fringe of success. He has just one win on his Cup résumé, in 2011, but it’s one of the most prestigious wins a driver can have: the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s good for a top 5 and a few top 10s per year and, through conserving equipment, can achieve consistency. He was good enough to run inside the top 10 in points for 10 weeks in 2013.
The problem is, Menard has never been able to sustain a hot streak or be consistently good enough to contend for a Chase berth. In seven full-time Sprint Cup seasons, he has cracked the top 20 in points three times, but never finished better than 16th (2012). With Cup competition stronger than ever heading into this season, Menard could very well struggle to make it into that top 20 if he simply maintains the status quo.
The No. 27 team itself remains stable for 2014. Crew chief Slugger Labbe is signed through 2016, and Richard Childress Racing equipment was strong enough for Kevin Harvick to make a 2013 title run, so race cars will not hold Menard back. Labbe is a veteran presence on the box and also has one of NASCAR’s biggest races, the Daytona 500, in the win column. His mechanical excellence will continue to be a boon to Menard.
But perhaps the driver’s best asset in today’s NASCAR is his homegrown sponsorship. Menards, the retail chain owned by Paul’s father, John, is the driver’s primary backer, and that family money means he is virtually a lock for a ride with a decent team every year. In a day and age when money rules NASCAR — and even a winning record isn’t the guarantee of a ride it once was — Menard’s future is as secure as that of the sport’s elite.
That’s not to say he is undeserving of the ride. While his numbers will never be mistaken for Jeff Gordon’s, he has proven to those in the garage that he can hang.
This season should resemble most on the Wisconsin native’s Cup résumé. He’s had at least eight top-10 runs in each of his three years at RCR, and if the planets align, he could pick up a win on an intermediate oval, where he’s earned five of his 10 career top-5 finishes. The problem is, the same can be said of a lot of drivers this year. While Menard has everything he needs behind him to make a driver successful, he has yet to have a breakout season in which he stomps out the naysayers once and for all. Even in 2013, with such a hot start — Menard was the only driver to complete every lap in each of the first nine races — he failed to earn a top-5 showing until Michigan in August.
Typically the aforementioned numbers aren’t enough to sustain employment, but Richard Childress Racing is using a creative method to provide organizational funding.
Menard has shown flashes of talent — but just flashes — over a seven-year career. A points finish in the back half of the teens or low 20s reflects said talent in a deep Cup field and is in line with past results.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He has quite a few years of experience and continues to develop his racing skills,” a rival crew chief says. “He’s a well-known driver and pretty consistent. Paul has the ability to win a race at any point because he runs decent on all types of racetracks. That tells me he has a good feel for what he wants in his car. Plus, he’s a strong team player who shares information well with his teammates — that’s a big plus.”
For every compliment, though, there is criticism: “He doesn’t seem to have the killer instinct needed to bring a fifth-place car to the point,” says another crew chief. “He’s a good driver, but not Chase-caliber. Honestly, his tenure in the sport has been significantly lengthened due to the money he brings to the table, but Slugger Labbe is a good crew chief — yet even he hasn’t been able to take the team to the next level.”
But another crew chief plays his trump card: “He’s won the Brickyard. I wonder how many drivers can lay claim to that?”
“You know what you’re going to get with Menard,” says a media member. “You know what his season-ending stats are going to look like before the season even starts. That said, he brings great insight when addressing the media. Wish we heard more from him.”
No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Richard “Slugger” Labbe
Years with current team: 4
Under contract through: 2016
Best points finish: 16th (2012)
Hometown: Eau Claire, Wis.
Born: Aug. 21, 1980
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Menard courtesy of NASCAR.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro