When Paul Menard joined Richard Childress Racing a year ago, signing a three-year deal, it was hard to argue with the team’s decision. After all, Menard brought with him a guaranteed full-time sponsor in his family’s business, a rarity in today’s NASCAR. The hope for the driver was that in return, experience and equipment provided at RCR could help this journeyman get over the hump and become a weekly contender.
Mission accomplished. After rifling through four teams in four years, Menard found his true home in 2011 and set career highs in every category: top 5s (four), top 10s (eight), points finish (17th) and laps led (82). Always known as an intermediate specialist, Menard scored a career-high fifth at Bristol’s half-mile bullring, leading 35 laps, and qualified third at the winding road course in Sonoma before fading to 17th.
But the biggest breakthrough of all came at Indianapolis, where Menard finally notched a Sprint Cup win in one of the series’ most prestigious races, the Brickyard 400. To do so in front of his father, who had spent millions to try and capture the Indy 500 in open-wheel only to see his son accomplish that dream in stock cars, was something special. “I saw my dad as soon as we pulled into Victory Lane,” Menard said after a win that helped validate his stock car career. “He came up to the window, and I said something like, ‘35 years of trying — here we go, this one’s for you.’”
But every good act comes attached with people wanting a second. Indeed, the 2011 performance ratchets up expectations for Menard, a driver who still has only six top-5 finishes in five full years on NASCAR’s top circuit. Though he began 2011 on a hot streak, sitting in the top 10 in points for several weeks early, the driver posted only two additional top-10 finishes after the Indy win and was invisible down the stretch. There is definitely pressure on the 31-year-old to prove that he can keep running with the series’ elite and avoid the dreaded “one-year wonder” label.
What should help is that core pieces at the No. 27 remain in place. For some reason, Childress has not been able to make a four-car operation work despite two solid tries, so the team strips back to three cars for 2012. Consolidated funding, equipment and focus can only be good for Menard, who can lean on veteran teammates Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton for support. Crew chief Slugger Labbe, who came over with Menard to RCR, also appears to be returning despite heavy internal shake-ups, and their chemistry is what the driver credits for his sudden success.
Now, it’s up to Menard to take the next step. One win can be an anomaly, but two? It validates performance. Consistency also needs to be applied across the board. Only once in 2011 did Menard score back-to-back top 10s. If he can find a rhythm, not a roller coaster, one of the better-funded teams in NASCAR could finally earn the points to match their hefty paychecks within this crowded field of Chase contenders.
What the Competition is Saying
For years Menard had drawn criticism for his family’s sponsorship money, but the 2011 season proved he was capable of contending at the front of the pack and winning races. He stole the spotlight in Indianapolis, scoring the biggest — and only — win of his Cup career, but can he move to the next level?
“The Brickyard was huge,” one crew chief says. “Being in the top 12 in the standings the beginning part of the season was probably a huge boost to a driver that shows as much emotion as a saltine cracker — not that there is anything wrong with that.”
Another crew chief agrees, saying, “Menard has proved that he’s competent and belongs here. Can he win? Before last season I’d have said, ‘Probably not,’ but joining RCR changed that. It was a good move for all involved.”
Top 5s: 4
Top 10s: 8
Laps Led: 82
Laps Completed: 10,272
Lead Lap Finishes: 22
Bonus Points: 11
Races Led: 8
Average Start: 12.0
Average Finish: 18.0
After First 26 Races: 23rd
Final Points Standing: 17th
Driver Rating: 78.9 (18th)
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.