Will the real Paul Menard please stand up? Menard enters 2017 with a question mark hanging over his head: Which driver is going to show up at the track, the one who finished 25th in points in 2016, or the one who made the Chase in 2015 on the strength of his consistency?
Athlon Sports’ 2017 Racing magazine delivers full NASCAR driver profiles, schedules, track information, fantasy insight, as well as complete 2017 NASCAR coverage. Click here to order your copy today or visit your local newsstand!
Menard dropped 11 positions in points last year — falling from a career-best 14th in 2015 to 25th in ’16 — and it’s hard to pinpoint a reason why. A crew chief change midseason (from Justin Alexander to Danny Stockman) didn’t change the ultimate result, and Menard has proven himself to be a good journeyman driver in the past — he’s not a one-man highlight reel, but he finishes races, doesn’t tear up his cars, and his consistency in recent years has been enviable. The team also has good funding from Menards, the driver’s family business.
The difference for the driver in 2016 was six failures to finish races. That’s uncharacteristic for both driver and team, and it represents the biggest reason for the slide the team endured. The good news is that while five of Menard’s DNF’s were due to crashes — which isn’t a great statistic — those kind of things are avoidable, especially for a driver like Menard, who hasn’t been prone to incidents in the past.
The question also hangs over Richard Childress Racing: Can the organization sustain three teams at an elite level of performance, or are the resources spread too thin? For various reasons, RCR has struggled in the past to maintain performance. Consider that in 2015, both Menard and Ryan Newman made the Chase, but Austin Dillon finished just 21st. Last year saw Dillon in the Chase but Menard and Newman backsliding a bit. Those are warning signs that bear watching.
One interesting note: There was surprise in the industry when Childress found another team to take on his grandson, Ty Dillon, this year instead of keeping the youngster in-house. At some point, Dillon figures to join his older brother in the Childress stable — but that time is not now.
In Menard’s favor for the new season is a new man calling the shots. Veteran crew chief Matt Borland will take the reins for the No. 27 team this year after spending three seasons off the pit box. The highly respected Borland has 13 premier-series wins (all with Newman) and four top-10 points finishes.
Also a strength is RCR’s equipment. While it’s undeniably a tick behind the other Chevrolet powerhouse, Hendrick Motorsports, RCR builds competitive racecars and some of the most reliable engines in NASCAR. And when things don’t break, it’s a lot easier for a driver to be there at the end when it counts. So, while RCR needs to find a way to catch up with the frontrunners in terms of its cars, it has a strong foundation on which to build, although there eventually may need to be some risk in order to reap more reward.
So where does that leave Menard as 2017 opens? As strong as the competition is in the top 25, it’s going to be a tough row to hoe. He can crack the top 20, and he has before, but with many others gunning for a few spots in that 15th-20th range, it’s going to be a challenge for Menard. He’s got to have some top 10s to do that. If he can find his 2015 mojo, he can move up a few spots on the food chain.