There’s change coming — again — for Paul Menard this season. After seven seasons as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver at Richard Childress Racing, Menard joins Wood Brothers Racing in the wake of Ryan Blaney’s departure from the team’s famed No. 21 as he returns to the confines of Team Penske.
For Menard, the Wood Brothers opportunity represents the fifth team for which he’s driven in 12 full-time Cup seasons. For the Wood Brothers, Menard’s arrival comes after Blaney led the team to its most successful season — including the win at Pocono Raceway — since Morgan Shepherd wheeled the team’s Fords in 1993. Both have something to prove in a partnership that understandably comes with apprehension. Simply put: Menard is filling a seat that was far more competitive last season than he’s ever been, and WBR is trying to find a way to stabilize its position as a playoff-contending team.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time in NASCAR and as a Cup Series driver, but to get the chance to drive the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers is the coolest thing I’ve ever got a chance to do,” Menard said in July.
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There’s little secret that Menard, 37, is in demand thanks to the guaranteed sponsorship money his billionaire father’s home improvement store chain provides. The 2018 Daytona 500 will mark his 400th Cup start even though he has just one win and 19 top-5 finishes. Money has played a role in Menard’s longevity — and it certainly played a significant role in his arrival at his new team — but he’s also stayed around because he doesn’t tear up equipment. For his career, Menard averages just two races a year that he fails to finish because of crashes.
That type of consistency is what WBR will want to see next season, and it will likely put Menard in position a few times to score high finishes and potentially even post the 100th WBR win. But it’s an inescapable fact that Menard represents a downgrade from Blaney’s talent — Blaney’s driver rating was 25 points higher than Menard’s last season — and puts WBR in a position in which none of the success from 2017 is guaranteed.
Menard’s arrival does, however, provide more time for WBR to continue to find its way in a NASCAR world that’s much different from when it began competing in 1950. Sponsorship that funds the whole thing isn’t an easy commodity for most teams in the Cup garage, and finding something substantial like the Menard deal eliminated much of that headache.
WBR begins the 2018 season with the wind of a deep playoff run at its back and the reassurance of a continuing, tight-knit technical partnership with Penske that has kept, and will keep, competitive Fords rolling off the No. 21 hauler. Team co-owner Eddie Wood said as much in July.
“It’s fantastic to have the ability to continue to race in the highest level of motorsports full time and something we look forward to doing with Paul for years to come,” Wood said. “I know this will allow us to continue to perform as an organization and will give Paul a great opportunity to go out there and compete for wins.”