EAU CLAIRE, WI – Blog by Race Chaser Online Correspondent Marshall Gabell – Jerry Markland/Getty Images North America photo – 2011 Brickyard 400 champion Paul Menard’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career hasn’t been plastered with success to date, but this season he is beginning to show marked improvements that could place him in championship contention.
Menard, 33, has been received a lot of flak from the NASCAR community due to his sponsorship coming from his father’s multi-million dollar organization Menards. A lot of fans look through the lens that Menard bought his spot in the sport, similar to the concept of pay drivers in Formula One.
But, like the historic line states, you don’t pick your parents.
Menard has muted the critics throughout his career; however, with astounding performances this season, he’s taken a large step towards putting the ‘haters’ to sleep for good.
When the season began with the Daytona 500 in February it appeared that 2014 might become just another lost, average season for the Eau Claire, Wisconsin driver. But if you went to the card table and put money on that you would have lost – in a surprising way.
Menard started 21st at Las Vegas in March with a child expected any moment and mind on his wife, using the afternoon to build a solid run and pilot his No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet into podium contention with 50 laps remaining in the event. After jockeying around the top five, he eventually concluded his afternoon in the third position.
“This is good redemption — the guys never give up,” an ecstatic Menard commented after the running. “(We) had a great car in Daytona, obviously led a bunch of laps, but this (car) was hauling (butt) on long runs.”
The performance quickly drew critics to defend themselves, claiming it was a ‘one-pony show’ and ‘it will never happen again’, but Menard continued to show growth and promise.
The Wisconsinite returned to Fontana, California two weeks after his top five showing and posted a ninth place effort; the critics’ remarks dimmed, and many people began to see a quiet Chase contender in the making.
To add to the strong start, Menard notched a 10th place run at Texas Motor Speedway and followed that with a ninth place at Martinsville Speedway, not only handing him three straight and well-deserved top-10 finishes, but suddenly placing him as the highest-ranked driver in points for Richard Childress Racing.
Fast-forward to the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway, a race that Menard entered sitting 13th in the point’s standings, and it appeared after a ninth place qualifying effort that the Childress driver was poised to continue his strong season.
Not surprisingly, Menard became a force throughout the day and ended up with his third top five finish of the season (placing fifth).
With all that being said, we go into Loudon with Menard sitting 10th in the championship standings, placing him third of drivers without a win and in the current Chase Grid with just eight races to go before the start of the Chase. While he has been overtaken in the points by his teammate Ryan Newman (who sits eighth currently), he still gives RCR a consistent presence in the championship battle as of now.
Menard is also beginning to portray a new role, one that is pivotal in winning titles: Mr. Consistency.
While that isn’t as helpful in the current points system as it has been in previous years, that tagline could easily help him soar through the title path into the Final Four at Homestead Miami Speedway, a race where everything and anything is expected to happen. Just remember, had the current system been in place last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have won the championship without winning a race.
So why not Paul Menard?
Making the Final Four is indeed a stretch, but a little challenge has never hurt anyone. A Chase berth is on the horizon for Menard, and he is rapidly making a case for himself.
Money can buy a car and equipment, but it can’t determine what a driver does with it. As of now? Menard is utilizing the tools he has been handed in fashions that are leading to successful finishes and the potential of sealing the ultimate goal: a 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase berth.