Skip to content

Will long wait for breakthrough season finally be at hand for Paul Menard in 2014?

Feb 8, 2014, 3:08 AM EDT

Photo courtesy Richard Childress Racing Photo courtesy Richard Childress Racing

When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 in 2011, not only was it his first career Sprint Cup win, it was a huge leap forward in what had been a rather nondescript Sprint Cup tenure up to that point.

By winning what has become one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, Menard finally had something no one will ever be able to take away from him: that he’ll forever be known and referred to as both a Brickyard and Indianapolis Motor Speedway champion.

But since that huge win, Menard has been kind of stuck in neutral. With the Brickyard triumph, four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, he ended the 2011 season in a career-best 17th place.

In 2012, he improved slightly to a winless 16th in the standings, and last season, went right back to 17th, again without another win.

That has to change this season, Menard told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C.

“I think we’re definitely capable and our goal is to make the Chase,” Menard said. “And to make the Chase, we have to win races. That’s what we’re going for. That’s what we do every week.”

Menard comes into 2014 in a significantly different position and role than he was in during his first three seasons driving for Richard Childress Racing.

With Kevin Harvick having moved on to Stewart Haas Racing and Jeff Burton running a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing as a prelude to becoming a TV analyst for NASCAR on NBC in 2015, Menard is now the guy with the most seniority at RCR this season,

But even with new teammates Ryan Newman and Sprint Cup rookie (and Childress grandson) Austin Dillon, Menard claims there really hasn’t been that much of a change in the overall dynamic at RCR.

“Honestly, it’s not that different,” Menard said. “(Dillon and Newman are) guys I’ve known for a long time. I’ve worked with Austin for the last several years, and Ryan, I’ve raced against him for years. It’s really not that different.

“It’s welcoming Ryan into how RCR does things. He’s a smart guy, he’s going to fit right in, has a lot of the same interests as Richard and myself and Austin and Ty. So, it’s been pretty seamless.”

With so much attention focused on Dillon, at least at the beginning of this season due to his driving the fabled No. 3 car for the first time on the Cup circuit since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, and with Newman coming over from SHR, Menard loves the position he finds both himself and the organization in.

“Yeah, it’s two new guys and two guys that are very different in their personalities and the way they think,” Menard said. “You have Ryan, who is a degreed engineer, been around the sport a long time, a multi-time race winner and a Chase guy every year.

“And then we have Austin, who is this young and enthusiastic guy and full of energy. It’s really cool to see how all three of us are going to work together. I feel like we all have the same interests, we can talk about racing, talk about hunting, talk about just being outside or doing something totally different, spend time together doing that and get to know each other a lot better.”

Ever since that win in the Brickyard, it has appeared Menard has been ready for an even bigger career breakthrough.

Unfortunately, he’s still waiting.

But now in his fifth season with crew chief Slugger Labbe, Menard believes this could be a magical year for him, Labbe and RCR.

“We balance each other out really well, I think,” Menard said of Labbe. “Slugger is a very hands-on crew chief, at the shop every day, with the cars, really enjoys the cars and understands the mechanics of the cars. He’s a real go-getter, I guess.

“Myself, I enjoy working with the engineers and understanding what makes the car go fast. That’s pretty cool for me. I guess we just learned to work together a long time ago, it’s clicked, we enjoy working together, we’re good friends on and off the track and this is just one of those deals that works.”

One thing that won’t work is Menard returning to Indianapolis behind the wheel of an Indy car. While his father John has been involved in the Indianapolis 500 for more than three decades, Paul will not try to emulate what AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch are hoping to do – namely, race in the 500 in May and then compete later that same day in NASCAR’s most grueling race, the Coca-Cola 600.

“It’s something I’ve thought about, for sure, but I don’t think it’s doable, honestly, to give it a good, fair shake,” Menard said. “I drove an Indy car 10 years ago, they’re just totally different today. They have a ton of grip until they don’t, there’s no saving them.

“I’ve seen a lot of good guys get hurt really bad, and I think it’s something you definitely have to respect. If you’re going to run a race, especially the Indy 500, you have to be there the whole month. You have to start with a lot of downforce in your car and start trimming it out until you feel that comfort. It’s going to be real hard to go out there and go fast and have your car trimmed out and not crashed and not break both your legs. That’s just my opinion.”

And then with an impish grin, Menard added, “Besides, those guys (IndyCar drivers) are little. They’re 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds. I’m six foot and 200 pounds. For one, I don’t think I could fit in the car with enough padding and security to be safe with it, and secondly, it’s a huge weight disadvantage, carrying 60 more pounds than the next guy.”

So, will 2014 really, truly be the long-awaited breakthrough year that Menard and his fans have long hoped for?

“I’m really looking forward to 2014,” he said. “It’s a year of change, for sure, not only for RCR but our sport. I’m really excited about the changes coming down the pike in our sport, and I’m really looking forward to working with Austin and Ryan this year.

“I’m just excited to get down to Daytona and kick the year off. I’m looking forward to getting back into the race car and kicking off 2014 on the right foot.”

Menard already has a Brickyard 400 win. Could a Daytona 500 win in less than two weeks be next?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Latest Posts
  1. Chip Ganassi to be honored for achievements in his racing career

    Aug 1, 2014, 11:34 AM EDT

    ToyotaCare 250 Getty Images

    Multi-motorsports team owner Chip Ganassi will be honored August 7 in Corning, N.Y., for more than a quarter-century of contributions to the auto racing world.

  2. Austin Dillon goes from hot asphalt to cold steel on ice

    Aug 1, 2014, 11:15 AM EDT

    Jeff Foxworthy's Grit Chips 300 - Qualifying Getty Images

    Austin Dillon isn’t skating through his rookie season in Sprint Cup. Everything he achieves, he earns. But Dillon did try skating of a different kind and took to it like a natural.

  3. Hunter-Reay fastest in first IndyCar practice at Mid-Ohio

    Aug 1, 2014, 11:07 AM EDT

    Iowa Corn Indy 300 - Day 1 Getty Images

    The American goes P1 with a lap of 1 minute, 6.5316 seconds in the No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda.

  4. F1 2014 mid-season report: Grading the teams so far

    Aug 1, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Monaco Getty Images

    We grade the eleven teams for their seasons so far as F1 embarks on its summer break.

  5. Poll: Would you like to see timed races in NASCAR?

    Aug 1, 2014, 10:10 AM EDT

    Would you like to see the Daytona 500 become the 3.5 Hours of Daytona? Take our poll below on whether NASCAR should consider switching to timed races. Would you like to see the Daytona 500 become the 3.5 Hours of Daytona? Take our poll below on whether NASCAR should consider switching to timed races.

    Should NASCAR consider shifting to a format that features timed races instead of hundreds of miles or laps? Let’s get your take in our poll.

  6. Massa expecting strong second half of 2014 for Williams

    Aug 1, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

    Felipe Massa AP

    Brazilian driver confident that tracks such as Spa, Monza and the Circuit of the Americas will suit the FW36 car.

  7. IMSA: DeltaWing revitalizes, improves its Braselton race shop

    Aug 1, 2014, 9:15 AM EDT

    Photo: DeltaWing Racing Cars Photo: DeltaWing Racing Cars

    The DeltaWing team makes new shop upgrades as it plans for the future.

  8. Sutil: F1 more difficult with testing restrictions

    Aug 1, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT

    Hungary F1 GP Auto Racing AP

    Sauber driver believes the sport would benefit from more running outside of a grand prix weekend.

  9. Conway confirmed for Toyota FIA WEC debut at Austin

    Aug 1, 2014, 8:15 AM EDT

    ConwayTOR2 Getty Images

    Mike Conway will make long-awaited Toyota debut in FIA WEC at Austin next race.

  10. NASCAR: Ryan Ellis pokes fun at Jake Crum incident; decal later removed

    Aug 1, 2014, 7:45 AM EDT

    CrumEllis AP

    Inside joke goes a bit too far for NASCAR ahead of truck race in Pocono this weekend.

  11. Mallya up for a fight in the constructors’ championship

    Aug 1, 2014, 7:30 AM EDT

    Spanish F1 Grand Prix - Race Getty Images

    Force India owner confident of battling with Williams, Ferrari and McLaren until the end of the season.

  12. PWC: Acura TLX-GT set for debut at Mid-Ohio

    Jul 31, 2014, 9:11 PM EDT

    Photo: RealTime Racing Photo: RealTime Racing

    The Acura TLX-GT will make its debut at Mid-Ohio, later than planned but still on Honda’s home weekend.

  13. NASCAR AMERICA: Thursday round-up (VIDEO)

    Jul 31, 2014, 5:48 PM EDT

    Toyota Owners 400 - Practice Getty Images

    More analysis on Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s new crew chief, Greg Ives, took center stage on Thursday’s NASCAR AMERICA on NBCSN.

  14. WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA at 5 p.m. ET

    Jul 31, 2014, 4:59 PM EDT

    140731-NASCAR-AMERICA

    Thursday’s NASCAR AMERICA lineup…

  15. Formula E: Malaysia date moves from October to November

    Jul 31, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Malaysia - Previews Getty Images

    Malaysian FIA Formula E round moves from October to November to accommodate prime minister’s wishes.

  16. IndyCar: A crucial weekend to commence at Mid-Ohio

    Jul 31, 2014, 2:32 PM EDT

    Honda Indy 200 At Mid-Ohio - Day 3 Getty Images

    Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud look to make headway on Team Penske teammates, while Chip Ganassi Racing seeks a six-pack of Mid-Ohio wins this weekend.

  17. Hysterical video: How the British envision NASCAR

    Jul 31, 2014, 1:45 PM EDT

    nascar brits

    Anthony Richardson bills himself as the Bad British Commentator, and it definitely shows through here with his malapropisms and complete lack of understanding of the sport and world of NASCAR.

  18. What might the 2015 Sprint Cup schedule look like?

    Jul 31, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT

    Photo: Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty Images Getty Images

    There may not be wholesale changes, based upon what NASCAR chairman Brian France said recently, but next year’s Sprint Cup schedule will look different. Based upon various sources and things we’ve heard and/or read, we’re going to chime in with our ideas and why we think that way.

  19. As many as 4 more drivers can clinch Chase spot at Pocono

    Jul 31, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT

    Chase for the sprint cup logo

    With six qualifying races left, a total of 10 more spots remain to be clinched to fill out the expanded 16-driver playoff field for this year’s 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.

  20. Mark Martin returning to Roush Fenway Racing in unique role

    Jul 31, 2014, 11:54 AM EDT

    (Photo: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Legendary NASCAR driver Mark Martin is returning to Roush Fenway Racing. But don’t expect Martin, 55, to get back behind the wheel any time soon.