At the beginning of the 2011 season, Paul Menard was looking at a bunch of unknowns. He had left the volatile (to say the least) Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of last year, taking his Menards Home Improvement Warehouse sponsorship with him to a brand-new fourth team at Richard Childress Racing. The team acquired the owners’ points from TRG Motorsports’ No. 71 when Tom Pumpelly defected from TRG’s Sprint Cup team, allowing Menard to be locked into the first five races of the season.
Luckily, Menard has done just fine so far, surpassing expectations by surging to 16th in points with three top-5’s. Recently, Paul sat down with Frontstretch.com’s Phil Allaway at Daytona to talk a little bit about his season, how the team has gotten out of the gate so quickly and whether the goals have changed for 2011 in the midst of a career year.
Phil Allaway, Frontstretch.com: Let’s start off with this weekend. What’s your opinion on the tandem drafting that’s become en vogue over the past couple of years?
Menard: I’m for it. I like it better. I’m not a big restrictor plate fan, regardless, but I like this type of racing better than the pack drafting. It’s a bit more under your control and you can do a lot more with it. I don’t like either of them, but this one’s better than the alternative.
Allaway: A lot of drivers have multiple frequencies in their radios via little switches and wheels in their car. How many frequencies or channels are you going to have available for this week?
Menard: Let’s see. We’ve got one radio that’s got all my teammates. Five on there with our backup. Then, another radio has 12 or so other teams.
Allaway: Seems like it’s going to be another one of those races where people are going to be courting each other like it’s high school.
Menard: Yeah, that’s what the media likes to play it up as. We have our plans beforehand and we try to stick to them. Sometimes, you get in a situation where you might not be around your teammates. We’re probably going to have a big wreck at some point. Hopefully, none of us get taken out, but if that happens, you have to make alternate plans. Then, I’ll go through the list and see who’s around [me], who [I’ve] worked well with in the past.
We don’t make deals with other teams as far as, “I’ll stick with you the whole race.” Instead, we would just help each other out until something else comes through.
Allaway: So far this season, you’re 17th in points (as of Daytona), three top 5s with a best finish of fourth a couple of weeks ago at Michigan and four top 10s. What are your thoughts on your season so far?
Menard: We got off to a good start. The whole month of May was pretty rough for us. We tried some different things and they didn’t work, and just had some bad luck, some wrecks and stuff. Kinda got back on track the last few weeks and I feel good about coming back to Daytona where we started out. Get the second season off on the right foot.
Allaway: Was the first half of the season generally in line with what you were expecting coming into the season?
Menard: We came into the season as a start-up fourth team, a lot of unknowns, a lot of new guys. We didn’t really set up any goals [for the season]. My guys work as hard as anyone getting the team going. Slugger [Labbe, Menard’s crew chief] and Greg Smokstad, my engineers Mike and Brent have done a really great job working on the car and making it really good. That’s all you can do is work really hard and get the best finishes that you can, week-to-week. I can’t say that we achieved any goals or let down any goals, but we can do the best job that we can.
Allaway: Slugger Labbe came over with you from Richard Petty Motorsports at the end of the last year. How is the communication between you and Slugger?
Menard: It’s good. We’ve got a great relationship going on two years, we’re good friends and we work well together.
Allaway: From here on out, what do you expect out of your team and yourself for the rest of the season?
Menard: We always look a few weeks in advance. Obviously, the engineers work on getting the setups downloaded through the computers. Slugger’s looking at his notes from last year and I’m looking at my notes from last year. We’ll take it week-by-week and try to do the best job we can every week.
Allaway: We’ve had a lot of first-time winners this season (with David Ragan’s win Saturday night, it is now three in the Sprint Cup Series this season). Do you think that that all-important first win could be right around the corner?
Menard: Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of guys who could have their first win yet this year. I think that we fall into that category. We’re working hard to try to get that win.
Allaway: Is there any place that would be more likely for that win to occur?
Menard: You don’t know basically until Friday morning when you unload the car and go to practice. Every week’s so different. Every team’s so good. We’ve run better on the intermediate tracks than on the short tracks, and we’ve got a few of those coming up. Anything can happen on any week.
Allaway: Recently, when the Red Bull news came out, it was also revealed that Clint Bowyer was in contract discussions with the team. Did that news coming out affect your team in any way?
Menard: No. Drivers are independent contractors and if their contract’s up, as in any business, you have to see what’s out there, what’s available, and that’s just how it works. It doesn’t upset anything at RCR. He’s just doing what he’s gotta do. Any other driver in the same position would be doing the same thing.
Allaway: With the tandem drafting, could you tell whether your car was a better pusher or better being pushed?
Menard: It’s hard to tell. I think we ran our best lap when I was pushing. A lot of that is dependent upon who’s around you and runs that you get on the other tandem drafts. I think my car’s a better pusher, but it’s hard to know until we get going.
Allaway: I understand. Once everyone’s out there, variables can change.
Menard: For sure.
Allaway: Outside of the race car, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Menard: I try to be outside as much as I can. I ride dirt bikes. In the wintertime, I do a lot of skiing, snowmobiling if I get the opportunity. Just gotta be outside and enjoy nature.
Allaway: In the past, a lot of people decry drivers like yourself, claiming “Oh, he’s just in the car because he has sponsorship,” and so on. Over the past couple of years, you’ve shown improved form on track with Yates Racing, RPM, and now with RCR. Do you think you’ve done enough so far to permanently dispel that notion?
Menard: No. You’ll never dispel that notion. If you’re looking to totally squash it, it’s not going to happen. People talk about what they want to talk about, and you can’t control that. I go about doing my job the best I can. People in the media can talk about that all they want, but I don’t give a crap about it. Let’s just go out and do the job that we were hired to do.
On Saturday night, Menard spent the entire night tandem drafting with teammate Kevin Harvick. With their combined might, the teammates were able to avoid the late-race crashes to earn top-10 finishes, with Menard slotting in a solid eighth. Saturday’s top-10 finish moved Menard up one place to 16th in points, 32 points out of tenth.
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