When Dale Earnhardt Incorporated expanded to four teams this season, it wasn’t the first time this year they were dealing with a new addition to their stable. Back in February, 26-year-old Paul Menard and the No. 15 Chevrolet were added to the fold. Back then, there was no merger involved… just a natural progression to the big leagues after lots of hard work to get there. Menard certainly paid his dues over a three-year stretch in the Busch Series to earn the right to campaign for Rookie of the Year in Nextel Cup. With a win at Milwaukee last season, Menard finished sixth in the standings – the highest of any full-time Busch Series driver – no small feat in a world where Buschwackers reign supreme.
Carrying sponsorship from his father’s company, Menard’s home improvement stores, the No. 15 team appeared well-equipped to be the main challenger to Juan Pablo Montoya for rookie honors this season. Instead, it’s been a struggle for Menard and company – six DNQs in the first 21 races have left him a distant third in the standings behind both Montoya and David Ragan. But with the acquisition of Ginn Racing two weeks ago – and the automatic qualifying exemption that came with it – DEI has appeared to breathe new life into the No. 15 program. With a new crew chief in Dave Charpentier and a greater focus on race-ready setup, the team appears primed and ready to make a significant late-season improvement.
Frontstretch’s Tony Lumbis sat down with Menard on Friday at Pocono Raceway to discuss the young driver’s season-to-date, how the merger has affected his perception of DEI’s future, and how Teresa Earnhardt is a far different person than people might think.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch: The Ginn/DEI merger marks the coming together of two enormous organizations. How has that been going so far?
Paul Menard: It’s been really good. I got to go to the new shop (last) Monday and look it over, and the place is huge. There’s definitely enough floor space for four teams to all be on the same floor. All of it is (out) in the open, so everybody knows what everybody’s got. Obviously, we’ve got the points and that’s huge (referring to his team taking over the No. 14 team’s owner points, giving the team an automatic qualifying exemption). Now, we can just focus on going racing, and with Mark Martin helping us out, there’s definitely nobody in the garage area with more knowledge and more experience than Mark to help a young guy like myself out.
Lumbis: You’ve been able to talk to Martin already?
Menard: Yeah, several times, both on the phone and over at his motorhome. I’ve raced against Mark for the past few years, and I’ve talked to him a few times, but never anything as in-depth as what we’ve been doing (since the merger). He’s very smart, just a nice guy who’s eager to help.
Lumbis: Has he been able to offer a different perspective than what you are used to receiving?
Menard: Yeah, he’s been racing longer than I’ve been alive, and he’s been in the Cup series since I was probably about five years old; so he has some different perspectives on things that he wants out of a racecar, and has different ways of getting there. Probably the biggest struggle with this whole deal is trying to bring the No. 01 team (to a point where) it is similar to the other three DEI teams. They’ve been kind of doing their own thing over at Ginn, and we’re trying to encompass them over at DEI just to make all teams stronger. They have some good ideas and we have some good ideas, and we’ll take all the great ideas and merge them together – make all four teams better.
Lumbis: Just six short months ago, each driver at DEI appeared to have a well-defined role with the team. But so much has changed since February, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. leaving, Martin Truex Jr. having a breakout year, and both Martin and a new rookie in Aric Almirola being added. With all the recent changes, how do you view your role within the organization?
Menard: (I’m) the driver of the No. 15 car, and Martin is the driver of the No. 1 car, and Mark Martin is the driver of the No. 01 car, and the No. 8 car is yet to be determined – those are our roles.
Lumbis: Being from Wisconsin, it only seems natural that you are involved in an event called “ice racing,” and, in fact, have won ten International Ice Racing Association events. It is doubtful that many fans are familiar with this type of racing, so can you provide some background on the series and how you became involved with it?
Menard: Yeah, it’s something that Herm Johnson, who is from our hometown of Eau Claire, Wis., got my dad involved with. Herm was a Super V champion through the ’70s, then got my dad involved with the Indy 500 and then ice racing in the 1980s. It’s something I’ve grown up around and on weekends in the wintertime – we would hang out wherever the ice race was. If it was in the Twin Cities, Thunder Bay, Ontario, if it was in Wisconsin somewhere… we’d go and hang out. We’d watch my dad race and when I got old enough, I started competing in it. We’d use sedans – we had a Mazda 323, modified, about 350 horsepower, 4-wheel drive, totally lightened up (and) stripped down. (We’d) put the fuel cell where the passenger seat was (and) use one seat – (they were) totally modified, fast little cars.
Lumbis: Does your experience with this form of racing help you to adapt better to slick tracks on the Cup circuit?
Menard: It’s different. Ideally, in any form of motorsports you don’t want to slide. If you’re sliding, you’re scrubbing off speed. Even ice racing and dirt racing, the fastest way between two points is a straight line, so you want to limit it as much as possible; and with the big heavy cars that we drive, you definitely don’t want to slide. But if you do, you just want to try to work on it and make sure you don’t do that again.
Lumbis: Right now, DEI is on the cusp of making the Chase with Truex and Junior, evidence that the team is strong, but not yet over the hump. What do you think needs to happen at DEI for the team to raise the bar to the next level and become solid Chase contenders?
Menard: I think they’ve been running good enough. Dale Jr. blew a motor last weekend (at Indianapolis), which I haven’t heard what the problem was. It seems like there are mistakes being made and on any race team, mistakes get made that hurt you. I think our performance is good enough – we just need the consistency. If they (Truex and Dale Jr.) can finish where they’ve been running, they are definitely good enough to be in the top 10. (But) for one (reason) or another, that doesn’t happen (all the time), and we’re trying to limit (mistakes) as much as we can.
Lumbis: Last year, you had a great year in the Busch Series, yet you finished sixth in the final points position behind all Nextel Cup regulars. What are your thoughts on the so-called “Buschwackers” that run full time in Busch, considering that fact that they essentially cost you the championship in 2006?
Menard: It is what it is. You can’t control who enters the race. Anybody that has a car that is qualified within NASCAR’s guidelines to race with a legal car can compete. I think the moment we start limiting that, it will open a big can of worms. I finished sixth last year, and some people say I was the highest finishing Busch regular. In my eyes, Kevin Harvick was a Busch regular, Carl Edwards was a Busch regular, they’re all Busch regulars. We just got beat by them.
Lumbis: Besides the trademark sideburns, what similarities are there between you and your teammates Dale Jr. and Truex?
Menard: I haven’t really thought about it, to tell you the truth. We’re all different people and enjoy different things. Sometimes we’ll cross over and enjoy the same things – most of the times we don’t.
Lumbis: You’ve had the chance to work with two veteran crew chiefs this year in Tony Eury Sr. and Dave Charpentier. How have both men contributed to your brief Nextel Cup career so far? How have they differed in their styles?
Menard: They’re two totally different personalities. Tony Eury Sr. was definitely pretty old school, and took the bull by the horns as far as knowing what he wants in the car and making sure it happens. Dave Charpentier is an engineer and brings a lot broader perspective as far as looking at aero numbers, seven-post numbers, the pulldown rate, and implementing all that into a plan for the weekend. He trusts the numbers more.
Lumbis: Now that Dale Jr. is moving on after the 2007 season, what will you remember most about him as your teammate?
Menard: We raced together quite a bit in the Busch Series, and its always when we’re racing next to each other, we’ll try to help each other out. (For example), we’ll point up top if the top groove is working or say “just follow me for a lap” or whatever just to help each other out.
Lumbis: How have you dealt with the frustration of missing races this year before you got locked in, something you have not had to deal with in your career up until this year?
Menard: There’s nothing you can do about it. You just show up each week and do the best you can. Sometimes it’s not good enough, and if that’s the case, you go home and figure out what you did wrong and try to make it better for the next week. Frustration is just part of it. There’s nothing that’s going to cure that or going to fix it. There’s nothing you can do to keep it from happening, it’s just a part of it. You have a job to do, and you just have to figure out how to do it the best you can.
Lumbis: Earlier this year, a lot has been said about what kind of owner Teresa Earnhardt is – both good and bad. What has been your relationship with her since you have been with the organization?
Menard: Teresa is awesome. She definitely gets a bad wrap. She’s not one of those owners that enjoys being in the spotlight. Some do, and she’s not one of them. It just gets played up wrong in the public’s eye. She’s an awesome lady, and definitely wants the best for Dale Earnhardt Inc. – I think you’ve seen that with some of the changes in the past couple of months.
Lumbis: Any big plans for your 27th birthday coming up in a few weeks on the 21st?
Menard: We’re going to be in Newton, Iowa testing our CoT and Busch car for two days.
Lumbis: You wouldn’t want to be doing anything else besides racing right?
Menard: Nah, everything else is boring.