2008 Ride: No. 15 Dale Earnhardt Incorporated Chevrolet
2008 Primary Sponsor: Menards
2008 Owner: Teresa Earnhardt
2008 Crew Chief: Doug Randolph
Stats: 36 races, 0 wins, 1 top five, 1 top 10, 1 pole, 26th in points
Best Finish: Second (Talladega – fall)
Average Finish: 25.4
High Point: Definitely the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega in October, where Paul Menard scored a career-best second-place finish. Late in the race, all three DEI Chevrolets were lined up in the top five, ready to pounce on leader Tony Stewart. While Aric Almirola was eventually shuffled back in the No. 8 Chevrolet, Regan Smith and Menard continued to apply the pressure as the white flag waved. Coming to the finish line, Menard actually gave the push Smith needed to pass Stewart illegally and reach the line first.
However, while the No. 01 car dipped below the yellow line, Menard stayed above it and was promoted to second following NASCAR’s penalty against his rookie teammate. That race was not just the only top five of Menard’s season, but the only top 10 of 2008, and his entire Sprint Cup career up to this point. Outside of Talladega, Menard’s best finish was 11th in the June race at Michigan.
In addition, Menard won the pole for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona and led 19 laps before finishing 15th.
Low Point: Menard’s season was consistently mediocre, so it is relatively difficult to pick out one specific low point. The closest to a definitive low would have to be the August event at Pocono, where Menard finished 42nd after crashing with the No. 78 of Joe Nemechek. This was his worst finish of the season, and the only DNF the second-year driver had due to a wreck. Coming just one week after a 41st at Indianapolis, it became the midpoint of a five-race slump where Menard failed to finish higher than 24th.
Summary: Menard’s sophomore season provided some slight improvement. After the struggles that marked the early part of his rookie campaign, 2008 brought continued steadiness for him that marked his second half of 2007. Increasing his number of top-20 finishes from six to eight, Menard maintained the same low number of DNFs (two) and continued to race clean.
This pattern shows that Menard is slowly improving as a driver in the Sprint Cup Series, much like how other “pay drivers” have improved their skills over a period of time at the highest levels of motorsports. A good example from Formula 1 here would be Pedro Diniz, who made it to F1 in 1995 mainly because of his sponsorship money from Parmalat, a company best known here in the United States for lactose-free dairy products. After a year at terrible Forti-Corse, Diniz did a year at Ligier, then moved to Arrows for two seasons, then finished off at Sauber Petronas. By the time all was said and done, Diniz had scored a total of 10 points in F1 (using today’s points system, it would be 38) and was generally accepted in the paddock.
Team Ranking: Second ranked of the five DEI drivers in points (26th), Menard would still be behind either Mark Martin or Almirola if either driver had run a full season. The No. 15 was the middle DEI car in owner points.
Off-Track News: Menard rarely makes news off the track, but he visited the set of CSI: Miami in late August prior to the Labor Day weekend race at Auto Club Speedway (Fontana, Calif.).
2009 Outlook: 2009 sees Menard leaving DEI (his old No. 15 ride was eliminated as a result of the DEI-CGRFS merger) to move to a new third team at Yates Racing, the No. 98. Menards, his father John’s chain of home improvement warehouses, follows him to the new Yates program. In this situation, Paul will likely be expected to perform even more than he did at DEI. John Menard had what could be described as a “cushy” relationship with ownership at his son’s old team; however, this will not happen at Yates.
Compared to Menard’s No. 15 ride at DEI last year, Yates looks to be little more than a lateral move. However, unlike Menard’s teammates, his car is fully funded, so there will be less distractions for an organization that struggled for funding in 2008.
Menard’s crew chief will be Larry Carter, who helped Jamie McMurray have a very strong finish this season. Carter is a race-winning crew chief in the Sprint Cup Series, both with McMurray and Kurt Busch; his winning experience should help Menard improve in the No. 98.
Being that this will be Menard’s third year, I would expect some more improvement. After his first two years at DEI, a good season for him would have approximately 10 top-20 finishes and a couple of top 10s. Such a season would likely result in a finish around 22nd in points; and if the chemistry is right, I think that result is clearly within the realm of possibility. However, if he regresses at all, calls for Menard to move aside for someone with more talent will emerge.
2006 Frontstretch Grade: N/A
2007 Grade: C-
2008 Grade: C