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2009 Season Review: Paul Menard

2009 Ride: Yates Racing No. 98 Ford
2009 Primary Sponsor: Menards
2009 Owner: Doug Yates / Max Jones
2009 Crew Chief: Larry Carter

Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 31st in points
Best Finish: 13th, twice (Texas – spring, Talladega – spring)
Average Finish: 26.9

High Point: The Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in April. Menard had his best weekend of the year, qualifying fifth and leading a lap before ending the race a solid 13th.

Low Point: The Food City 500 at Bristol in March, where a 25th-place finish briefly dropped Menard out of the Top 35 in the owner standings. That mediocre run was the culmination of five races that saw an average finish of 33rd and two DNFs to start the 2009 season.

Summary: After coming off a 2008 season that saw Menard finish 26th in points, a 2009 season that saw him drop to 31st can be summed up in one word: disappointing. And the bulk of that disappointment has to be shouldered by Menard. In 2008, Yates Racing’s two drivers finished 23rd and 27th in the points while grabbing a pole, one top five and six top 10s combined. Plus, an alliance with Roush Fenway Racing gives the team access to top-level equipment and information, while crew chief Larry Carter had success and won races with both Rusty Wallace and Jamie McMurray.

So, the lion’s share of blame in a difficult year has to fall to driver Menard. Managing to race his way out of the Top 35 after the first five events of 2009, a season with 11 finishes of 30th or worse was labeled a colossal failure. By early Fall, the departure of teammate Bobby Labonte combined with merger talks involving Richard Petty Motorsports left the team chaotic and mostly invisible on-track over the final few months.

Yet as he had in previous years, the 29-year-old did show, at times, he is capable of driving and having success at NASCAR’s highest level. Twice, he posted five straight top-26 finishes and had a total of six top 20s. Menard also doesn’t cause many cautions, and you’d really have to search the radio chatter to hear anyone say anything negative about him – so he has at least earned some degree of respect from his fellow drivers.

Overall, the body of work does just enough to tease owners that a man who brings a full primary sponsorship with him is on the verge of breaking through on the Cup level… except he failed to do so, again, for a third straight year.

2010 Outlook: 2010 is completely up in the air for Menard, and maybe that’s a good thing. The team has merged with RPM, giving him three new teammates to share information with. One of those new teammates, Kasey Kahne, has 11 wins in his short career and is coming off a 2009 season where he made the Chase. Another, AJ Allmendinger, is also young and has a huge upside in terms of potential, giving Menard solid teammates to lean on moving forward.

Also coming on board is a new crew chief for the No. 98 car, “Slugger” Labbe. Labbe helped the late Kenny Irwin Jr. win Rookie of the Year honors back in 1998, won a Cup championship as a crew member with Terry Labonte in 1996, won the Daytona 500 with Michael Waltrip in 2003 and was Jeremy Mayfield’s crew chief in 2005 when Jeremy qualified for the Chase. Most recently associated with TRG Motorsports, he specializes in helping rebuild a team from the ground up. And with Menard relying on continued support from his father’s business, sponsorship will never be a concern for this driver moving forward.

However, as rosy as all this sounds, there are plenty of obstacles remaining in place for 2010. RPM as a whole changes from Dodge to Ford, so there may be some growing pains there even though Menard ran Fusions in 2009. The new teammates are better then any Menard has had, but Kahne is already talking about his options after 2010, a potential distraction in a team already filled with plenty. Also, as good as Labbe has been, there needs to be effective communication between driver and crew chief to get the car running well – and Menard’s weak point is consistently pinpointing handling issues inside the car. If Labbe can’t get Menard to step up a level in talent, all the money and equipment in the world won’t get this team into the top 25.

Stat of the Year: Menard was the only driver to start all 36 races and not post a top-10 finish.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: N/A
2007 Grade: C-
2008 Grade: C
2009 Grade: D

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