Some things in life remain an inevitability – death, taxes, more taxes and Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus, and the No. 48 team winning yet another race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The win Sunday was very reminiscent of a 1997 one scored by their predecessors at Hendrick Motorsports, Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham, when Gordon plowed into the back of Rusty Wallace on the last lap, shooting him up the track and clearing the way after the Miller Lite No. 2 machine had dominated the afternoon.
But while the motorsports media at large has been heralding yet another victory by the four-time defending champion, there was another performance that went largely unnoticed Sunday at Bristol: the 18th place run by Richard Petty Motorsports driver Paul Menard.
Now typically, barely posting a top 20 is hardly enough to get you a whole lot of run in print or television media. In Menard’s case, however, it is well worth noting for a number of reasons – and not just because he had what looked like another top-10 effort going by the midpoint of this event. While he was passed by faster cars as the laps wound down, he did not force the issue, cut anyone off, or put himself in a position to get punted – as often happens at Bristol in the closing laps (see: Joey Logano, Saturday, Nationwide Series).
Instead, playing it safe paid off, giving Menard a fifth top-20 finish in as many races to stabilize his position within the top 10 in points – the best start of his career in any of the NASCAR ranks he has competed in. The 29-year old driver from Eau Claire, Wis. has but one win in the sport: a Nationwide Series victory in 2006 at Milwaukee, during a season that saw him post seven top-five and 16 top-10 finishes. He would finish sixth in points that season, as he did the year prior, driving for then-Dale Earnhardt Inc.
That being said, the groundwork was certainly there for Menard to make the next logical step up to the Sprint Cup level. He just never lived up to expectations. Being short on owner points and speed early on, Menard failed to qualify for six events in 2007, although in those he did make, he only failed to finish on two occasions – at both Talladega races, one for engine failure, the other a crash. But just keeping the car in one piece didn’t amount to much over his first three seasons in Cup: in his first 111 starts, he collected just one top-five and two top-10 finishes while struggling to simply keep his career afloat.
In 2010, however, he seems to finally have found his footing, becoming yet another Ford entry under the Richard Petty Motorsports banner.
This is an organization that has essentially combined four teams from Petty Enterprises, Gillett-Evernham Motorsports and Yates Racing under one umbrella. While there was much uncertainty surrounding this group before the season began, they have shown signs of life thus far in the form of inspired runs by each and every one of their drivers. Particularly impressive was Menard’s fifth-place showing in Atlanta, a charge largely overshadowed by Brad Keselowski’s airborne Dodge Charger late in the going. A slow start by the No. 98 on a green-white-checkered restart may have sacrificed a position or two, but Menard was able to maintain his place once up to speed, and helped RPM drivers post fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place finishes to boot.
While his other races in 2010 have not exactly been barn-burners (he has, after all only led one lap this year, that being lap 277 at Atlanta), Menard has been able to steer clear of trouble and bring his car home in one piece with a smattering of top-20 finishes. You can make whatever snide comments you wish about his dad footing the bill for his cars; perhaps he is more apt to take care of the equipment since his name is on it. Literally. Because Menard stays out of trouble, doesn’t cause wrecks, and keeps his wheels on the ground by not starting beef with others on the track, he finds himself sitting ninth in points going into Martinsville this weekend.
That in and of itself is no small feat. His reward, right now, is to need not worry about having to qualify on time, as being part of the Top 35 in owner points locks him into the starting field. And by virtue of his ninth-place position in the points, he will be part of the NASCAR-mandated top-12 driver media session a second straight weekend, this time answering questions at the .526-mile paperclip in Virginia.
At the Bristol media session for those in the top 12, Menard was not one to boast of his accomplishments, but rather, one to recognize what has helped get him to his place in the standings. He is under no illusions that one bad incident – be it a blown tire, pit-road speeding penalty or a wreck not of his doing – could send him plummeting down the points list and back into relative obscurity.
“It’s been a good start,” Menard said. “We haven’t had any real bad luck so far, so, knock on wood, hopefully we can keep that going and keep having solid finishes.”
“It’s early in the year and we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he added, recognizing that a top-10 position in points can only be maintained for so long by simply avoiding trouble.
But that is not to say his year has been a fluke, or that he will be but a footnote at year’s end. Far from it.
A quick glance at the schedule shows some promise for Menard. He usually races well at restrictor-plate tracks, posting top-15 finishes in three of the last four visits, including a second-place run at Talladega in 2008 after then-teammate Regan Smith was denied the victory following a last-lap yellow line incident with Tony Stewart. You can ask Brad Keselowski all about winning your first race at Talladega – he joined a bevy of other first-time, unexpected winners in a group where Menard could end up the perfect fit. And his fifth-place run two weeks ago at Atlanta bodes well for the upcoming 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway, where the driver posted top-15 runs in 2007 and 2009.
Menard’s five career starts at Martinsville typically are a top-25 affair, though he did manage a 16th there in 2008, and last year’s performance at Darlington yielded a 15th-place result. The only real struggles are at Phoenix and Richmond. However, if you factor in the increased performance and resources he has to pull from this year, this veteran very well could be able to stick around the top 15 in points heading into the summer stretch.
Does this mean that he is a legitimate threat to make the Chase in 2010? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. This is still a team in transition with a driver that is getting used to running towards the front, having the leader on the same lap as him and not rapidly approaching in the rear-view mirror. To quote Bill Murray in the movie What About Bob?, “I’m doing the work, I’m baby steppin’, I’m not a slacker!” And neither is Menard. He is actually learning to race the way that drivers did about 20 years ago, before the practice of shoving guys into cars who can barely shave became standard operating procedure.
It isn’t as if Menard was ever given a real rock-solid foundation on which to build a burgeoning Cup career, like many young drivers who burst onto the scene today. People tend to forget that drivers like Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin and Ernie Irvan all started out pretty much the same as Menard has come of age in NASCAR. That was usually the rule – not the exception – in the sport’s top division. So to those who insist on belittling him and go to the “daddy’s money” card, take a look back at some of the more successful tenures of drivers and how they came up through the ranks of the sport. He isn’t here because of his dad’s checkbook. He’s simply been paying his dues.
Seeing Menard sitting where he is, ninth in the Sprint Cup standings entering the sixth race of the season, I am reminded of actor John Houseman in those old Smith Barney ads of the 1980s: He got to this top-10 position in points the old-fashioned way. He earned it.