NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Fanning the Flames: Menard’s Encouraging Start & Kenseth’s Disappointing Finish

A wide variety of topics to tackle this week, so let’s crank the engine on this mother.

Before we get to the questions, let’s hit the weekly vid. There are some laugh-out-loud moments this week. Don’t ignore this one.

Q: Since the auto bailout, there has not been a lot of talk about foreign manufacturers in NASCAR. Is the “invasion” still coming, or was it a trumped up cry for the sport and media when the American companies looked like they might not survive? Thanks. – T.B., Cleveland, Tenn.

A: Talk a year ago certainly turned that way because of the economic climate. The media was more apt to ask about additional foreign makes entering the sport, and NASCAR’s brass were more than happy to carry on a discussion that was internationally themed.

“We have companies that are interested in particular in developing the North American market as robustly as they can,” Brian France said last year. “And we’re all aware that there are lots of foreign manufacturers producing cars here in America. That was part of the rationale that Toyota used to get involved in NASCAR.”

It’s a vague response, but it seems you never get much of a clear message out of France in a public setting outside of “boys, have at it.”

According to NASCAR rules (which don’t mean much, because they can be changed to fit any situation), any manufacturer with intent to enter the sport must have plants inside the United States. Hyundai, Nissan, Honda, Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Kia, to name a few, qualify there.

But the questions these manufacturers must ask themselves is 1) Does the NASCAR marketing platform appeal to us? And 2) Are we ready for a long-term commitment. Face it, NASCAR is not a sport a car company can dangle its toes in. Either it’s in or it’s out. And once in, the premium upon which it bases its involvement must be of the highest priority.

With that in mind, I don’t see another foreign make coming in anytime soon. Honda has always favored the open-wheel set, and I’m not sure companies like Hyundai and Nissan have any interest in developing a push-rod engine to fit series specs. And Mercedes and BMW… well, I just don’t think this is the crowd they’re looking to cater to.

Kia would be a real trip. We snicker, but some of its street cars look racier than the Impala, although hearing a driver spout off a tried and true, “…this Kia was strong today!” in victory lane would take some getting used to.

Q: Without looking it up, I’m going to assume this is the first Paul Menard question in the history of Fanning the Flames! What’s different? How can Menard go from a consistent 30th to a Chase guy like that? I would give credit to Roush, but Menard was with Yates, so the real change is that he is with RPM now. Has that organization made that much of a difference for him?

I admit I enjoy seeing it all come together for someone like Menard. Daddy’s money aside, new blood racing for the Chase is a good thing! – Maggie Herm, Houston, Texas

A: I like how you’re thinking, Maggie. And I have to say that I was thoroughly impressed with Menard during his first media availability session at Bristol. He came off as straightforward and upstanding – although I would’ve had no reason to think differently of him. I know this is his fourth full Cup season, so he should know the way the game is played, but he looked and sounded like a guy that had been camped out in the top 12 for years, and did so without being cocky.

Anyway, to your question, I think one piece of the puzzle that Richard Petty Motorsports brought to the operation that has immediately clicked with Menard is Slugger Labbe. Normally, this is where the writer of the column would refer to Labbe as “one of the most underrated crew chiefs in the garage,” but I don’t know how other writers can ascertain that. I guess it’s just something impactful to throw in.

So instead of me singing his praises, I’ll hit some of Labbe’s resume highlights, which include a stint with Terry Labonte (as a tire changer) in his championship season of 1996. He then stepped up to the crew chief role with Kenny Irwin in his Rookie of the Year season of 1998. He earned a Daytona 500 win with Michael Waltrip in 2001, made the Chase with Jeremy Mayfield in 2005 and engineered Scott Speed’s first NASCAR victory in ’08 in the Truck Series.

“It’s obviously a team effort, but it starts with the chief and that’s Slugger,” Menard said two weeks ago. “He gets the guys fired up and they rally around him. He utilizes the tools that he has and makes fast racecars.”

So while we shouldn’t confuse Menard with Jimmie Johnson just yet, the improvement is marked and unexpected – after all, this is a guy who’s averaging a 14th-place showing this year. That number was 26 over the last three seasons. So credit chemistry with Labbe, a stronger organization, as well as the proverbial light bulb that may have switched on over Menard’s head.

Only time will tell if the performance continues, and I figure the 14 long, grueling weeks to come after the off-weekend will tell us all we need to know, but Menard has this to say in the meantime:

“I’ve got nothing to prove. I just want to go out and do the best job I can, along with the race team. Everybody who supports us – from the team owner to the driver to the crew chief to the mechanics – they live and breathe racing, and they’re competitive people.

“Nobody wants to give a half-hearted effort. Everybody wants to go as hard as they can, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Oh, and don’t discount the fact that the lack of a soul patch may be reducing drag. That always helps.

Q: Jeff Gordon was front and center in front of the camera after Martinsville and got his verbal blasts against Matt Kenseth off. But I haven’t heard Matt’s comments on the end of the Martinsville race. Are there any quotes floating around you can pass along? And should we look forward to a Gordon vs. Kenseth duel at Chicago again? – Mitch Lathen, Columbia, S.C.

A: Gordon got the camera time post-race because he was a top-three finisher and, being a Monday race, FOX had to get back to Springer or whatever the hell comes on at 4:30 p.m. on a Monday afternoon without getting additional interviews.

Kenseth did have this to say about Gordon via SceneDaily:

“Jeff is sneaky. He’s good at that stuff. He comes away squeaky clean all the time. That’s about the third time he took me out of a top-three finish. I’m about tired of that. I pretty much forgot about it for the last couple of years, but he never gives me an inch. He wants me out of his way every time he’s faster and I get out of his way. But when it comes the other way around, he never wants to give anyone room back.”

They’ve never been best buddies, and anytime it comes down to checkers these two won’t give one another an inch, so I’d expect the same in the future. Don’t look for the low-profile Kenseth to go all Denny Hamlin on us and call his shot or even get a fender in at Phoenix, but the next time these two are battling for a win, it’ll be gloves off.

Q: Matt, have you seen Denny’s new light purple paint job for Phoenix? Wow, he love’s love too! – Kenny W.

A: I would make a joke of my own, but it’s for a good cause, man. Support the March of Dimes.

Support your local Easter Bunny, too. Happy Easter everyone. Enjoy the last off weekend we’ll see in a while.

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