It’s happening again.
Four races into the 2013 season, the top performer at Richard Childress Racing is not the guy you’d expect. Not Kevin Harvick, the 19-time Cup winner and current flagship of the organization. Not Jeff Burton, the past-his-prime veteran who can still turn in a solid finish here and there. Not even Kurt Busch, whose Furniture Row Racing team is, according to him, basically a fourth Childress car.
A look at the current points standings reveals that Paul Menard, in his third year driving the No. 27 Chevrolet for RCR, is the team’s best through four races. After Bristol, Menard sits ninth in points, with two top-10’s and a lowest finish of 21st at Daytona.
In comparison, Harvick is currently 17th. Burton sits 25th, while Busch is holding down 16th.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. In 2011, Menard’s first season with the organization, he was fifth in points after Bristol, while his next closest teammate was in 15th. And while 2012 didn’t find him the class of the Childress field after four races (Harvick was the runner-up in points at that point), Menard was still 10th, having finished in the top 10 in three of those first four races.
But now, take a look at Menard’s end-of-the-season points finishes. In 2011, he slid to 17th. The next year he was a position better, with a 16th-place showing in the final standings. That put him third on the totem pole in 2011, and second in 2012.
What’s the deal with Paul Menard after those first four races? When does he go from a serious contender to an also-ran?
There’s not really a distinct moment, at least over the past two years. In 2011, the slide started around Richmond, the ninth race of the season, when he finished 37th. He of course scored his first (and, so far, only) win of his career later that season, but he could never pull back within major contention. Then, 2012 saw a 26th-place run at Martinsville, followed by a bevy of top 20 finishes — solid, but not astounding — that lasted until August, with one ninth at Pocono the exception.
But one thing’s for certain: for whatever reason, Menard tends to have the first four races of the season figured out. He had an average finish of 10.75 in 2011’s first four and an average of 13.5 in 2012. Those were followed by an average of 21.67 over the next six races in 2011 and of 18.5 in 2012.
For the record, his average in the first four races this year is a bit lower — 15th even. But that’s still better than what he’s been able to pull off in races five through 10.
What Paul Menard needs — and not just to remain high in points, but also to beat his teammates — is more consistently high finishes, maintaining the pinnacles he’s able to achieve at the beginning and straying away from the sub-20ths or -30ths that have rendered him much less of a contender in past years.
This could be the year to do just that. Though one has to figure that at least Kevin Harvick will get into a better rhythm, he’s also in a lame duck season, departing Richard Childress Racing for Stewart-Haas in 2014. Jeff Burton is showing no reason to believe he’s finally going to turn around a few years of dismal results. Kurt Busch’s Furniture Row team hasn’t proven it can contend each and every week.
For 2013, that could actually make Menard the focus of the Childress organization, though it’s unlikely given that Harvick’s not likely to just curl up and wait for 2014.
Nevertheless, Menard has improved his position with the organization each year he’s been in it, and has had slightly better results in the early parts of the season. If he can maintain his position throughout the next 22 races with few — if any crashes and multiple finishes within the top 10, perhaps we could see a new Childress guy making the Chase.
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