NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

4 Burning Questions: Will Paul Menard Complete RCR’s Winning Ways?

Will Paul Menard Give RCR a Winning Trio?

Two down, one to go for Richard Childress Racing.

Following Austin Dillon’s first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the driver of the No. 3 joins Ryan Newman as playoff drivers for the Chevrolet team in 2017.

The one left? Paul Menard, who hasn’t tasted victory himself since 2011, a buttload of races ago.

Will Menard complete the trio in time for the playoffs? It all starts this weekend for Sunday’s AAA 400 from Dover International Speedway, a track that’s been fairly nice to the No. 27 driver in the past.

Through 19 starts at the Monster Mile, the 36-year-old may have only three top 10s, but two of them have come in the last three years. Additionally, he has finished top 20 in eight of the last 11 races, giving him a decent average finish of 18.5.

Being the only non-playoff driver in RCR will not help Paul Menard’s Cup career. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

But running and finishing top 10 is far from competing and winning up front. Menard hasn’t scored a top-five finish outside Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway since Auto Club Speedway in 2015.

For a while, it seemed Menard’s career was on the upswing. After a career-best season in 2014 with five top-five and 13 top-10 finishes, he backed that up with a Chase spot in 2015.

However, 2016 became his worst season with RCR, as he only managed three top 10s while teammates Dillon and Newman had double-digit top 10s.

RCR may have wins due to pit strategy, but the team is on rails with momentum. With Menard in his 11th full season, it may more than momentum to turn his career around.

Will Sunday Live Up to the Spring 2016 Race?

There aren’t many tracks like Dover. An old, high-banked concrete surface like the Monster Mile has a way of giving some solid racing moments each time we go there every year.

Maybe no others were like last spring, which saw an action-packed final run that lasted all the way to the start-finish line on lap 400 when Matt Kenseth earned his third Dover win.

Preceding his frontstretch burnout, Kenseth had a couple of the sport’s youngest drivers to fend off in the final 35-lap run, as Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson were hot on his tail.

At the time, both were going for that first Cup win, while Kenseth was going for No. 37. They integrated both lanes of circuit, made some contact and slid off the corners to make Dover one of the most popular races of the 2016 season. Perhaps it was the best and longest battle for the win that did not include a pass for the lead.

Now, we reminisce on that finish as we approach the spring Dover race again. Will we see another one for the memory book? This recent surge in first-timer winners, along with the group of top drivers still yet to win in 2017, gives us reason to expect it.

Who’s the Next Surprise Winner?

The Coca-Cola 600 again brought fuel mileage to the party. And much like Phoenix International Raceway in March, when pit strategy starts the conversation, Richard Childress Racing ends it with a period.

Dillon joined teammate Newman and Roush Fenway Racing’s Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as surprise winners in 2017. And through a third of the season, we have nine winners, but a few expected ones are missing.

While Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth and others are struggling to cap one off, guys like Dillon are sneaking through for the spotlight.

Yes, the line between surprise and expected is a little gray and varies with each person, but let’s give it a try.

Jamie McMurray, despite only having one top five, is having his best Cup season, with career highs in average start and average finish so far in 2017. Despite sitting sixth in points, he is shockingly not the highest driver without a win, with Harvick and Kyle Busch above his mark.

McMurray would have to step it up a tad and maybe get a few more pointers from teammate Larson.

In similar air are Trevor Bayne, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. All three have shown that top-five potential but have yet to finish a race with one. But there is something about 2017 that has seemed to bring out the best in these types of drivers.

If it starts to fog during a race, maybe watch out for the No. 34 car again. (Photo: Barry Cantrell NKP)

Don’t forget to add in Kasey Kahne, who has more experience than those three combined and has already scored two top fives this year.

Ty Dillon is also one to watch, as he has scored strong results for Germain Racing, including seven top 20s and sitting 22nd in points. That’s a marked improvement from 2016 with Casey Mears, who had only one top 20 at this point in the season.

Also, AJ Allmendinger will be out front when we go to Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

Heck, after running through this list, we just may hit 16 winners for the first time in the playoff era. How fun would that be?

Will Dover Find Another XFINITY Regular in Victory Lane?

After the Cup Series surpassed its one-third mark of 2017 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the XFINITY Series will do the same this weekend in the OneMain Financial 200, round 11 of 33.

Elliott Sadler and JR Motorsports have been the top guns in the series, leading the standings by six over teammates Justin Allgaier and William Byron. Overall, Sadler has the most top fives, top 10s and best average finish in 2017.

But winning as been a different story — not just for Sadler, but also for the entire regular field. The Cup regulars have again populated Victory Lane almost weekly, winning eight of the 10 races.

That run may change this weekend at Dover. According to recent history, that is.

The last four Dover races have seen a series regular win the XFINITY race. It started with Chris Buescher doing so in the spring of 2015, winning over teammate Darrell Wallace Jr. in that frantic fight.

Meanwhile, Regan Smith outshined the Cup guys in the fall of ’15 while Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez took the races last season.

Additionally, the last two eventual champions, Suarez and Buescher, won at Dover the year they took their crowns.

This is a nice breath of fresh oxygen for the series, which is in need of a standout regular to take control of Victory Lane.

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About Zach Catanzareti

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Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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