Twelve races into the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and Richard Childress Racing is one of four teams that have multiple victories after going on a 112-race winless streak.
Ryan Newman pulled the No. 31 machine into Victory Lane at Phoenix International Raceway, leading the final six circuits back in March. Then, at Charlotte Motor Speedway last weekend, Austin Dillon crossed the finish line first in the famed No. 3 car, picking up his first career victory.
Those two drivers are essentially locked into the playoffs as long as there are no more than 16 winners through the first 26 events.
That also leaves Paul Menard, the third member of RCR’s Cup Series trio the lone man out.
Menard comes into Dover International Speedway 24th in the championship standings, 111 markers behind Ryan Blaney, who currently holds the final playoff position. For the No. 27 team, that means their goal heading into the summer is simple: win.
“You can still point your way in, but you have to rely on other people having some pretty bad luck,” Menard told Frontstretch. “You can’t bank on that. We’ve got to go for a win.”
One advantage Menard might have on other teams is his crew chief Matt Borland, a veteran head wrench who rose to NASCAR fame with Newman. In the past, the stock car veteran has made bold strategy calls to pull into Victory Lane. The last of those was in 2013, calling for two tires late in the race which proved to be a winning move for Newman at the Brickyard.
In all, Borland has 13 career victories as a crew chief. All of them have come with Newman, including eight in 2003, the driver’s best season on the Cup level.
“He is one of the smartest guys in the garage,” Menard said of Borland. “He’s trying to work through the system and we’re learning each other. We are pretty good friends and have open communication. He’s a good competitor.
“Not many people are going to outsmart him. He’s always looking at the big picture down the road. If something happens where we can capitalize, he will be prepared to do that.”
In the first 12 races of the season, Menard has a pair of top-10 finishes, most recently coming at Talladega Superspeedway, slotting in ninth. The No. 27 team also kicked off the season with a fifth-place effort in Daytona.
Menard has one career victory in NASCAR’s premier series, which was a fuel mileage race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2011. That, too, was for RCR. He also earned a playoff appearance two years ago, his first although it didn’t last beyond the round of 16.
Outside of the two restrictor plate tracks, Menard’s best 2017 result came at Charlotte last weekend (13th). Recording six finishes outside the top 20 has put a damper on his year.
“We’re not where we want to be, for sure,” he said. “But there is a lot of promise. Obviously with the [Nos.] 3 and the 31 both getting wins, that’s great for RCR, but our speed just hasn’t been there as a group. I think we are working pretty hard at trying to qualify up front, be there and actually contend for race wins and lead laps.”
Menard believes that the team is a “couple of tenths” off the front runners. Knowing that, there is work going on with the Nos. 3 and 31 to help the No. 27 team make the playoffs.
Just don’t blame their problems, should they keep occurring on a crisis of confidence.
“There’s no more questioning if we can win,” he said. “We show up every week to try and win the race. That doesn’t change. But we have two cars in and one car out right now, so the pressure is a little bit higher.”