For the first time in 10 years, Paul Menard is a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series pole winner.
At Chicagoland Speedway last weekend, the driver of Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 parked his Ford at the front of the starting grid after emerging atop the scoring pylon after qualifying. Despite an eventual 13th-place finish (and no laps led on the day; outside pole winner Ryan Blaney passed him almost immediately), Menard earns his way into the season-opening exhibition Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway next February — provided, of course, the rules for picking the field don’t change to exclude him.
But beyond that, Menard joins a club of pole winners that he hasn’t held membership for in a decade. He has just one other Cup pole to his name, which came 10 years ago at Daytona in the 2008 Coke Zero 400 during his tenure with Dale Earnhardt Inc., finishing 15th (though he at least led some laps — 15 — that day).
Now, Menard has never been the winningest driver of the Cup bunch, with just one series win, the 2011 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so having two total poles to his credit isn’t that surprising. Two, however, is better than one or even none — which some of your favorite Cup drivers might currently be repping for their careers.
Granted, it’s not like winning a pole matters as much these days, in the sense that qualifying itself has lost its luster from 20 or even 10 years ago. As of this writing, the Cup entry list at Daytona this weekend has 41 cars for 40 positions; if that holds, the series will send a team home for the first time since August of last year at Bristol Motor Speedway. When there’s less of a necessity to qualify as well (yes, a good starting spot still does wonders, but a bad one isn’t insurmountable), who’s really racing for poles?
Statistics are statistics, though, and when it comes to Cup poles, no one’s better these days than Ryan Newman.
…I mean, right?
It feels like if there’s one driver who comes to mind as a bona fide contender for the pole in NASCAR’s top series, it’s been Newman, who once scored 11 in one season, 2003. And to an extent, that’s in no way unfounded; of active Cup drivers, Newman easily leads all others with 51 career poles, neared only by Jimmie Johnson and his 35 to date.
But get this: Newman’s 51st pole came at the fall date at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2013. Back then, he was still driving for Stewart-Haas Racing and was amid a four-year streak in which he won at least one race a year.
Since then? Some outside poles here and there, which of course equate to front-row starts, but absolutely zero poles.
Johnson, meanwhile, has sat on the pole a few times here and there since Newman’s dry spell, but even he’s mired in one of his own. The driver of the No. 48 didn’t win a pole at all in 2017, the first time he hadn’t done so since 2011.
Kyle Busch sits third with 30, while Kasey Kahne (27) and Denny Hamlin (26) round out the top five among all drivers who’ve declared for Cup points in 2018 and have started at least one race this year — 48 drivers in all.
So we’ve seen the higher end of the spectrum, but how about the lower end? The drivers who can’t seem to score a pole to save their lives.
Well, there certainly are plenty; 21 of the 48 drivers polled have not won a single pole in their careers. Most of those are either complete newcomers (Harrison Rhodes) or journeymen (Chris Cook) whose zero in that stat column will surprise no one. But there are a few longtime drivers that still haven’t scored that elusive pole, including Trevor Bayne and Michael McDowell. Darrell Wallace Jr., William Byron and Daniel Suarez haven’t either, but they’re still fairly new; cut them some slack.
Meanwhile, Aric Almirola remains with just one pole to his name, a mark he shares with Derrike Cope, Erik Jones and Reed Sorenson. And perhaps the most surprising of them all is Clint Bowyer, who has just two poles in a career stretching back to 2005 in the Cup Series. Both of them came in the same year: 2007. If you thought Menard’s drought had been long, at least he’s not going on more than a decade at this point — and Bowyer’s won two races this year, so we know he’s in decent equipment.
This is all good and fun and all, but what you’ll notice among the active drivers with the most poles is that they’re, you know, veterans. Of course they’ll have the most poles; they have the most wins, too.
How about among the newcomers? Of the drivers who’ve joined the Cup ranks in the 2010s, the best-of mark goes to Kyle Larson, who has six in his four-plus full-time seasons, most of which have come in the last two years. Ryan Blaney follows with four, and then there’s Chase Elliott with three.
Could we be shaping up for a Larson vs. Blaney vs. Elliott battle for pole dominance in the future? Maybe.
Either way, if you’re looking for your next feel-good story on the pole front, Clint Bowyer actually has a little more weight as a storyline than you might think.