Did You Notice?… Paul Menard is one of the longest-tenured active drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series? I looked at every Cup driver who’s run at least five races this season and added up their career totals.
MOST CAREER STARTS – ACTIVE CUP SERIES DRIVERS
Kurt Busch 674
Kevin Harvick 672
Ryan Newman 646
Jimmie Johnson 641
Kyle Busch 524
Martin Truex Jr. 503
Denny Hamlin 496
Clint Bowyer 495
Paul Menard 461
David Ragan 460
Menard sits ninth on the list with the driver right behind him, Ragan, also retiring following the 2019 season. But what’s unique about Menard is that total comes with just one career victory: the 2011 Brickyard 400. He’s also earned just one playoff appearance in 13 full-time seasons (2015) and just two career pole positions. (Daytona, July 2008 and Chicagoland, June 2018).
By comparison, five of the eight drivers ahead of Menard on this list have earned a Cup championship. All but Bowyer have won at least one of the sport’s crown jewel events (like the Daytona 500).
Instead, Menard’s track record puts him more on par with drivers like J.D. McDuffie (zero wins in 653 Cup starts) or Jimmy Means (zero wins in 455 Cup starts). The difference is neither of those independents ever had equipment capable of putting them up front. McDuffie’s stats (12 top fives, 106 top 10s, one pole) are actually right in the ballpark with Menard. (20 top fives, 69 top 10s, two poles).
It’s an incredible comparison considering the type of quality teams Menard drove for throughout his career. It’s a who’s who of who’s mattered in NASCAR history: Dale Earnhardt Inc. (2007-2008), Robert & Doug Yates (2009), Richard Petty (2010), Richard Childress (2011-2017) and the Wood Brothers (2018-2019). The Woods’ close association with Roger Penske also left Menard as a de facto fourth car. He’s privy to the type of information propelling Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano to series championships.
Unfortunately, Menard’s results never improved. That left him a prime example of the modern era NASCAR change fans despise: money, not talent, becoming the deciding factor in getting a ride. In recent years, Hall of Fame caliber drivers like Matt Kenseth have been pushed out through lack of sponsorship while the Menards family of home improvement stores delivered Paul a middle-tier seat.
At the same time, there always seemed to be just enough talent to always keep the 39-year-old hanging around the Cup circuit. In particular, he had a habit of bringing home equipment in one piece. Menard had three or more DNFs just once in his first nine full-time seasons on the Cup circuit. That number has expanded since but he’s still wrecked out, on average, only twice a year.
Menard’s retirement also comes when he’s got the second-best average finish of his career (16.3). He has 21 top-20 finishes in 26 races and has finished worse than 24th just once. (A wreck in the season-opening Daytona 500).
Yet that track record is the very definition of average, a tier that Menard has been stuck in his entire career. Not exactly the chatty type, he remains social media-averse to the point his own fan club poked fun when congratulating replacement Matt DiBenedetto.
Don't have the words eh?
You'll fit in well. https://t.co/W7I2G0Qxx0
— The Empire (@PMenardEmpire) September 10, 2019
So in the end, while Menard underachieved, you have to give him credit for being able to stick around the Cup Series so long. Not every athlete can be a Hall of Famer. For every baseball player who hits for a .300 average, there’s three more who hit .250, grind it out on defense and fade into oblivion when their time is up.
You’ll catch those blue collar guys having a beer with Menard, at some bar nobody knows about somewhere on a Friday night in 2020. I don’t think he’d have it any other way.
Did You Notice?… DiBenedetto is the complete opposite of Menard in terms of both career and life trajectory? This guy has slaved through years of underdog, under-performing operations that saw one former car owner file for bankruptcy. He finally got a chance with a single-car, manufacturer-supported team this year, only to be thrown aside in six months when chemistry started clicking. And his replacement? How about a younger, more successful talent backed by the money this 28-year-old never really had?
But that background may make Matty D the perfect fit for the Wood Brothers in 2020. He’s now got a year of experience on how to handle a satellite team within a major operation (Leavine Family Racing gets information and support from four-car Joe Gibbs Racing). He’ll come in with a chip on his shoulder, ready to prove himself with a team that’s proven it can win as recently as 2017 with Ryan Blaney. And the social media savvy driver will be a breath of fresh air paired with an iconic program NASCAR likes to trumpet.
At the moment, DiBenedetto’s 2019 average finish is roughly four spots higher than where LFR’s previous two hires, Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith, ran in 2018. If DiBenedetto improves by the same amount over at the No. 21, that pushes the team’s average finish to somewhere between 12th and 13th. It would be good enough to launch him into the playoffs and on par with future teammate Keselowski.
DiBenedetto’s hire also has the potential to clean up NASCAR Silly Season. He fills Menard’s spot, Christopher Bell moves into the No. 95 and someone replaces a retiring Ragan at the No. 38. After that… not much else? Sure, Tyler Reddick might move up with Richard Childress Racing. Cole Custer may find somewhere to slide into a Cup car. But that’s about it, barring some drastic new ownership development the next few months. It would make 2019 the quietest NASCAR free agency period of the decade after several years of above-average activity.
Did You Notice?… Quick hits before taking off….
- You may have missed it, but Elliott Sadler is running the final race of his NASCAR career this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His No. 10 Xfinity Series ride with Kaulig Racing has been redesigned to look exactly like his first ever late model scheme; original crew chief Chris Rice will resume that role one final time. Sadler will close out his career with 855 career starts across the sport’s top three series, totaling 17 victories and four runner-up finishes in the Xfinity title race.
- Not to get lost in the shuffle was a tweet from Bob Leavine this weekend when asked why DiBenedetto was not retained for the No. 95.
No it’s not about personality and talent Rick, in today’s nascar world it about sponsorship money. There are a lot of quality drivers not driving in nascar right now because of money. If your wallet is as big as your mouth then write Matt a chech for $11M and he can get a ride. https://t.co/mPrKtCeMPv
— Bob Leavine (@BLeavine) September 8, 2019
You would never have to worry about your favorite athlete in any other sport losing the ability to compete over money. NASCAR is headed in the right direction but finding ownership and sponsorship to coalesce behind talent remains their biggest problem. The field can’t all be drivers picked out of a lineup because they “fit” a particular brand” or they’re simply the children of rich parents.
- It took four laps at the end of the Brickyard 400’s second stage Sunday to clean up debris on the racetrack. Four. Keep in mind Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a 2.5-mile oval where green-flag laps take well over 45 seconds to run. How do you not pick up the pace when it’s the regular-season finale and stage bonuses (along with playoff spots) are at stake? Who knows what would have happened had the race been restarted. There’s no guarantee Jimmie Johnson would have stayed in line rather than make the same banzai move that killed a half-dozen cars to start the final stage. But officials should have finished stage two under green. Debris cautions should be the equivalent of “quickie yellows” where you have two, max three laps and that’s it.