The announcement last summer that Richard Childress Racing was adding Paul Menard as a fourth driver raised eyebrows on many levels. First there was the question of why an organization that had expanded a year earlier with disastrous results would attempt such a thing again. And then there was the question of why they would do it with Menard, a driver who, despite a few flashes on restrictor-plate and intermediate tracks, didn't seem to fit in with a stable comprised of three strong contenders for the Sprint Cup championship.
To the critics, this was a cash grab, plain and simple. To compete with juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports, you needed four cars, and all the sponsor money that comes along with such an endeavor, and in this case the sponsor and the driver arrived hand-in-hand. Menard brought with him backing from his family's company, the Menard's home-improvement chain, a fact that both accelerated the driver's career -- despite just two top-fives, he had progressed from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Richard Petty Motorsports to RCR -- and cast doubts upon it all at the same time.
Outside of RCR and the Menard family, so many thought the same thing -- this was a marriage of convenience, with the new driver bringing in some money to help support the expected title runs of his three teammates. And now you look at the standings, and see Menard well ahead of his RCR brethren after the first three races, and you begin to wonder if there's a real race car driver behind that last name after all.
No question, it's early, and it's not unusual for drivers to make surprise appearances near the top of the standings only to fall back again as the season goes on. Menard himself did just that a year ago, when he stood ninth after a strong run at Atlanta, only to quickly plummet back down to earth. But that was with an RPM outfit that wasn't nearly as strong as the team he's with now. And it didn't include a string of finishes like the three he's had this year -- ninth at Daytona, 17th at Phoenix, and 12th at Las Vegas -- that have vaulted him to sixth in the standings, the highest he's ever been.
"I'm just proud of the way a brand new race team is coming together," Menard said prior to his Las Vegas run. "They build me really nice looking, beautiful race cars. They are fast. We have awesome horsepower."
And to this point, he is head and shoulders above his more established teammates, well in front of the other RCR drivers in the standings. Clint Bowyer is the closest, all the way down in 18th. Kevin Harvick is 20th, and under this new 1-to-43 points system, nearly a full race behind co-leaders Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch. After a blown engine at Daytona, a crash at Phoenix and a speeding penalty at Las Vegas, Jeff Burton is buried back in 32nd. Then there's Menard, cruising along unexpectedly at the head of the pack. Menard was quickest of the RCR drivers in opening practice at Las Vegas, and afterward members of the team's other crews ventured over to the No. 27 hauler to ask crew chief Slugger Labbe what he was doing with things like tire pressures and springs.
"It is neat to have people ask you for help, too," Menard said. "Being the new team, being the new guys on the block, it is cool that they respect us and want to learn some things. Obviously we go right back to them with questions we have for them. Some things that worked for us last year aren't going to work this year, and we are going to have to learn these new cars. It is a totally different chassis, and [we're] just trying to work through some things. ... We are learning these cars as we go. I've been really well received in the whole group, and that's neat for me personally and professionally."
It helps that Labbe, Menard's crew chief last year at RPM, made the move as well. Menard said there are also some crewmen on his team that he worked with last year, making the transition to RCR even smoother. Walking the hallways of the Welcome, N.C., shop complex, he's even seeing some familiar faces from his days at DEI. Menard is clearly comfortable in his new surroundings, something that is reflected in the performance. "It is a really good group of guys," he said. "So far this year we've gone out to dinner at some point every weekend, and everybody just gets along really well and it is cool to see."
So does all this mean Paul Menard is for real? He certainly has the chance to make that case, given his strong start to the season, and given that he's in the best equipment he's ever been in. In doing so he would back up the claims of Childress, who said after signing Menard last summer that his new driver fit right in with his three current ones -- who between them have combined to win 39 races -- in terms of driving ability. Childress compared Menard to his grandson Austin, now a race winner on the Camping World Truck Series, as someone whose natural talent was overlooked (at best) or dismissed (at worst) because of their connections.
And yet the last name, and the sponsorship that goes along with it, will continue to color the perception some have of him. Menard is in a unique position -- he's not really in danger of losing his sponsor, yet he doesn't necessarily face the same level of pressure many other drivers do, of having to maintain a certain level of performance to keep the sponsor happy. His family has been involved in racing since his father John first stated going to the Indianapolis 500 in the mid-1970s. If they're going to back a driver in NASCAR, Paul said in August, then it's going to be him. "I'm probably the easiest one to yell at, and I can dish it back out," he said then.
As for the criticism that his advancement in NASCAR is tied to his father's money? "I've looked past that, and grown past that," Menard said when RCR signed him. "People will always be talking about it, but there's nothing you can do about it. The bottom line is, we're a racing family, we have a racing heritage, and I'm a race car driver."
Through first three races of the season, he certainly has been. Of course the 30-year-old Menard wants to try to win races and make the Chase, two goals held by every Sprint Cup driver who walks through the doors at RCR. But even if he can't maintain his fast start, a driver who to this point has been defined by his family's fortune will still have an opportunity to achieve something even bigger -- making a name for himself.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.