WELCOME, N.C. — Paul Menard is within striking distance. He just needs to be more consistent to be among NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship” contenders.
Menard has three top-five and five top-10 finishes over the first half of the 2011 Sprint Cup season, but there are also three finishes outside the top 25, which has placed him 16th in the current point standings.
“That’s the name of the game in this series and with the point standings, consistency,” he said Wednesday at Richard Childress Racing to promote next month’s IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “We started off strong, but the month of May was rough on us.
“We’ve bounced back pretty good in June. We had a good car the other night at Kentucky, but got bunched up in a restart and got some nose damage. As aero dependent as these cars are, a little nose damage goes a long way.”
The 31-year-old Wisconsin native was optimistic when talking about a good stretch of race tracks coming up. They include Bristol Motor Speedway where Menard piloted the No. 27 Chevrolet to a fifth-place finish at March’s Jeff Byrd 500.
Menard said a problem with the car’s engine may have helped him score his first top-five finish at the track.
“We actually dropped a cylinder late in the race,” he said. “It might have helped us with forward drive, which is something you fight coming off the corners there. That was a really strong car and we tested that car again recently at Kentucky. It was really fast in testing too, so we’re going to bring it back in August.”
There are other challenges his team faces with Goodyear bringing a different tire to each race track this season. Despite the obstacles, this is Menard’s best opportunity to run up front, driving for one of the top car owners in the sport with Childress and one of the top crew chiefs with Richard “Slugger” Labbe.
“We have great equipment, a great team which Slugger has put together and Richard gives us everything we need,” Menard said. “We just have to keep working hard to get good finishes. We’re happy in some regards with the team, but there are some areas we need to work on.
“But, if you look at the place Richard’s built and the cars we have, I believe we have the best race cars in the garage area.”
Menard, who is in his fifth full season in the Cup Series, also likes the passion shown by Childress. Although the car owner wouldn’t comment on a recent confrontation with driver Kyle Busch due to his NASCAR probation, Menard said wrestling a much younger man shows how much Childress cares.
“He felt passionate about his race team and felt his race team was done wrong,” Menard said. “He stood up for his team. I would expect nothing less from Richard. He did what he had to do, and I don’t think Kyle will do that again.”
There is also the pairing with Labbe, who won two Daytona 500s as a crew chief for Michael Waltrip. With Labbe leading the team, Menard has already scored more top-five finishes in the first half of this season than the first four years of his Cup Series career.
“He’s a racer through and through,” Menard said about Labbe. “He left the shop early to go on to New Hampshire and work on a Modified car. He has a certain knack for working on these cars and making them go fast. We’ve become good friends the last couple of years and everything with us has come together great.”
Working with fellow RCR drivers Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, Menard has a varied racing background that rivals any of his teammates. While Menard started off the traditional route of racing go-karts as a youngster, he found success racing both cars and snowmobiles.
He is certainly the only driver in the NASCAR garage to have 10 wins in the International Ice Racing Association. Although his father, John, is a long-time supporter of Indy Car racing, Paul has found stock car racing more to his liking.
“I’ve driven a lot of different things, but the most fun thing to drive are these Sprint Cup cars,” said Menard, who uses a Chevy Silverado pickup as his everyday vehicle. “You have so much horsepower, but the tires fall off and you slip and slide without a lot of downforce. As far as a pure joy of driving, I love a Sprint Cup car and an ice race car more than anything.”