By Brody Jones
When one brings up the name Paul Menard, until roughly this time last year, people just assumed that he was only in the sport because his father is Midwestern home-improvement tycoon, John Menard, but nothing could be further from the truth. In the past two years, Menard has gone from an average, at best, driver to being a legitimate contender to win races. To say that Menard has come a long way from his largely dismal D.E.I. and Yates Racing years is an understatement. Most of all, in what was perceived to be a make-or-break opportunity for Menard at Richard Childress Racing, he has more than exceeded expectations. In fact, he’s currently the top dog at Childress, ahead of Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer, and even Kevin Harvick.
Menard’s turn-around is nothing short of remarkable. In particular, he has been especially stout on the mile and a half tracks, and was reportedly the driver for Ford last year who helped the manufacturer with their super-speedway program the most. But at least half of the credit has to go to Richard “Slugger” Labbe, whose crew chiefing skills are vastly underrated. To turn Michael Waltrip from a journey-man driver into a race winner and a sponsor shill (though one really can’t blame Labbe for the last one.) and now to turn a previous also-ran like Paul Menard into a honest-to-goodness weekly contender to win races officially should cement Labbe’s reputation as a turn-around artist.
Even fans, most of whom prior to two years ago didn’t know anything about Paul Menard except that the guy had the most prominent sideburns in NASCAR and that he had a soul patch are starting to take gradual notice of the former ice racer. Although it’s still not a very common sight, there were a few more fans than usual sporting a Menards hat or a Paul Menard T-shirt this week-end at Bristol. Of course, he still does not sell anywhere near the amount of merchandise as team-mate Kevin Harvick, but at least he has a few fans in the stands taking notice of his capabilities behind the wheel. Even the social networking beast has got in on the act, in particular the Facebook and Twitter group “The Paul Menard Empire”, which in just slightly over a year, has mushroomed to well over 500 members. Although the group started somewhat as a joke, it’s actually become a bit of an Internet haven for all fans of Paul Menard. Even some of the past critics have come around, at least to a point of where they may not quite yet perceive him as a threat to win races, but they do recognize he’s not a rich guy playing the part of a race car driver.
Menard had a strong start to last year as well at this point, climbing up to 9th in the points standings before eventually tailing off. Few expected Paul to have the strong start that he’s had to this year. He started the year with a top 10 at Daytona, ran well for much of the race at Phoenix before settling for a top 20 and at Las Vegas, he again had a top 10-caliber car and finished just outside the top 10 to put him 6th in points. While it remains to be seen if Menard can carry over this momentum throughout the course of the 2011 season, it certainly has proven that Menard’s early-season success last year was no flash in the pan. Granted, while his team-mates have had a great deal of early season misfortune and woes and Menard has yet to have those problems, one cannot help but be impressed with Menard’s maturation as a driver.