Paul Menard looking to break into Chase with strong Daytona finish
Paul Menard has the consistency, but lacks the speed that he flashed last season
Menard credits relationship with crew chief Slugger Labbe for helping him improve
Menard will need a top finish before going to one of his worst tracks next week
MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Paul Menard has never been a driver who has searched for the spotlight, which is ironic considering his only victory in 167 Sprint Cup starts came on racing's grand stage -- the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- in last year's Brickyard 400.
"I'm not out seeking it," Menard said. "The biggest downfall I have is I'm an extremely humble guy. I'm not here to be famous and I'm not here to be a gregarious person. That's just not me. That's the way it is. I've got a job to do and that is drive a race car to the best of my ability; do what it takes in the week to stay in shape and apply that on the weekends."
And so far in the 2012 Sprint Cup season that is exactly what Menard has done for Richard Childress Racing.
He heads to Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 13th in standings, 60 points out of the Chase. He has had a very consistent season with four top-10 finishes and no DNFs. But without a victory this season Menard is so close, yet so far from being in position to make the Chase for the first time in his career.
"I think in order to get into the Chase you're going to have to win at least one race and probably two races," Menard said. "Kasey Kahne is back there with one win and Ryan Newman with one win and Jeff Gordon is there without a win. All of those guys are going to win races and those are the guys that right now we are fighting for the Wild Card so we have to win a race or two. "It's pretty easy to be in 10th and fall back to 11th. I don't think there are any secrets or magic. It's accumulating points and race wins and the 12 guys that do that get in the Chase. Performance is what gets you in the Chase."
So far in 2012 Menard has had the consistency, but lacks the speed that his Chevrolets had last season.
"Comparing this season to last season I feel like we have done a lot better job of finishing races and putting the laps together and getting decent results," Menard said. "I think we have done a worse job of having speed in our cars. We haven't qualified as well. We have made fewer mistakes and are in a better points position now. I would like to have the speed from last year which is what we are working on now. I'd like to have the speed from last year and the consistency of this year and we would be in the top 10."
If Menard is going to make his move and try to get in position to make the Chase, he will have to start Saturday night. Menard is actually a former pole winner for this race, starting first in the 2008 Independence Day Weekend speed classic when he was at DEI/Ginn Racing. He led 19 laps before finishing 15th.
Since joining Richard Childress Racing in 2011 he has upped his game at Daytona dramatically with all three of his top-10 Daytona finishes coming in his last three starts. He was ninth in the 2011 Daytona 500 after leading 11 laps, finished eighth in the July race after leading five laps and finished sixth in this year's Daytona 500 after being in front for two laps.
With three consecutive top-10 finishes at Daytona, Menard is confident heading back to that superspeedway this weekend.
"We feel good about our superspeedway program," Menard said. "The question is where are you with five laps to go? That's what it comes down to. Also, it depends on how long you can push [the car in front of you] before temperatures get too high. We have some work to do on our engine management and cooling. We've had fast cars and have been able to get good results at Daytona. Knock on wood we'll get another one.
"I don't think it is that the track [Daytona] necessarily fits me, it's that we've had fast cars. There's not a lot you can do behind the wheel except hold it wide open, manage temperatures and point the car where you want it to go. Fast cars, good teammates and good strategies are what you need for success at Daytona."
Menard credits his relationship with crew chief Slugger Labbe with helping him improve dramatically over the last two seasons. He finished 17th in the Cup standings last year in his first full season at RCR -- up from 23rd in the standings in 2010 when he was at Yates Racing.
"We talk almost every day; we see each other all the time," Menard said of Labbe. "Actually, we did a little snowmobiling together, did a little skiing together. We are friends; we are going on our third year together. I think we complement each other. He is a high-strung guy; I'm a low-key guy. We offset each other a little bit so it's a good relationship."
Menard's chances of becoming a serious contender for the Chase will have to come at Daytona because his past record at the next stop -- New Hampshire Motor Speedway -- doesn't forecast a high finish. He has never finished in the top 10 in 10 starts at New Hampshire and his best finish was 20th in last September's race at the flat 1-mile oval.
That's the final race before Menard heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Crown Royal 400 at the Brickyard and the site of Menard's only victory in the Cup Series.