Paul Menard stood on Bristol’s pit road. He had just climbed from his Richard Childress Racing machine. After 500 laps around Thunder Valley, Menard finished fifth. He is also ranked fifth in Cup Series points. Menard’s PR representative was joyful, his crew chief was smiling, and his spotter gave him a high five while walking past.
But Menard did not look overly happy. He didn’t look angry or disappointed either. Without appearing to have a bead of sweat on his face at all, Menard looked pensive. He looked eager to put his good finish behind him and get on to the next race.
Menard looked… like a serious race car driver.
He has brought his family’s sponsorship money to the professional NASCAR teams he has driver for. Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, Richard Petty Motorsports, and RCR are among them. His stigma of a rich kid buying a ride has been tossed about for a few seasons.
Menard began the year with a ninth in the Daytona 500. Every team’s results from the first race of the season are taken with a grain of salt with it falling within the restrictor plate category. Most observers feel the true contenders will rise up in the standings as the opening races click off.
In a straightforward honest statement, I expected Menard’s point ranking to take a tumble.
Now after four events we have also raced on a high-banked half-mile, a flat one-mile, and a mile-and-a-half. Yet after this many laps, Menard sits fifth in Championship standings. And even more impressive is that he is the highest-ranked Childress driver. He is head and shoulders above teammates Kevin Harvick in 15th, Clint Bowyer in 24th and Jeff Burton in 29th.
Moments after Bristol’s checkered flag waved, I asked him about being the top RCR car.
“Everybody has been running pretty well, (its) just that circumstances dictate the points,” Menard said. “It is not like that everybody (his RCR teammates) has been running bad. I’ve been fortunate just not to have any bad luck. We’ve had fast racecars every week. We’ve been to four different racetracks and we’ve been competitive at all four. Next week is the first time we will go to a two-mile racetrack and I’m confident we’ll be competitive again.”
When asked about his own confidence level, he hinted at his increased experience but deferred credit to the team.
“The more you drive the more things you learn. I’m just in a very comfortable situation right now. With Slugger (Labbe, his crew chief) and with Richard (Childress) and everybody up there (at RCR) right now, they give me everything I need,” he said.
Menard looks improved on the racetrack. With an opportunity to talk with him after a top-five finish and see him not satisfied, he is looking improved off the racetrack as well.
His answers sounded somewhat like the team-praising sound bites commonly heard. That is if you only read the words.
It was the mannerisms and look on Menard’s face that grabbed my attention. His attitude seemed analytical and thoughtful. He looked pleased with his fifth place finish, but nowhere near satisfied.
He looked and sounded like a racer.