CONCORD, N.C. – Coming off his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stage win at Talladega Superspeedway, Paul Menard is confident that he and the Wood Brothers are heading in the right direction as a team.
Menard had high hopes entering the season after moving over to drive the famed No. 21 Ford from Richard Childress Racing, and with 10 races complete this season, the fruits of the new partnership are starting to manifest themselves.
The Eau Claire, Wis., native has top-10 finishes at both Daytona Int’l Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway to his credit along with laps led at both Daytona and Talladega.
Of particular notice was his win in the second stage of Sunday’s GEICO 500, something that Menard said has added motivation as he chases the 100th Cup Series victory for the Wood Brothers’ venerable team.
“That was a big step for us,” said Menard. “I just hate that it didn’t pan out at the end on Sunday like we’d hoped. It’s definitely a positive though, so we’ll take that and the points and use it to push ourselves forward even more.”
Menard was contending for the victory at Talladega before the spinning cars of Jimmie Johnson and William Byron sparked a big crash with 23 laps to go, which Menard was collected in, ending his day.
“The bottom lane had just got rolling decent when we got shuffled back, and once you’re in traffic it’s so hard to get back forward,” said Menard. “We went for the top and that wasn’t working so we went to the bottom … and the 48 (Johnson) just cut across the 24 (Byron) and caused a big wreck.”
Despite Sunday’s disappointment, Menard spoke highly of the positives that he’s found in the team since joining the Wood Brothers during the offseason.
“Our strength so far is in the fact that the Wood Brothers are a great race team,” Menard said. “As a group, they’re really organized and really structured. Greg Erwin, myself, our engineers and all our crew guys have a great relationship and we spent a lot of time in the offseason getting to know one another and build that chemistry as a team.”
“We’re all learning together. We have some really good notebooks to fall back on and give us a baseline setup, but we’ve been working as our own unit to fine-tune on what I need versus some of the other guys. It’s just a learning process that we’re going through, like any new driver and team combination.”
Menard was quick, however, to add that he wasn’t disappointed with his time at Richard Childress Racing. He simply noted that his former team was stuck in a rut for much of last season.
“When I started with RCR, we had some really fast cars, and then we got off and ended up trying to dig out of a hole,” explained Menard. “In this case, there was no hole to dig out of when I came over to the Wood Brothers, so we’ve been able to focus on fine-tuning as opposed to having to swing for the fences.”
Though the box score may not show it – with only a pair of top-10s in 10 races this season, nine laps led and a ranking of just 19th in the point standings heading to Dover Int’l Speedway – Menard continues to show faith in his new situation and knows that the team’s struggle for results isn’t due to a lack of effort.
“We’ve had some really good races, we’ve had some races where I don’t feel like we got the finishes we deserved and then we’ve had a couple poor races too – Richmond comes to mind in particular as one of those,” Menard noted. “We struggled all weekend there. We definitely still have a lot of work to do, but we’re all working hard together and we’re definitely making strides towards where we want to be.”
Where the Wood Brothers want to be is back in victory lane, something that hasn’t happened since Ryan Blaney’s playoff-clinching triumph at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway last June.
Menard believes that he’s just as capable of reaching that summit if he and the team keep pushing forward.
“I think if we keep progressing, we’ll have a shot,” Menard stated. “If you start building on opportunities, then you can get wins out of those opportunities, which is something we hope to be able to do soon.”