Paul Menard

Ryan: Paul Menard gives NASCAR a happy (and predictably quiet) ending

6 Comments

The feel-good stunner of Silly Season naturally would involve the most taciturn and tight-lipped of NASCAR drivers pulling the primary levers.

In what can be described only as a Peak Paul Menard power move, Wood Brothers Racing shocked the NASCAR world Tuesday morning with the unexpected announcement that Menard will exit the No. 21 Ford after the 2019 season and hand the keys to Matt DiBenedetto.

Menard essentially ended his full-time career and hand-picked his successor with hardly anyone being that much the wiser ahead of time.

Not that Menard (who had said a few months ago that he planned to return in 2020) even noticed he had kept the biggest secret in NASCAR since Carl Edwards’ sudden retirement (and even that leaked a half-day ahead).

SUNDAY: NASCAR opens playoffs at Las Vegas

“It wasn’t my goal to keep it a huge secret,” Menard said. “It’s just something that I spoke to the people that needed to know.  (Wood Brothers Racing co-owners) Eddie, Len (Wood). The folks at Penske. It is what it is.”

We would expect nothing less from the famously reserved Menard, who was never one to trumpet his personal or professional life during 13 seasons in Cup of mostly remaining private about anything beyond racing.

In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, he demurred when facing questions about several topics — notably the timeline of his decision and the ages of the young daughter and son whom he cited as the primary reason for his retirement from the rigors of full-time Cup racing.

“Watching them grow and missing out on a couple things they’ve been doing, it’s hard as a father, as a parent,” said Menard, who turned 39 last month and began racing at 8. “This sport takes so much dedication to run at the top level. I want what’s best for the 21 team. I want what’s best for my family.”

Though there are signs he could remain at Team Penske in some sort of executive capacity (his family’s company also sponsors this year’s winning Indianapolis 500 car of Simon Pagenaud and his father, John, is a longtime friend of Roger Penske), Menard declined to get into specifics.

“We’re not there yet,” he said. “I guess that’s in the future.”

And though he indicated he will continue to race (“it’s not going just to 38 weeks a year, I can tell you that.”), Menard also provided few hints of whether it’ll be in NASCAR.         

“Ice racing,” the Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native deadpanned. “I haven’t done that in a few years. We might build a bad-ass ice racing car.”

The answer is revelatory because it’s what often is missed about the quiet scion to a multibillion-dollar home improvement warehouse fortune. Racing never has been about fame or money but his passion for motorsports.

Menard’s father has been a fixture at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 40 years and instilled that love of auto racing in Paul, which is why Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Eddie Wood asked for his input on a replacement.

“Racers know racers,” Wood said. “I value Paul’s opinion. The only answer that came out of his mouth was Matt.  It did come together really, really quickly.  Matt was pretty much ready to go.  Just the way it all unfolded, it was like it was meant to be.”

It would be hard to find someone worthier than DiBenedetto, who is being cut loose by Leavine Family Racing as a team business decision casualty during the best season of his career. After “betting on himself” by walking away from Go Fas Racing with nothing lined up, DiBenedetto’s gamble was punctuated by a runner-up finish last month at Bristol Motor Speedway that is the Cinderella story of 2019.

He has three top five finishes in the past 11 races and is delivering better results under immense pressure than any previous driver at LFR … but it wasn’t enough.

LFR’s No. 95 Camry reportedly will be filled next year by Christopher Bell, whose contract with Joe Gibbs Racing ensures that LFR will be more closely aligned with the Toyota powerhouse than ever before.

Yet DiBenedetto’s move to Wood Brothers Racing, which is just as tightly affiliated with Team Penske, ensures that he will inherit an opportunity that is just as good.

Since forming the alliance with Penske three years ago, Wood Brothers Racing has risen to the fringe of the Cup elite. Ryan Blaney won at Pocono Raceway and took the storied franchise to the third round of the playoffs in 2017. Though Menard missed the playoffs the past two seasons, he has been trending in the direction of speed and performance lately (another reason Tuesday’s news was such a bombshell).

At best, it seemed a lateral or regressive move awaited DiBenedetto if he wanted to stay in Cup.

Instead, he gets the best break of his NASCAR career.

“This is the most incredible opportunity in my whole life,” DiBenedetto said of his one-year deal for 2020. “Not only from a performance standpoint, but from just being able to drive for such a legendary team, a family I’ve had so much respect for (and) has always treated me like gold.”

It’s a neat and unexpected twist that delighted NASCAR Twitter and should please a NASCAR Nation of fans who increasingly have decried drivers who get rides because they bring money instead of merit.

In this case, it’s the guy who broke into NASCAR largely through his sponsor connections choosing the guy who has desperately searched for jobs because of his lack of sponsor connections.

With the support of his family’s successful company, Menard’s racing future rarely has been in doubt, and some detractors have charged that nepotism kept him in Cup for longer than it would have for many drivers.

The criticism isn’t entirely fair to Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 and consistently has finished between 17th and 23rd in points for eight of the past nine seasons (between Wood Brothers Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports, which followed earlier stints at Yates Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc.).

Yes, his surname undoubtedly has buoyed his career, but his results also have been serviceable and comparable to many journeyman drivers who lasted nearly as long at NASCAR’s premier level.

But while Menard proved worthy of posting workingman’s results in Cup, he also has enjoyed job security and little fear or pressure of losing his ride.

It’s been the opposite for DiBenedetto, who has been forced to openly campaign for employment while “racing for his life” this summer. He still was surprised when the call came from Penske a few days after Bristol.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” DiBenedetto said. “But one thing I’ve always said is a priority of mine has been always gaining respect of other drivers and veterans like Paul because they can be your best allies and huge influence on your entire career.  This is a perfect example.

“Paul is not only making a big decision for his life and career, but he’s impacting my entire life, family, everything I’ve worked for my whole life. A ‘thank you’ for stuff like that can never be enough.”

And it’s even more impactful when it comes just as out of the blue for the rest of the world.

It’s kind of nice this was the Silly Season rumor that no one knew about ahead of time.

As Paul Menard will tell you, silence can be golden.

Harrison Burton, Paul Menard exchange words after trading hits

2 Comments

LOUDON, N.H. – There’s a 20-year gap between Paul Menard and Harrison Burton and seemingly just as wide a gulf in how they viewed their incident Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Burton, 18, finished 29th in the Xfinity Series race after being wrecked by Menard, 38, with 45 laps remaining.

Parking his No. 18 Toyota after completing 169 of 200 laps, Burton waited for more than 20 minutes until the race ended and then strode purposefully from the entrance of the Xfinity garage to the pits and confronted Menard for a terse but civil conversation.

“I wanted to get across to him that I got wrecked for no reason,” said Burton, who competes full-time in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series and was making the third start of his Xfinity career and the first on a track at least a mile in length. “I barely touched him. There’s barely a mark on his door. I don’t know if he’s heard of NASCAR before, but this isn’t F1 where if you touch someone, there’s a 5-second penalty.

“I barely touched him, and I got wrecked. He says that I got into him on the restart. I’m on the apron, and he comes down across my nose and then gets mad about it. When he watches the film, I think he’ll see that. I think that we just worked our butts off and didn’t get the result we deserve. We’ll just come back and race harder and beat him next time.”

Menard said he was justified to tap Burton in the left rear and spin the Joe Gibbs Racing driver into the Turn 1 wall.

“He ran into me a couple of times,” said the driver of the No. 12 Ford for Team Penske. “So I voiced my displeasure. He’s a young kid. He’s got a long time in this sport. He’s got to figure that stuff out pretty early. As he races more in Xfinity, and especially if he gets to the Cup level, they don’t put up with that stuff. I felt it was my place to tell him that’s not cool.

“A lot of these kids are good clean racers. He kind of stood out from the crowd. He had a fast enough car he could have been clean. I hate tearing up race cars. I didn’t really want to tear up his race car, that’s for sure. But sometimes enough is enough.”

Menard singled out Chase Briscoe and Noah Gragson, both in their early to mid-20s, for having raced him cleaner than Burton.

“Some of these kids are really fun to race with, and some of them just don’t get it,” said Menard, a veteran of 14 seasons in the Cup series who was teamed with Burton’s father (and NASCAR on NBC analyst), Jeff, for three seasons at Richard Childress Racing. “So I think you have to cut that shit out at an early age.”

“Some of these kids have a lot of talent and don’t have to run into you to try to pass you. Harrison, I’ve never met the kid before. I know his dad really well. I’ve got a lot of respect for Jeff. Really good man. But the kid ran into me a couple of times, and that was enough of that.”

Though he had the chance to air his grievances, Burton was skeptical it would make any difference with how Menard would race him in the future.

“He doesn’t care,” Burton said. “He doesn’t care about anyone else but himself. But I’m going to just go out and beat him on the racetrack like I was going to today. I was driving away from him. I was gone.

“We were going to beat him on the racetrack, and that’s all you can do is just beat people on the racetrack and show them you’re going to outwork them. I’m fired up and ready to go for the next one.”

Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier fastest in first of 2 Xfinity practices at Indianapolis

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Elliott Sadler (166.420 mph) and JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier (166.211 mph) were fastest in the first of two NASCAR Xfinity Series practices Friday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Kyle Busch, who has won the last two Xfinity races at IMS, was third fastest at 165.810 mph, followed by Erik Jones (165.508) and Paul Menard (165.466).

Teams are dealing with several changes for this weekend, including:

  • Taller rear spoiler and splitter package
  • Aero ducts on the lower front bumper area
  • 7/8-inch restrictor plate

There is one more Xfinity practice session scheduled for today from 3 to 3:55 p.m. on the NBC Sports app in preparation for Saturday’s Lilly Diabetes 250 race.

Click here for the full first practice session speed chart.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

2016 Team Preview: Richard Childress Racing

1 Comment

RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING

SPRINT CUP DRIVER LINEUP: Ryan Newman (crew chief Luke Lambert), Paul Menard (Justin Alexander), Austin Dillon (Slugger Labbe)

XFINITY DRIVER LINEUP: Ty Dillon (crew chief Nick Harrison), Brandon Jones (Mike Hillman Jr.), Brendan Gaughan (Shane Wilson), shared car of Austin Dillon/Paul Menard (crew chief Danny Stockman),

CHANGES: Jones is promoted from part-time to full-time in the Xfinity Series, with former Truck Series driver Mike Hillman Jr. as his crew chief. Jones will also be contending for Rookie of the Year honors. … Ty Dillon will be driving a select number of Sprint Cup races – including the season-opening Daytona 500 – in the No. 95 Chevrolet as part of a partnership between RCR and Circle Track-Leavine Family Racing for 2016.

DID YOU KNOW: It has been 22 years since RCR won its last Sprint Cup championship (1994, Dale Earnhardt’s seventh and final championship). … RCR has not reached Victory Lane in Sprint Cup competition since Kevin Harvick’s four wins in 2013. … Other than Harvick, the last RCR driver to earn a win in Sprint Cup is Menard in 2011 (Brickyard 400). … This is RCR’s 47th year tied with Chevrolet.

EXPECTATIONS: Even though he didn’t get past the first round, it was a promising sign that Menard made the Chase for the first time in his career in 2015. … Austin Dillon appears ready for a breakout season. … With defending champ Chris Buescher, 2014 champ Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and former RCR driver Brian Scott moving up to Sprint Cup in 2016, this could be Ty Dillon’s best chance at an Xfinity Series championship. It also could potentially be Ty Dillon’s last season in Xfinity; he’s likely to move up to Sprint Cup in 2017.

WHAT THEY SAID:

“The goals are higher this year. We expect to make the Chase, now we have to get up there and win a championship. I know how hard this group has worked. I spent a lot of time in the offseason around the shop, more than ever, and our focus is there in every department.” – Team owner Richard Childress.

“We’ve gotta win this year in the Cup. We’ve been consistent, and that’s what it takes, but we want to win in the Cup Series this year and we will.” — Team owner Richard Childress.

“Close. Closer two years ago. I think we have all the tools and there are a lot of situations that happen in the Chase that some you are in control of and some you’re not in control of. We came close two years ago, really close, one point close.”  — Ryan Newman on how close he thinks he is to capturing a championship with this team.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon presents his NASCAR ‘superlatives’

(Getty Images)
Leave a comment

With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Award banquet set for Friday (watch at 9 pm ET on NBCSN), Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon got into the spirit by handing out his own unique NASCAR “superlatives” during Wednesday night’s show on NBC.

Called “Tonight Show Superlatives: NASCAR,” Fallon bestowed honors to several NASCAR drivers including Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and new Sprint Cup champ Kyle Busch, who Fallon gave the “Human Buzz Lightyear” award.

Check out the video and the unique “awards” the drivers received: