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Menard hopes to break late-spring fade at Texas; more Racing Fan

Photo: Tyler Barrick/Getty Images

Paul Menard (27) is currently 14th in the points with zero top-fives and three top-10 finishes.

Paul Menard spent the NASCAR break last week far removed from Charlotte, N.C., the epicenter of the Sprint Cup series.

He was over 2,300 miles away in Anguilla, part of the British West Indies, a place where boat racing is the national sport and NASCAR is as foreign as driving on the right side of the road.

"I had been promising [my girlfriend] a warm trip for several years and finally did it," he said in a phone interview.

It was an escape, and now Menard is looking to pull off one of a different sort as he attempts to avoid a repeat of the late-spring fades that beseeched him the last two seasons.

On the Facebook page The Paul Menard Empire, a group of over 1,100 fans, they long ago dubbed the first full month of the season "Menarch." The Wisconsin driver has traditionally started fast, ranking ninth in driver points after the first five races of 2010, and a year later he stood fifth four races in.

But the months that followed Menarch proved much more lamb than lion.

By May of '10, Menard had fallen back to 20th and couldn't recover, winding up 23rd in the final standings. Last season he was out of the top 10 in April and despite threatening as a Chase wild card, would get no higher than 11th the rest of the way, finishing 17th.

Like clockwork, Menard looked strong to open up this season. He opened with a career-best sixth place in the Daytona 500, then earned two more top-10s in the first four races as he came in seventh at Las Vegas and 10th in Bristol to rank 10th in points.

And, also like clockwork, Menard is showing signs of another potential slip. The last two weeks he's taken 19th at Fontana and 26th in Martinsville, two tracks that have continued to be a struggle. In 10 starts on each circuit, he's finished 20th or worse seven times.

"We're just searching for some consistency," Menard said. "We'll run really good one week and then struggle the next week. We're working hard at it and that was our big focus this offseason was trying to figure out what we need to do at these tracks where we struggle, to get our finishes up to par."

Menard believes this season is different, in part because of the state of things at Richard Childress Racing, where he's in his second season behind the wheel of the No. 27 Chevrolet.

Down to three full-time cars this season after the departure of Clint Bowyer to Michael Waltrip Racing, RCR has new crew chiefs for Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, and Menard says there's been improved communication among the streamlined and retooled Childress Racing.

"We're all on the same page and there's a lot of open dialogue between the teams," he said. "So I feel like we can lean on our teammates a lot more this year and, with engineering support, we can get our cars a lot faster and just go forward and improve our cars and improve our finishes."

Despite his string of late-spring struggles, overall Menard has been steadily improving since 2009, when he had his worst points finish as a full-time Cup driver (31st).

In 2010, he had six top-10s and a year ago he won his first race, the Brickyard 400, which was one of a career-best eight top-10s in 2011. But nowhere has Menard's progress been more evident than at Texas Motor Speedway, this week's stop on the Cup schedule.

Over his first eight starts on the Fort Worth track Menard averaged a 25.2 finish, but in two of the last three races he's been 10th (fall of '10) and fifth (spring of '11) and while he was 15th last November, he did start fourth, his best qualifying run on the 1.5-mile circuit.

"Going into Texas, that's one of the tracks that I think [crew chief] Slugger [Labbe] and I kind of have a good feel for and have had good runs there in the past," he said. "Texas is one of my favorite tracks, it's really racy, you run all over the place on it."

It's a chance to put the frustrations -- and any fears of another slide down the standings -- behind him, and give a boost to a season many believe could end with his first Chase berth.

"I'm looking forward to it, trying to get our season turned around," Menard said.

***

The nominees are in for the 2013 NASCAR Hall of Fame class, and it's an impressive group of 25 potential inductees, including holdovers Red Byron, the first Cup champion, Fireball Roberts, Herb Thomas and owners Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick.

But it's one list's five newcomers that makes a strong statement for the Hall and its nomination committee.

Wendell Scott's numbers don't stack up against the all-time greats -- he had just one victory and 20 top-fives and 147 top-10s over a 13-year career -- but it was time he was a part of the HOF discussion.

He's not just the first black driver to win a race; he's a man who did it with courage, facing bigotry while driving in the South during the civil rights movement.

Scott's exclusion was a point I brought up in a discussion last spring with Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark, a member of the 21-person nominee committee and one of the 54 HOF voters. Clark said then that he was surprised Scott had yet to make the nominees. After all, both Clark's track and Las Vegas Motor Speedway had honored Scott by having all cars adorned with a decal commemorating the anniversary of his first start.

To be fair, it's a daunting task filling a HOF, especially one still in its infancy, and there are more than 60 years of iconic names that have yet to be enshrined. With just five members filling each class, Scott's time may be a ways off.

But the point is that a driver who was banned from some tracks because of the color of his skin is now that much closer to being a part of the sports' monument to the past. He left an indelible mark in an arena where black drivers are still struggling to break through.

Any HOF argument should have included Scott from the beginning. Now it will, and to that end, the nomination committee finally got it right this year.

Texas Prediction

Matt Kenseth. He's sitting fourth in the points standings, but there's been little consistency from Mr. Consistent, as Kenseth has chased good finishes with bad. He followed the Daytona 500 win by coming in 13th at Phoenix and 22nd in Las Vegas. After getting back on track with a second at Bristol, he then was 16th in Fontana. But on the heels of his fourth-place at Martinsville, look for Kenseth to string together back-to-back quality efforts for the first time in 2012. The defending race winner in Fort Worth, Kenseth has finished outside the top nine just twice in the last 13 starts there, and his 8.7 career average finish is a nearly two spots better than second-place Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson. Expect Kenseth to join Tony Stewart in the two-time winner club with a return to Victory Lane in Texas.

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