Consistently strong runs have delivered Paul Menard into sixth in the points three races into the Sprint Cup season. It's a place of rarefied air, the highest he's been in a Cup career that's now at the beginning of its fifth full season, but it hasn't made him lightheaded.
"Sixth in the points is great," he said, "but we're only three races in. We have some things to improve on. We just have to keep trying to get better every week and do the best job we can. We're not going to race any differently."
Menard finished ninth at Daytona, 17th at Phoenix and 12th at Las Vegas. The results don't have him jumping up and down, but he's plenty happy with the performance of the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.
"We've had fast cars in all three races," Menard said. "We had a very legitimate shot at winning at Daytona. At Phoenix, we had a shot at a top 10 if not a top five. We had our toe knocked out early. We were really fast, but were cording the right front tires and had to back off. We ran sixth and seventh all day at Las Vegas, but on that last green flag pit stop, we took two tires like everybody else and probably put a little too much fuel in and lost track position.
"It's definitely promising. We've had good, solid runs, but we haven't finished where we were capable. We've got to close the races a little better."
Menard has been the biggest surprise of the early season. He's ahead of Richard Childress Racing teammates Clint Bowyer (18th), Kevin Harvick (20th) and Jeff Burton (32nd).
RCR is Menard's fourth Cup team. He joined Dale Earnhardt Inc. at midseason in 2004 and drove in the Nationwide Series through '06. He finished sixth in points his last two Nationwide seasons and won at Milwaukee, his hometown track. The plan all along had been for Menard to move into Cup in '07, but that's the season Dale Earnhardt Jr. moved to Hendrick Motorsports and the DEI program went into decline.
Menard was 34th in the points in '07 and 26th in '08 and moved on to Yates Racing, where he was 31st in the organization's one season. Yates merged with RPM and, despite the turmoil the team dealt with on several fronts, Menard had his best season by finishing 23rd in the championship with one top-five and six top-10s.
With the instability at RPM, Menard went shopping and RCR expanded to four cars to bring him on board. RCR's previous try at running four cars, in '09, when Casey Mears was hired, had turned into a disaster when the team didn't win a race and didn't make the Chase. RCR reverted to a three-car team in '10, won five races and Harvick, Bowyer and Burton made the Chase.
Nobody was saying it out loud, but you know plenty of people thought: "What is Richard Childress doing hiring Paul Menard? What can he contribute besides a big-dollar sponsor?"
Menard has been backed throughout his career by father John's midwestern home improvement store chain, an operation that has made him a self-made multibillionaire. But the family also has deep roots in racing, in its native Wisconsin, then an extended stint sponsoring and owning entries in the Indy 500 and then in NASCAR. John Menard is a believer that racing sponsorships are good for business. And, like in many racing families, no matter how they're associated with it, the son wanted to become a driver.
Paul Menard may have his family business behind him, but he's paid his dues. He's won races in Trans-Am, Grand-Am, ARCA, NASCAR's Southwest Tour and Nationwide. Childress wouldn't have hired him if he didn't think it would boost RCR's performance level.
Menard wasn't starting over completely at RCR. Crew chief Slugger Labbe came with him from RPM and Menard recognized many faces from his days at DEI.
"Slugger and I work really well together," Menard said. "We feed off each other. When things click, it's kind of easy. We know what the other one is thinking, something that's worked in the past. The continuity of the same crew chief is a big deal.
"From the first day I walked into RCR, it felt really good, kind of where I was meant to be. A lot of people from DEI are there ... it helps with the learning process and all that."
RCR didn't make its leap forward last season based upon cutting down to three cars. It built faster, more adaptable cars and Earnhardt-Childress engines produced more horsepower. Menard drove Roush-Fenway cars and Roush-Yates Engines at RPM, both decent packages, but generally not considered the equal of RCR's in '10.
"Our engines are unbelievable," Menard said. "I was truly happy at Las Vegas. There's not a whole lot of difference in the cars, but they react a little bit different to changes. Slugger and I try to figure out how much we've done in the past will work. One or two tenths [of a second] in the Sprint Cup Series goes a hell of a long way."
The 30-year-old Menard believes it's realistic he can make the Chase.
"I think we have a chance," he said. "All you can ask for is a chance and try to capitalize on it. If we make the Chase, that would be great, but some other things would make it a great year, like winning a race. We've got the resources to do the job. We still have a long way to go. We haven't had any trouble, but we've also outrun guys too. We need to be smart and finish races."