Menard proving doubters wrong
Maybe it's time everyone gets off Paul Menard's back. And maybe Richard Childress has something more in his 2011 newbie than just a driver with money.
Menard has heard it all before, the rich kid who gets to play race car driver with Daddy's money. Guess what? Menard is playing pretty well these days.
His seventh-place showing Sunday at Dover was his fourth top-10 of the season and his second in the past nine races. He has finished in the top 20 in six of his past 11 races.
"Getting a good finish at Dover is a big deal because it's a tough track," Menard said after Sunday's race. "I'm really proud of this team. Slugger [crew chief Slugger Labbe] really only made minor adjustments all day, and we were pretty good at times. All in all, it was a decent weekend for us."
Menard, who turned 30 last month, is no contender yet, but he's much better than his reputation.
Menard ranks 23rd in the Sprint Cup standings. That's better than eight other drivers who have competed in all 28 events, including Marcos Ambrose, David Ragan, Brad Keselowski and Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Elliott Sadler (who is 28th).
Menard's No. 98 Ford is a lame-duck team at RPM, as is Kahne's No. 9 Ford. But Kahne's group looks the part. Menard's doesn't.
"This was probably the best we've been all year from the time we unloaded to the time they threw the checkered," Labbe said of the Dover effort. "We had good practices, good qualifying runs and a good race run, so that's promising. No one is giving up. We're trying hard, and it's good when the whole team jells."
Menard is showing clear improvement. He finished on the lead lap 10 times in 36 races in each of the previous two seasons. He has 14 finishes on the lead lap in the first 28 races this year.
Menard also ranks fifth in the Nationwide Series this season with 15 top-10s.
Last month, Childress signed Menard to drive a fourth Cup car for Richard Childress Racing next year, a move most people saw strictly as a money deal to add the Menards stores sponsorship.
John Menard, Paul's father, ranks No. 51 on the recent Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. John, who owns a chain of home improvement stores in the Midwest, is worth $5.2 billion.
So $15 million a year, give or take a couple of million, to sponsor a Cup car is no big deal. But John isn't just throwing money away on a son without racing skills. And Childress isn't bringing in Paul just to get the dollars.
Childress said last month that he has seen marked improvement in Menard and believes he can continue to move forward at RCR next season.
In the situation that [Paul Menard] is in with his family, no matter what he does, it's always going to be 'If it wasn't for Daddy, he wouldn't be here.'” -- Jeff Burton
RCR driver Jeff Burton said Childress asked all his drivers what they thought before agreeing to sign Menard. Burton was all for it.
"I think [Menard] has a dedication to do what it takes to win," Burton said at Michigan after the signing. "In the situation that he is in with his family, no matter what he does, it's always going to be 'If it wasn't for Daddy, he wouldn't be here.'
"At the end of the day, Paul is his own man. He's been assisted by his father the same way I was assisted by my father."
Burton knows a little about what Menard has endured. Burton heard similar comments when he and older brother Ward raced as teenagers.
"That's something I lived through when I was racing late models," Burton said. "My dad wasn't rich, but he had enough money for Ward and I to race. It didn't matter how well we ran, it was always 'because Daddy could afford it.' "
Burton added that parents can't make you a winner. They couldn't for him, and they can't for Menard.
"Paul is going to stand on his own feet," Burton said. "He is committed to doing what it takes to be successful. He is a growing driver who hasn't always been in the best situation. We've got to put him in a situation where he can be successful. I think there is a tremendous amount of upside with Paul."
Just because his dad has money doesn't mean Paul can't drive. He just might surprise some people next season while racing in quality equipment at RCR.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at email@example.com.