- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
- 0 Shares
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Unbeknownst to most in the Martinsville Speedway media center, Paul Menard entered the back of the room at the precise moment Greg Biffle was asked what he thought about his fellow Ford driver being in the top 12 of the Sprint Cup standings.
Biffle couldn't resist.
"He sucks as a driver," he said of Menard with a straight face. "He's gotten lucky this year."
A few gasps of "I can't believe he said that" bounced off the walls before Biffle smiled. Everyone quickly realized the Roush Fenway Racing driver simply was having fun with the Richard Petty Motorsports driver who basically is a teammate because of the relationship between the two organizations.
But it wasn't that long ago that some drivers said the same thing -- at least under their breath -- and were dead serious. None was more outspoken than Tony Stewart in the fall of 2007 after a couple of pit road run-ins with Menard, who then drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
"Well, it's a situation, and I normally would keep my mouth shut on this, but I just have a hard time doing it today," Stewart said on his then-weekly Sirius Radio show. "You can have your father buy you a ride and write DEI a big check, but you can't buy talent.
"And that's what John Menard's been good at his whole life, is just buying success. He's bought his son a Cup ride, and he's just got enough talent to just be in the way most of the time."
Stewart might have to eat those words today. Menard is 11th in points heading into Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway. He's been among the top 12 drivers who make the Chase since a fifth-place finish at Atlanta three races ago, ranking ahead of perennial stars Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne.
He's also sixth in the Nationwide Series standings with four finishes of 11th or better in five races.
He's easily the early surprise of the 2010 season.
And as far as anybody knows, his father hasn't gone to the local stock car racing store to purchase an extra gallon of talent.
"I'm driving the same way," Menard said. "We just have resources and tools and teammates and a lot of smart people I can lean on."
Nobody is suggesting that Menard will be NASCAR's version of Butler in the NCAA tournament and make the Chase or challenge four-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for the title. But he deserves props for what he has accomplished thus far.
He might even be owed a few apologies from those who said he wouldn't be where he is were it not for his father's ability to sponsor his cars with money from his home improvement store chain and engine building company.
"What I was going to say before I saw him walk in here was that they have done a remarkable job this season," Biffle said. "Paul has shown skill all along that he can drive."
To be fair, Menard has gotten a few breaks because of his last name. It's highly doubtful Yates Racing -- RPM since the offseason merger -- would have gone after him last year had the Menards sponsorship not been part of the deal.
That doesn't make Menard any more or less talented. And as Menard reminded Stewart three years ago, Menard's father gave the two-time Cup champion his first IRL ride in 1996 and sponsored him in 1997 when he won the IRL title.
"Yeah, I wouldn't be here if my family didn't support me," Menard said after the Stewart incident. "I don't think he would be, either, if his family didn't support him. You can't get too wrapped up in it."
Point taken. So how Menard advanced to NASCAR's top series isn't as important as how he advanced to the top 12 after three straight seasons of finishing 26th or worse.
"Like Greg said, our cars are driving better this year than what we had last year, and it's shown for all eight Fords in our camp," Menard said.
It's not quite that simple. The merger between RPM and Yates meant six teams had to be reduced to four. Throw in the No. 26 team that Roush Fenway eliminated to get to NASCAR's four-car cap and that made a lot of talented people available to build one solid team.
The addition of veteran crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe also made an impact. In a way, he has done for Menard what he did for Michael Waltrip when he took a driver who had only one victory in 16-plus seasons before coming aboard late in 2001.
"We took it as a challenge: We're going to make this guy all he can be," Labbe said of Waltrip, who won three races between 2002 and 2003 and had a personal-best eight top-5s in 2003.
"That's what I told these guys when I came to work here in December. I said, 'Look, Paul is our driver. He hasn't had a good history, but it's up to us to prove everybody wrong. He's not going anywhere. If you guys want to work here, you have to rally around Paul.' "
Menard is quiet, unemotional for the most part. Even when Stewart insulted him, he didn't lose his cool. Labbe brings out some of the fire that might have been missing.
Paul needs to step up, too. In the past, it might have been easy to push him out of the way or spin him out. Now that he's got a car he can race, he needs to be more aggressive and not take as much crap as he has in the past.
”-- Crew chief Richard Labbe
"He's a competitive guy, for sure, and he's an emotional guy, too," Menard said of his crew chief. "When he gets mad, I know I better do something to make him happy."
That happened a few times the past two races at Bristol and Martinsville, tracks where many expected Menard to take a hard fall. Labbe felt competitors were getting a bit overaggressive with his driver. He pleaded for him to fight back, to show he belonged.
"Paul hasn't been up toward the front much in his career," Labbe said. "Some people are having a hard time adjusting to that. Paul needs to step up, too. In the past, it might have been easy to push him out of the way or spin him out.
"Now that he's got a car he can race, he needs to be more aggressive and not take as much crap as he has in the past."
Much of this early success story goes back to the car. Labbe built 11 new ones to start the season. They are lighter and more aerodynamically sound.
In other words, they are faster.
"I don't think Paul is driving any harder than he has in the past," Labbe reiterated. "He's probably driving easier, the truth be known. We've just been fortunate his cars have driven very, very good.
"And I've always said it's harder to run 25th to 35th than it is first to 10th. When you're back 25th to 35th, the quality of drivers isn't as good and the aero is different."
But wait. Up until last year, Menard was running 25th to 35th. Does that mean he didn't have as much talent then as he does now?
"Paul is a quality driver," Labbe said. "Anybody can do a really good job in a race car that drives good. Not taking anything away from Paul, but if you get your cars right and have good pit stops, then anybody who is a race car driver can do well with it. The situation you put yourself in might dictate the ride, as well."
So far, Menard has put himself in the right situations more times than not. He has finished every lap, something only four other drivers can say. He has improved his average finish from 25th or worse the past three years to a respectable 14.2.
He's showing that, with the right equipment and right people, he's capable of the consistency it takes to make the Chase.
He's showing he has some talent.
Whether he can maintain that pace for an entire season, or even 26 races, remains to be seen. But he deserves props for what he has done so far.
"I had a guy comment last week, 'Man, you were right. You told us you were going to make a driver out of Paul Menard,'" Labbe said. "I'm like, 'I never said that. I said we were going to give Paul the best stuff so he can showcase his talent.'
"That's exactly what he's doing."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The feel-good story so far in 2010? It's got to be Paul Menard, who has shown us he's a Chase-worthy driver with the right equipment and right people around him.