Paul Menard, 29, is ninth in the point standings. In fact, he’s occupied that slot for two races now. He finished fifth in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 7. In the season’s other four races to date, Menard’s finishes were 13th, 17th and 18th twice. He’s 160 points out of the points lead.
"It’s been a good start," said Menard, who drives the No. 98 Petty Motorsports Ford. "The guys improved the cars a lot in the off-season. We’ve got a good working relationship with ‘Slugger’ (Labbe, his crew chief) and the merger between Yates (Racing) and RPM (Richard Petty Motorsports) went pretty seamlessly.
"We haven’t had any real bad luck so far, so — knock on wood — hopefully, we can keep that going and keep having solid finishes."
By the way, Menard, a native of Eau Claire, Wis., also happens to be ninth in the Nationwide Series. Like Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski, he is running both series full-time.
"Our last off weekend for the year was last week," he said, referring to March 13-14. "We’re every weekend until November, which is what we love doing. We love racing every weekend. I’ll probably miss out on a few things, but I’ll still have Sunday afternoons off when we run the Nationwide car (and Cup is idle)."
Menard’s formula hasn’t changed. The results have.
"Last year we had the same goal of starting off running conservatively, but trying to finish in the top 20. ... This year, we’ve kind of had the same focus and just haven’t had anything go wrong. We’re a lot better off in points and we’ll just try to keep that ball rolling," he said.
For now, Menard will remain cautious.
"You’ve got to be aware of who is around you and whom you’re racing, and when people get mad at each other, stay out of their way," he said at Bristol. "When we go to a place like Texas, you can probably do a little bit more, strategy-wise, to try and gain some track position. We’re not going to change our outlook."
Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (N.C.) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week (http://nascar.rbma.com) features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at firstname.lastname@example.org.