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Menzer: Menard's empire continues to grow with success

March 21, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Driver setting the pace early on as the newest member of the Childress stable

If only every month was Menarch.

Then again, the way this Sprint Cup season is going for Paul Menard, maybe every month will soon be named after him. Anyone up for a little Aprard? Or Menmay?

"I'm just having a lot of fun right now. They're giving me really fast race cars."

--PAUL MENARD

Yes, Menard has his own fan club called The Paul Menard Empire. They even have their own Facebook page, where they proclaim the current month on the calendar as Menarch in Paul's honor and boast that their favorite driver "also possesses the most awesome facial hair in all of NASCAR."

Menard has always been a bit of a novelty in NASCAR, known more for his unique sideburns and the fact that he travels with his own sponsor than for his driving abilities. (Menard's car has long been sponsored by Menards, the home-improvement company owned by his father, John). During Sunday's Jeff Byrd 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, in fact, another driver cussed him over a team radio at one point and lamented his belief that Menard arrived on the Cup scene "with a [bleeping] silver spoon in his mouth."

But get this: after Sunday's fifth-place finish in the grueling 500-lap event at the .533-mile short track, Menard is beginning to show some staying power in the inner circle of the point standings. He's fifth, having remained inside the top 11 since opening the season with a solid ninth-place finish in the Daytona 500. He led 35 laps Sunday and now has led laps in three of the first four races of the season.

"We've had fast race cars," Menard said after Sunday's run. "What's cool is we've run well at four different race tracks so far."

Slugger's touch

Talk to Menard and he is quick to deflect credit for his early-season success toward crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe and their new affiliation this season with Richard Childress Racing. After years of bouncing around, Menard seems to have found a home at RCR in the No. 27 Chevrolet that is being prepared by the veteran Labbe.

It is the second season together for Menard and Labbe, but last year he drove the No. 98 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. The season ended in turmoil.

"Paul and us, we're a brand-new team," Labbe said Sunday. "You've got to realize that the Monday after Homestead [last year], we didn't have anything. We didn't have a truck, a trailer. We didn't have a race car. We didn't have a toolbox. We had zero. To be where we are today from where we were at Homestead is nothing short of remarkable for a new team."

Yes, Menard has brushed with Sprint Cup success in the past. He came to Bristol last spring ninth in points, but it was his one and only week inside the top 12 all year. He fell out of the top 12 after an 18th-place finish in that race and never returned, eventually dropping to 23rd in points by season's end.

That was a career high, by the way. And it is admittedly very early in this season, so it must be noted that Sunday's top-five finish was only the third career top-five for Menard in 151 Cup races. He's had precisely 10 top-10 finishes, so no one is suggesting he's suddenly the second coming of Richard Petty.

But this year is beginning to feel different, as in he might just stick around and challenge for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. It is beginning to feel that way for not only Menard and his fanatical supporters within The Paul Menard Empire but also to outsiders who previously have been some of his biggest detractors.

"I'm just having a lot of fun right now," Menard said. "Slugger and everyone at RCR builds great cars. They're giving me really fast race cars. It's cool to see a brand-new race team run well, to be a part of that."

Doing it with less

There is this perception that Menard suddenly has better equipment than ever before, and that may be true. But he's also improved as a driver since making his Sprint Cup debut in 2007 with Dale Earnhardt Inc., when that organization's name still counted for something in the competitive end of the sport.

What made Sunday's strong run especially impressive is that Menard made the most out of less when his engine lost a cylinder fairly early in the race.

"From the time we unloaded, we were good -- but we were fortunate to finish," Labbe said. "We had an issue with the motor and ran on seven cylinders from about [Lap] 200 on. He really couldn't pass anybody off the corner because of that, so we struggled with that.

"I think if we hadn't had that issue, we could have been right there with the rest of them at the end, at least for second or third. I'm glad the motor lasted as long as it did, though. I just want to keep him rolling, you know?"

Who would have thought at any point in this season that Paul Menard would be carrying the banner for RCR, an organization that placed its other three drivers in the Chase just last season?

There were more issues for the other RCR drivers Sunday. Although Kevin Harvick rallied for a sixth-place finish after getting wrecked, Clint Bowyer was relegated to a 35th-place finish after wrecking and then losing an engine, and Jeff Burton had to rally late for a 20th-place finish that unfortunately for him was his best of a thus far woebegone season.

Then again, all things seem possible for Paul Menard in the month of Menarch. Labbe said he realizes there are those who expect Menard to fade away as soon as the calendar is flipped to a new month, or maybe even a week earlier like in next Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway in California. But he is determined to do what he can to see that it doesn't happen.

"We're just working hard," Labbe said. "The good thing is I've got a lot of notes from last year and I've got a lot of good notes from RCR as a whole. So I'm just trying to pool all my resources together and come up with a good setup each race.

"I hope the bubble doesn't burst. We'll just keep rolling and doing our thing. I don't know. I'm just fortunate to be around a great group of people at Childress and John [Menard] gives us everything we need, so I can't complain."

Even if he could, why would he? So far this season there has been nothing of substance to complain about within the ever-expanding confines of The Paul Menard Empire.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.