Paul Menard, No. 27 team ready to seize the moment
February 03, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Paul Menard, now the longest-tenured Cup driver at Richard Childress Racing, says his No. 27 team "doesn't need to re-invent the wheel," but acknowledges it must improve on past years' performances.
"But at the same time," the 33-year-old said, "we're always pushing to get better, finding things we didn't do to our complete satisfaction to work on, whether it's little things from how you get on and off to pit road, how do you manage pit-road speed, managing our practice sessions, having a plan and sticking to the plan or when do you bail off the plan and try something different if it's not going well."
Menard, Ryan Newman and Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon make up the RCR NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver lineup for 2014. Newman, with 17 career Cup wins, found a home at RCR after being released from Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of last season. Paired with crew chief Luke Lambert, he will work with most of the same folks that made up former driver Jeff Burton's No. 31 team this past year.
Dillon, a former NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, has enjoyed a successful run in the lower series as he advanced up the ladder to Cup. For '14, he inherits the Gil Martin-led team that helped Kevin Harvick to a third-place points finish in '13.
Menard's own team remains intact, for the most part, with veteran crew chief Slugger Labbe once again calling the shots.
"I trust Slugger and he trusts me," Menard said of the pairing that is entering its fifth year -- the two previously worked together at Richard Petty Motorsports before making the move to RCR in 2011. "We balance each other out really well, I think. I’m probably a little more laid-back; he's probably a little more high-strung. Sometimes he gets wound up and I have to calm him down; sometimes he needs to kick me in the ass. So that works."
Labbe has helped guide three drivers to Victory Lane since 2002, and among his five career victories as a crew chief are the 2003 Daytona 500 (with Michael Waltrip) and the 2011 Brickyard 400 (with Menard).
The Brickyard victory is Menard's lone win through 255 career starts in the series. He also has a single win in the Nationwide Series.
Avoiding a midseason slump that has hit the team in recent seasons is just one of the goals for 2014.
"The biggest thing is that historically, we've always fired off the season really strong, then get to the summer months, races 12 to 15, and we fall on our face," Labbe said. "It happened again this (past) year and it's hard to make those points back up in the middle of the year."
Eighth in points through 12 races, the team fell to 20th following a crash at Kentucky and blown engine at Daytona later in the summer.
"We really got behind there," Labbe said. "If we just minimize our mistakes -- our cars have speed, we have a lot of potential, a really good pit crew. Believe it or not, it's the same pit crew I've had for the last three years … I tried to blow 'em up at Homestead, but we survived all that. The core group, from the shop to the road, I think we've changed out six people total (through the years).
"But the big thing is just minimize the mistakes. If we have a 10th-place car, we need to finish 10, don't finish 15th. If we can minimize the mistakes and avoid the wrecks, engine failures or parts failures, I think we'll be where we need to be."
Menard and Labbe say the addition of engineers Justin Alexander and James Small should be a big benefit to the No. 27 team and the RCR organization.
"I remember 10 years ago, it was all about having good mechanics," Labbe said. "You changed 2-3 engines a weekend, there was a lot of work involved and you had to have really good mechanics. You still have to have that, but you've got to have a strong group of engineers today. … Each team has two that goes to the track, there's an assistant that floats among the teams, and a core group back at the shop when we're on the track, analyzing what we are doing."
Alexander previously worked at Hendrick Motorsports (2004-10) while Small comes to RCR from Melbourne, Australia, where he enjoyed a successful engineering career in the V8 Supercar series.
"We've had very little car trouble," Menard said. "Our cars are solid; we haven't had pieces fall off. …Probably the one thing we lacked the last couple of years was giving Slugger a good engineering support staff. I feel really confident in Justin and James this year to help us out."
And as for taking that next step?
"That's the million-dollar question," Menard said. "That's what everyone is trying to do -- take your results from last year and improve on them.
"I feel like RCR as a whole, going into the season with some of the personnel moves, the engineering buildup that has happened, we've got a great opportunity to do that."