With baby on the way, Menard runs strong at Vegas
March 09, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
LAS VEGAS -- The decision to take fuel only during a final pit stop didn’t cost Paul Menard a shot at his second career win in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series.
But when he spun his tires on the ensuing restart in Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the task quickly became much more difficult.
In the closing 42-lap run, the Richard Childress Racing driver charged back to third, unable to reel in race winner Brad Keselowski or runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"When that caution (for debris) came out, we knew that we were going to pit," said Menard, who now has three consecutive top-10 finishes on the 1.5-mile track. "The question was whether or not to take right-sides or gas only. We took gas only, spun the tires really bad on the restart.
"Everybody on the outside lane seemed to really spin their tires. Whoever had clean air seemed like they checked out. You saw (Keselowski) do that earlier, (Earnhardt Jr.) did it at the end. So clean air obviously is still very important, but I felt like our car, I could move lanes and we could race people and pass people."
It was the only blemish on an otherwise solid day for Menard, 33, crew chief Slugger Labbe and the No. 27 team.
Although he qualified 21st two days earlier, Menard was just outside the top-10 by lap 80 of the 267-lap event. Following a round of green-flag stops, he had cracked the top 10 and was running ninth.
He was able to remain inside the top 10 for the remainder of the race, eventually working his way into the lead when he passed defending series champion Jimmie Johnson on lap 199.
"I felt like we had definitely a top-three car and at times the best car," Menard, the 2011 winner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said. "It was cool going up and passing Jimmie for the lead and passing him for a few laps, but I’m just proud of my guys. We're clicking really well. … Our pit crew's pit stops were awesome."
Labbe said the team "had an inclination which way the track was going to go" and made the necessary adjustments prior to the race.
"It was a really, really fast car," Labbe said. "We got four tires there when some people got two (on an earlier stop), and were able to pass a lot of cars. We made two small adjustments all day long. The balance of the car was really good.
"I’m just really proud of Paul. That's three top-10s in a row here for him. With everything going on back at home with his wife having a baby, he was able to stay plugged in and focused and be there at the end."
Menard and his wife, Jennifer, are expecting their first child.
"The due date is Tuesday," he said. "… Matt Crafton is my backup (driver) and he really wants to get in the car, so I told Jennifer if it's important, call Matt because he's sure as hell going to tell me. I didn't get the call, though, so I guess everything is good."
Menard moved up to 18th in the point standings with his first top-10 finish of the season. He finished 32nd in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 23rd a week later at Phoenix.
RCR teammates Ryan Newman and Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon finished seventh and 16th, respectively.
The organization’s engineering staff "has beat this horse to death," Labbe said of the intermediate-track program. Sunday's race was the first on a 1.5-mile track with NASCAR’s new rule package.
"The seven-post and testing they have done … there’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of effort," he said.
"And I’ve got to be honest with you, we’ve taken some grief for taking on some technical alliances at RCR, but there are some things that the 13 (of Casey Mears) did that helped us and things the 47 (of AJ Allmendinger) did this week that helped us to have a fast race car.
"People can say what they want, but there’s strength in numbers."
RCR has technical alliances with Germain Racing, which fields cars for Mears, JTG Daugherty, which fields entries for Allmendinger, and Furniture Row Racing, which fields entries for Martin Truex Jr.
"We've got a good baseline for intermediate stuff, we've just got to work on our short track stuff more," Menard said. "But overall, I’m proud of everybody. Richard (Childress, team owner) has put a big investment in the off‑season hiring some new people, and I feel like our engineering and support staff is awesome."