CRANDALL: Menard's stealthy ascent

Imaeg by Thacker/LAT

CRANDALL: Menard's stealthy ascent


CRANDALL: Menard's stealthy ascent


Paul Menard grabbed his first top-five finish with Wood Brothers Racing in quiet fashion last weekend at Michigan International Speedway.

Then again, that is not only Menard’s nature, but a reflection of how his tenure with WBR is going. Since taking over the ride this year, Menard has been on the periphery as others like his Team Penske allies have had flashier success.

His fifth-place finish at Michigan owed something to speed and a little bit of being in the right place at the right time. After Menard fell back in the field twice, crew chief Greg Erwin went for the strategy play. Keeping Menard on track in stage two resulted in stage points. Then with track position, Menard lined up eighth on the race’s final restart and marched to fifth before rain ended the day.

“We had a good car today and all weekend,” said Menard afterward. “We didn’t qualify as good as we would have hoped, and got put to the back twice. Once I sped, and another time we got door slammed.

“I’m really proud of my guys. We made a gutsy call to stay out on no tires with a bunch of laps on them. Gutsy call. We had the car to hold on though, so it worked out.”

Menard inherited the No. 21 Ford when Ryan Blaney, who had driven the car since starting with a partial schedule in 2015, moved over to Penske. And Blaney left big shoes to fill, especially in his last season when he made the playoffs with a victory, and ultimately finished ninth in the championship with 301 laps led as well as two poles.

If one were to do a side-by-side comparison of how Blaney performed in the first 15 races of ’17 with what Menard has done, the two aren’t far off.

For example, Blaney had five top 10s with one win, one pole and was 13th in points going into Sonoma. His overall average finish was 19.3.  While Michigan was Menard’s first top-five of the season, he now has four top-10 finishes in 15 races. His average finish is 17.8, and he’s 16th in points.

Menard has had fast cars and solid races, but racing, of course, can be cruel. Three DNFs on his record will show that. But as Sunday showed, Menard has the same pace and ability to contend as the Penskes. In fact, Menard led the three Penske cars, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, in the Michigan finishing order.

Coming into the year, Menard admitted Blaney had set the bar high, but he was confident he could match it. Team co-owner Len Wood emphasized at the time that the expectations for Menard remained the same as they had been with Blaney: be a contender and win races.

“He told us he would race his butt off for us, and that’s all you can ask for and I want to believe him,” said Wood.

The Wood Brothers and everyone else should believe in Menard now. The quietest, most methodical driver in the series is finding success the same way.