Photo courtesy Richard Childress Racing

Will long wait for breakthrough season finally be at hand for Paul Menard in 2014?

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When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 in 2011, not only was it his first career Sprint Cup win, it was a huge leap forward in what had been a rather nondescript Sprint Cup tenure up to that point.

By winning what has become one of NASCAR’s crown jewels, Menard finally had something no one will ever be able to take away from him: that he’ll forever be known and referred to as both a Brickyard and Indianapolis Motor Speedway champion.

But since that huge win, Menard has been kind of stuck in neutral. With the Brickyard triumph, four top-5 and eight top-10 finishes, he ended the 2011 season in a career-best 17th place.

In 2012, he improved slightly to a winless 16th in the standings, and last season, went right back to 17th, again without another win.

That has to change this season, Menard told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk during last week’s NASCAR Media Tour in Charlotte, N.C.

“I think we’re definitely capable and our goal is to make the Chase,” Menard said. “And to make the Chase, we have to win races. That’s what we’re going for. That’s what we do every week.”

Menard comes into 2014 in a significantly different position and role than he was in during his first three seasons driving for Richard Childress Racing.

With Kevin Harvick having moved on to Stewart Haas Racing and Jeff Burton running a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing as a prelude to becoming a TV analyst for NASCAR on NBC in 2015, Menard is now the guy with the most seniority at RCR this season,

But even with new teammates Ryan Newman and Sprint Cup rookie (and Childress grandson) Austin Dillon, Menard claims there really hasn’t been that much of a change in the overall dynamic at RCR.

“Honestly, it’s not that different,” Menard said. “(Dillon and Newman are) guys I’ve known for a long time. I’ve worked with Austin for the last several years, and Ryan, I’ve raced against him for years. It’s really not that different.

“It’s welcoming Ryan into how RCR does things. He’s a smart guy, he’s going to fit right in, has a lot of the same interests as Richard and myself and Austin and Ty. So, it’s been pretty seamless.”

With so much attention focused on Dillon, at least at the beginning of this season due to his driving the fabled No. 3 car for the first time on the Cup circuit since the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500, and with Newman coming over from SHR, Menard loves the position he finds both himself and the organization in.

“Yeah, it’s two new guys and two guys that are very different in their personalities and the way they think,” Menard said. “You have Ryan, who is a degreed engineer, been around the sport a long time, a multi-time race winner and a Chase guy every year.

“And then we have Austin, who is this young and enthusiastic guy and full of energy. It’s really cool to see how all three of us are going to work together. I feel like we all have the same interests, we can talk about racing, talk about hunting, talk about just being outside or doing something totally different, spend time together doing that and get to know each other a lot better.”

Ever since that win in the Brickyard, it has appeared Menard has been ready for an even bigger career breakthrough.

Unfortunately, he’s still waiting.

But now in his fifth season with crew chief Slugger Labbe, Menard believes this could be a magical year for him, Labbe and RCR.

“We balance each other out really well, I think,” Menard said of Labbe. “Slugger is a very hands-on crew chief, at the shop every day, with the cars, really enjoys the cars and understands the mechanics of the cars. He’s a real go-getter, I guess.

“Myself, I enjoy working with the engineers and understanding what makes the car go fast. That’s pretty cool for me. I guess we just learned to work together a long time ago, it’s clicked, we enjoy working together, we’re good friends on and off the track and this is just one of those deals that works.”

One thing that won’t work is Menard returning to Indianapolis behind the wheel of an Indy car. While his father John has been involved in the Indianapolis 500 for more than three decades, Paul will not try to emulate what AJ Allmendinger and Kurt Busch are hoping to do – namely, race in the 500 in May and then compete later that same day in NASCAR’s most grueling race, the Coca-Cola 600.

“It’s something I’ve thought about, for sure, but I don’t think it’s doable, honestly, to give it a good, fair shake,” Menard said. “I drove an Indy car 10 years ago, they’re just totally different today. They have a ton of grip until they don’t, there’s no saving them.

“I’ve seen a lot of good guys get hurt really bad, and I think it’s something you definitely have to respect. If you’re going to run a race, especially the Indy 500, you have to be there the whole month. You have to start with a lot of downforce in your car and start trimming it out until you feel that comfort. It’s going to be real hard to go out there and go fast and have your car trimmed out and not crashed and not break both your legs. That’s just my opinion.”

And then with an impish grin, Menard added, “Besides, those guys (IndyCar drivers) are little. They’re 5-foot-5 and 120 pounds. I’m six foot and 200 pounds. For one, I don’t think I could fit in the car with enough padding and security to be safe with it, and secondly, it’s a huge weight disadvantage, carrying 60 more pounds than the next guy.”

So, will 2014 really, truly be the long-awaited breakthrough year that Menard and his fans have long hoped for?

“I’m really looking forward to 2014,” he said. “It’s a year of change, for sure, not only for RCR but our sport. I’m really excited about the changes coming down the pike in our sport, and I’m really looking forward to working with Austin and Ryan this year.

“I’m just excited to get down to Daytona and kick the year off. I’m looking forward to getting back into the race car and kicking off 2014 on the right foot.”

Menard already has a Brickyard 400 win. Could a Daytona 500 win in less than two weeks be next?

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Magnussen: P14 on grid in Malaysia ‘much better than usual’

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Kevin Magnussen of Denmark driving the (20) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo in the Pitlane during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Kevin Magnussen felt delighted to match his second-best qualifying result of the 2016 Formula 1 season in Malaysia on Saturday, finishing 14th for Renault in Q2.

Magnussen has scored all seven of Renault’s points since its return to F1 as a constructor in 2016, the most recent coming in Singapore two weeks ago when he finished 10th.

Magnussen is known to be fighting for his future as Renault continues to deliberate its line-up for 2017, and did his chances a world of good by charging to 14th in qualifying on Saturday.

Magnussen finished 13th in Q1 to secure a Q2 berth, where he ended up P14 ahead of both Toro Rosso drivers despite making an error on his final lap as he chased an elusive place in Q3.

“It’s a very good result for us in qualifying. P14 is much better than usual in terms of setting us up for scoring some points in the race,” Magnussen said.

“But it’s an ambivalent result as I felt so close to Q3 that I couldn’t resist giving it everything I’ve got on my final run; I locked up in Turn 1 and lost the lap. I didn’t improve after that so it’s unfortunate.

“From P14, not a lot has to happen in the top ten for us to get points, which is always the aim. Let’s see tomorrow, hopefully our race pace is as good as qualifying today.

“You never really know how it will go here, so fingers crossed!”

Teammate Jolyon Palmer was left ruing a mistake at the final corner of his final Q1 lap as he finished 19th, four-tenths of a second off Magnussen’s time.

“I’ll be frank: my lap was pretty far from what it should have been. I made the wrong call on set-up between my runs and the lap just didn’t come together,” Palmer conceded.

“This was particularly frustrating as the pace has looked promising all weekend and there’s definitely better possible from the car here.

“Tomorrow I’ll be pushing all the way to make amends especially as this is a track where moving up the order is possible.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Alonso still chasing points from last on grid for Malaysian GP

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso is refusing to give up on a points finish in Sunday’s Malaysian Grand Prix despite being resigned to last place on the grid after a power unit penalty.

McLaren driver Alonso arrived in Malaysia armed with an updated Honda power unit, but was forced to take new components and trigger a penalty so it could be fitted to his car.

As a result, the Spaniard entered qualifying with a 45-place grid drop looming over his head, meaning he would start last regardless of where he finished in Saturday’s session.

Alonso opted to set a time good enough to qualify before returning to the pits to save his tire and car life, ultimately being classified P22.

“In practice yesterday, we were comfortably inside the top 10, so there’s an element of frustration to find ourselves with useful performance, but facing a grid penalty ahead of the race,” Alonso admitted.

“Hopefully, we’ve now stockpiled enough components for the remainder of the season that we no longer need to take grid penalties and start at the back.

“My running in FP3 this morning was particularly important – our aim was to conduct some long runs and gain some useful data for the race. In qualifying, we just ran for a few laps, with the aim to save as many sets of tires for the race as we could.”

Despite starting last, Alonso remains optimistic of a points finish in Malaysia after an impressive display in Singapore two weeks ago, where he finished seventh.

“It’ll be interesting tomorrow to see how well we’re able to read the conditions and play the strategy,” Alonso said.

“The new asphalt keeps improving quickly and, while it’ll be difficult to overtake 12 cars and get into the points, I think there’s still something more to come from us tomorrow.”

Teammate Jenson Button led McLaren’s charge in qualifying, reaching Q3 before finishing ninth in the sister MP4-31 car.

“I really enjoyed qualifying! It’s never nice to be just 0.029s behind the car in front, but that wasn’t too bad – we were either going to be eighth or ninth, and we ended up being ninth. I’m happy with that,” Button said.

“During Q1, I had issues with traffic. I had to out-brake Esteban Ocon into Turn 9 during my quick lap, and you shouldn’t have to be doing that during qualifying. I also had a little spin at Turn 14 when I lost all my downforce behind one of the Renaults. That first session was busy.

“Still, we’ve improved the car a lot since practice yesterday, but the team has done a great job to improve it. Qualifying was the first time this weekend that I really felt comfortable.

“Hopefully we can show well in the race – there’s no reason why we can’t fight the cars around us tomorrow.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Force India takes upper hand in Malaysia qualifying as fight with Williams continues

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Sergio Perez of Mexico driving the (11) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo in the Pitlane during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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The battle between Williams and Force India for fourth place in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship is poised to rage on in Malaysia on Sunday after just five places covered the teams’ four cars in qualifying.

Force India currently occupies P4 in the teams’ standings, pulling a single point clear of Williams last time out in Singapore after previously losing the position two weeks earlier in Italy.

Both teams look set to exchange blows to the end of the season, but it was Force India that enjoyed the advantage in qualifying in Malaysia on Saturday.

Sergio Perez led the team’s charge, qualifying seventh ahead of teammate Nico Hulkenberg. McLaren’s Jenson Button split the teams in P9, with Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas following for Williams in 10th and 11th respectively.

“I’m very happy with our performance. It was very important to execute a perfect qualifying session and I think that is what we did,” Perez said.

“It was a mega effort by the whole team. The whole qualifying hour was very intense because you could see how close together the lap times were for all the cars and I had to maximize each lap.

“I made a little mistake in Q2 on my last run, which could have cost me a place in Q3, but fortunately I managed to make it through. The result today means we are in a great position to fight for strong points tomorrow.”

“I am quite satisfied with how today went and my starting position for the race,” Hulkenberg added.

“When the top three teams lock out the first three rows, seventh and eighth is the best we could have achieved.

“In the end, my lap was not good enough for P7: I felt a bit more comfortable and had a better rhythm at the start of the session and it fell away slightly in Q3 – perhaps the track cooled and that’s one of the possibilities we will try to understand tonight.

“Still, eighth is a very good position to start tomorrow’s race. It’s going to be really close behind the leaders: I hope we can keep up with the cars in front and take the opportunity if anything happens. Our priority is to stay inside the points and maximize what we can get out of this race.”

Both Massa and Bottas conceded they felt disappointed with qualifying, but remain hopeful of scoring points to re-take fourth in the constructors’.

“I think qualifying was going well, but for sure we expected to finish higher up. I had the pace in Q2 and it was a big fight for a couple of tenths,” Massa said.

“Unfortunately, we are three places back on where it was possible to be. Anyway, the race is tomorrow and I really hope the strategy, the pace, the weather and everything can be in our favor and can help our race. We will try everything we can.”

“That was quite a tricky qualifying session for us. I actually wasn’t very happy with the front end of the car, I felt like the balance was better in today’s practice, especially around turns six, seven and eight,” Bottas admitted.

“I struggled with understeer and because of that I didn’t quite get a perfect lap in. It was very close and I’m sure tomorrow will be just as close.

“We do have a free choice of tires to start tomorrow’s race, so our goal is still to have both of our cars ahead of Force India. I believe it’s possible. We can definitely score some good points from where we’re starting and I’m sure the understeer and balance of the car will be better for the race.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.

Verstappen hopes clutch setting changes will end run of poor starts in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 01:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during qualifying for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 1, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Max Verstappen hopes that changes made to the settings on his clutch will end his run of poor starts in Malaysia on Sunday after qualifying third at the Sepang International Circuit.

Verstappen qualified second in Belgium before bogging down at the start and tangling with Kimi Raikkonen, before making poor getaways in the next two races in Italy and Singapore.

The Dutchman has not finish any higher than sixth since Formula 1’s summer break, but hopes that he can end this poor run of form after qualifying well in Malaysia.

“I thought it was going to be a tough race for us before we came here. Now it seems like the balance of the car is there, the long runs seem good and we have improved our short run pace a lot,” Verstappen said.

“We were pretty close to the Mercedes on the front row and I’m really enjoying the new surface here, the car is working very well on it. For both of us to be on the second row, in front of Ferrari, means we can be very pleased with today’s work.

“Out of the past three or four races this has been my best long run pace on a Friday, we haven’t changed much on the car so it should be similar tomorrow.”

Verstappen confirmed that setup changes had been made following Singapore as a result of the poor start that compromised his race, with particular attention being paid to his clutch.

“After Singapore I talked with the team and we changed some things on the car and it seems to have worked, hopefully we can keep improving in this way,” Verstappen said.

“We have made some changes to the clutch so we shall see if it has improved tomorrow, so far everything looks positive.

“The set up feels really good here and we will no doubt check everything tonight to make sure we are in the best position possible on race day.”

Teammate Daniel Ricciardo qualified fourth in the sister Red Bull, and is braced for a battle to complete the podium behind the Mercedes drivers on Sunday.

“It was quite an exciting quali session and my lap was pretty clean. I pushed quite a bit in the first two sectors,” Ricciardo said.

“I think I got more out of the tires compared to the last sector where I struggled for traction and lost a little bit of time. From where we were yesterday, I am pretty happy. We made quite a few changes overnight and they definitely helped me out today, so I was feeling a lot more comfortable in the car.

“Our race pace is looking good too as we saw from Max’s sessions yesterday. We should have a nice battle for the podium tomorrow and we’ll try to stay ahead of the Ferraris. They are normally pretty good on their tyres here but we have an extra set of soft tires for the race which should work well for us.

“As a team we are pumped to lock out the second row at this circuit and we should have a good race on our hands for tomorrow.”

The Malaysian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 2am ET on Sunday.