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?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.

Alonso counting on incidents, torpedo repeat for Russia F1 points

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Fernando Alonso is skeptical of McLaren’s top-10 chances in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, believing it will take an incident or two for the team to score its first Formula 1 points of the season in Sochi.

Alonso and McLaren teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have endured a miserable start to the 2017 season due to a number of issues with the Honda power unit, which lacks both performance and reliability.

Alonso had another difficult qualifying in Russia on Saturday, finishing 15th as he dropped out in Q2 for the fourth race in a row, but the Spaniard was pleased with his own performance.

“I felt a good qualifying, I felt a good balance on the car,” Alonso told NBCSN. “I was able to push on the corners. The car was grippy and I think we performed a good laps, especially the Q1 lap, it was quite a good one.

“I was seven-tenths in front of Stoffel. He won all the categories to Formula 1, so I think my performance right now is quite OK and I feel very competitive.

“But yeah, we were losing 1.3 seconds on the first straight this morning, around 2.5 seconds on the straights in the whole lap. But that’s what it is at the moment.”

When asked about his points chances, Alonso admitted that a top-10 finish was unlikely barring some kind of incident such as the one caused by Daniil Kvyat in last year’s race, with the Russian driver earning the nickname ‘torpedo’.

“I think the deficit is too much. Also the fuel consumption will be huge for us due to the lack of power,” Alonso said.

“So I think it’s going to be difficult. To be in the points is going to be hard, so we need some help from the guys in front. Sometimes it happens like last year. The torpedo went into Turn 3 and we gained a lot of positions.

“We will do a good start and we will do a good strategy, and we will see what we can do at the end of the race. Hopefully a top 10.”

When jokingly told he should have a word with Kvyat, Alonso said: “I will!”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.