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?

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Raikkonen: No secret to qualifying charge in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari drives during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Kimi Raikkonen says that there was no secret behind his late charge to third place in qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but remains realistic about his chances in Sunday’s race.

After seeing teammate Sebastian Vettel drop out in Q1, Raikkonen led Ferrari’s charge at the Yas Marina Circuit by finishing third behind the Mercedes duo of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.

Raikkonen managed to edge out Force India driver Sergio Perez for P3 with his final lap in Q3, but the Finn said that there was no secret to his late charge.

“No real secret,” Raikkonen said. “Obviously the car has been handling pretty well all weekend.

“The laps haven’t been ideal many times. Even the first run, it was OK the lap, but I knew there was quite a lot of room to improve so I just tried to make one a bit better lap and it was enough.

“Obviously still a bit of a way off from what these guys can do but we did our best today.

“The Mercedes have been very quick today and yesterday, in the lap times they are a bit faster than us, but the race is tomorrow, so let’s see.

“I did my maximum today. Tomorrow is another day, we can only do our best and see where we’ll end up. We’ll try to make a good start and then see how it pans out, going from there and making the right decisions.”

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Porsche confirms unchanged line-up for 2016 WEC season

Porsche 919 Hybrid, Porsche Team: Romain Dumas, Neel Jani, Marc Lieb
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Following Audi’s press conference earlier today confirming its plans for the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship season, Porsche has followed suit by announcing it will be retaining all six of its existing LMP1 drivers for the new campaign.

Porsche enjoyed immense success in 2015 as Mark Webber, Brendon Hartley and Timo Bernhard took the drivers’ championship in dramatic fashion at the 6 Hours of Bahrain, adding to the manufacturers’ title the marque had won three weeks earlier in Shanghai.

The 919 Hybrid LMP1 car took pole position for every race in 2015, and also won Porsche’s first 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1998 with the third entry of Nico Hulkenberg, Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber.

However, Porsche confirmed that it will be only racing with its two regular WEC entries at Le Mans next June, reflecting Audi’s move to help cut costs.

Porsche will once again run the same two line-ups, with Webber, Hartley and Bernhard set to defend their championship together with the no. 1 car. Marc Lieb, Neel Jani and Romain Dumas will team up for a third successive year in the second 919 Hybrid.

“The advice of ‘never change a winning team’ is spot on,” LMP1 vice-president Fritz Enzinger said.

“Both our driver trios didn’t only perform brilliantly on track, but have also been with us since the beginning of the programme and have significantly contributed to the Porsche 919 Hybrid’s development.

“We are very proud of these six top drivers, and very pleased all of them are on board for the 2016 world championship and the Le Mans 24 Hours.”

The decision to not run a third car at Le Mans not only ends Hulkenberg’s already-faint hopes of defending his title, but also will leave Tandy and Bamber looking for drives elsewhere.

It also puts an end to speculation that Juan Pablo Montoya could be set to bid for the Triple Crown and race at Le Mans, having tested with Porsche in Bahrain last week.

GP2: Vandoorne breaks win record, Rossi secures P2 in championship

2015 GP2 Series Round 11.
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Saturday 28 November 2015.
Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL, ART Grand Prix) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP2 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SBL9548
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Stoffel Vandoorne claimed a record-breaking 11th GP2 Series victory in Abu Dhabi on Sunday after seeing off challenges from Pierre Gasly and Raffaele Marciello at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Starting second, Vandoorne made a good start but was unable to pass Gasly on the first lap, forcing him to settle down in P2 for the opening stages of the race.

Vandoorne made his move for the lead on lap four, diving down the inside of Gasly at the turn seven hairpin before establishing an advantage over the field.

Gasly dropped down the order as the option tire runners began to lose grip, prompting an early round of pit stops and allowing Raffaele Marciello to hit the front as the lead driver on primes.

Marciello retained this advantage until stopping at the end of lap 26, but emerged from the pits behind Vandoorne. The Italian was just ahead of Mitch Evans, leaving him to battle for second place in the closing stages against the prime-shod Russian Time racer.

Vandoorne was able to ease home at the front to record his seventh win of the year and 11th in GP2, beating Pastor Maldonado’s existing record of ten to become the most successful driver in the history of the series.

Marciello fended off Evans to finish second by less than one second, while American driver Alexander Rossi closely followed them home in fourth.

The result ensures that Rossi will finish the year as GP2’s vice-champion behind Vandoorne in the final standings.

Tomorrow’s sprint race will see Alex Lynn start from pole position for DAMS after finishing eighth on Saturday. Rio Haryanto will start from P2 by virtue of his seventh-place finish, with Jordan King and Gasly filling the second row of the grid.

New Audi R18 e-tron quattro unveiled; two cars only for Le Mans

Photo: Audi
Photo: Audi
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Audi Sport has revealed its new Audi R18 e-tron quattro, the latest generation of diesel-powered TDI which now will run with a 6 mJ battery hybrid.

The new LMP1 car was unveiled at the annual Audi Sport Finale in Munich, among several other key announcements of note.

Audi will retain its same driver lineup, the lead trio of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler in one car with Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis back as well. After the successive retirements of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello the last three years, Audi now has the same lineup for consecutive years, for the first time in years.

However, and while the third car trio of Filipe Albuquerque, Marco Bonanomi and Rene Rast was on stage with the six others, Audi confirmed both it and sister brand Porsche will run two cars only at next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, rather than three as each did this year.

It was a jointly agreed upon decision; both operate under the VW Group parent company. It effectively rules out the same trio of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg repeating as a trio, although Porsche will announce the program for its own drivers next month.

“We stay with the TDI, 50 percent more hybrid power,” said Chris Reinke, Head of Audi LMP1. “Battery storage and high focus on aero as you can see. We are on our way to challenge for WEC and Le Mans wins.”

Here’s a few photos from the reveal, below: