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

Saavedra returns to SPM, again, for upcoming races

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Following the mutual parting of ways between Mikhail Aleshin and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the rest of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Sebastian Saavedra will once again be back in the team’s No. 7 Honda for the next two oval races at Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park.

The Colombian impressed in a surprise one-off appearance in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Toronto, as Aleshin was sat down for one race. Saavedra ran as high as seventh and finished 11th after improving from 20th on the grid.

“I am very excited to be back with the SPM organization,” Saavedra said in a release. “It’s another late call to jump in, but I take it with pride after a promising start of our relationship in Toronto. Looking forward to a challenging event as the Tricky Triangle can be, and support (James) Hinchcliffe in his pursuit of championship points. I’m thankful to my sponsors and my continued relationship with AFS Inc.”

“Delighted to have Sebastian back with the SPM team following what was a very encouraging performance at the Toronto event,” added Piers Phillips, General Manager of SPM. “He is experienced and competent, and I have no doubt he will contribute to the overall performance of the team. We’re heading to Pocono full of confidence as a team and we’re looking forward to hopefully seeing Sebastian and James at the front of the pack.”

The likable 27-year-old driver has enjoyed longtime support from Gary Peterson of AFS Racing throughout a stop-start IndyCar career since 2010, with more than 60 career starts and just a handful of top-10 finishes.

It remains to be seen what Saavedra and Peterson put together for 2018; at Mid-Ohio, Peterson indicated he was working towards an IMSA Prototype program next year.

As for the final two road course races this year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, SPM has not yet announced that plan.

Robert Wickens, who filled in for Aleshin temporarily on the Friday of Road America weekend, made his case on Tuesday to “stir the pot” a bit in a social media post.

The Canadian doesn’t have any DTM conflicts either weekend and would be a popular selection if he does get the call.

Two upcoming oval races provide great win chances for ECR

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Ed Carpenter Racing, surprisingly, has only four races left to extend its run of winning at least one race in a Verizon IndyCar Series season to four straight years.

Mike Conway brought Carpenter two wins on the streets of Long Beach and Toronto in 2014, while Carpenter won his most recent race at Texas. Then with Josef Newgarden winning twice at Barber and Toronto in 2015, under the CFH Racing banner, before the team reverted back to ECR last year, Newgarden won again in Iowa last year in dominant, beat-down fashion.

As a team that’s been a consistent thorn in the side of the more established “big three” teams, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, Carpenter’s team has been close on a couple occasions to continuing its winning pedigree this year but come up short. Short oval races that got away from JR Hildebrand at Iowa and both Hildebrand and Carpenter at Phoenix loom large.

Still, Hildebrand is keen to note how he and new engineer Justin Taylor have meshed this year – and how this two-week break in the schedule has allowed for a full reset.

“The only thing (that’s bad) with the schedule for the series is that it’s pretty rapid fire,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports. “So sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’ve fully analyzed everything you do on a weekend, before shifting gears to the next thing. You have to look at making ‘base hits’ through the season. You don’t have time to make really dramatic changes without the time between races.

“It’s definitely been fast paced just across the board. You’re going from a couple races and testing to being back in the saddle, full blast is an adjustment. Overall it’s a really good group of guys we have. It’s been fun working with Justin. He’s done a good job, and that makes all the little differences.”

Hildebrand lamented the late-race loss at Iowa; he got balked a bit in traffic but was still happy to finish second, particularly after an accident in practice that forced the ECR team to need to make repairs to his primary No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

“It was obviously frustrating to have a situation like that. The race was so much different from that perspective. That more than anything I what’s irritating. Something like that wouldn’t have happened a year ago with the tire being a little different, track temps being under control,” Hildebrand explained about the changes in temperatures and Firestone’s year-on-year tire difference.

“At the end of the day – particularly given the season we’ve had with the ups and downs – so for me I can kind of look at that and feel some relief we executed at a high level all weekend,” he said. “The Iowa weekend was not super easy with the change in tire; we knew from the test day that the car was different, so we working so hard to find the bit of magic from the previous year. The way it all worked out, I felt like that we got as much out of it as we could.

“We could have won that race. But we came back from an accident in practice to get to the outside front row. I’ll end up looking back at that and felt, ‘Well that could have been my first IndyCar win,’ but over the course of the midst of the season, I felt good about bringing it home on podium. We know that we’ve had cars that are good circumstances play out over time.”

While Pocono could play to ECR’s benefit – Carpenter qualified second and Hildebrand sixth at the Indianapolis 500 before falling back to unrepresentative finishes – it’s Gateway where the team also looks to break through considering its short oval prowess this season.

Said Hildebrand, “St. Louis should be good; we’ve been at our best from a competitiveness standpoint at short ovals. Again it’s a bit of an unknown, in terms of what to expect from the new surface. But with the track grip coming up and us as good as we were at Phoenix, that should bode well.”

Carpenter, who’s finished 12th or better in each of his four starts this season, now has his first and only chance to race consecutive events all season.

“I have always really enjoyed racing an Indy car at Pocono,” Carpenter said heading into the weekend. “It’s such a challenging track that requires a lot of work to get the right setup on the car. While we’ve had good cars there in the past, good results have eluded us. It’s my second-to-last race of the year, so I’m hopeful we can get the finish we have been working towards!”

Newgarden was fourth at Pocono last year; Carpenter’s best finish at Pocono is ninth in 2013 while Hildebrand makes his first Pocono start this weekend.

Dane Cameron’s ‘Penske perfect’ arrival comes at just right time

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A friendly exchange with Dane Cameron yesterday in the immediate aftermath of his confirmation for the Team Penske and Acura Motorsports sports car program centered on the fact that somehow, he’s still only 28 years old.

This seems hard to believe considering all that Cameron has accomplished in the North American sports car landscape, but yet still hasn’t quite received the major notoriety within the national racing consciousness beyond the hardcore followers of the sport.

Cameron could well have been an open-wheel star but like many others in the mid-to-late 2000s, was a victim of terrible timing. After cleaning up in the 2007 Star Mazda championship (now Pro Mazda) with JDC Motorsports, Cameron’s reward was graduating into Formula Atlantic in 2008… the same year Champ Car folded and its assets were absorbed by INDYCAR.

Nonetheless Cameron, the son of longtime winning racing engineer Rick Cameron, was always high on speed and potential and showed it in a variety of sports car outings over the years to come.

He raced primarily the screaming, rotary-powered Mazda RX-8s in GRAND-AM, then raced a variety of prototypes in the following years before landing his first major drive within the merged sports car championship, at Turner Motorsport in 2014 with a BMW Z4 GT3 – and promptly won the GT Daytona class title.

A move to Action Express Racing was the next step in his career growth, joining the established Daytona Prototype championship-winning outfit with Eric Curran and Whelen Engineering in the team’s second car. That team took time to grow but still won quickly and contended for the title in its first year, prior to breaking through and winning last year’s title.

Cameron’s 2017 season has been an exercise in frustration as the landscape of the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has changed. Expected to defend the title, Cameron and Curran have instead struggled for the same level of metronomic consistency of the last two years and Cameron, who’s still blindingly quick, has often been playing catchup in the more aero dependent Cadillac as the Action Express team has worked to understand the baseline Dallara chassis that lies underneath the Cadillac DPi bodywork. Coming from a period of success with Coyote, that chassis change for the team shouldn’t be overlooked.

Arguably the flashpoint of Cameron’s 2017 campaign came early on at Long Beach, with a rare unforced error trying to close the gap after going in too deep into the tight, tricky 90-degree right-hander. It wrote off a car and forced the team into a scramble drill prior to the next round at Circuit of The Americas.

Just three races into the season, it also left Cameron and Curran 26 points back of the Taylor brothers – a near insurmountable gap to overcome over seven races given IMSA’s points system makes it difficult to gain more than a handful of points per race. As it sits now, they’re 31 points back, five races later and with only two more to go.

Was a change of scenery inevitable for Cameron? Given the timing and opportunity available here, Cameron was always a natural fit. Although the Cameron/Curran pairing won last year’s title, few seasoned paddock observers will have rated it as the top one on the grid.

Much like Josef Newgarden in IndyCar or Ryan Blaney in NASCAR, Cameron is that 2017 type of “Penske perfect” type of driver – still under 30, with a lot of his future ahead of him, but enough experience built up to add his name to the Penske file now.

He’s business-first, with the clean-cut look, who is all business on the track but does have a sneaky sense of humor beneath the surface. Cameron, who’s married to wife Sarah and has two kids, chooses his words carefully; brevity is one of his skill sets, as he’s always careful of what he says and how he says it. He already lives in North Carolina, so that means he’s already close to the shop.

One of the cool things Penske can provide is a cross-promotional platform between its other series. And sure, you don’t expect to see Cameron racing in NASCAR, IndyCar or V8 Supercars anytime soon – though he’d probably excel in any opportunity if given the chance with the variety of cars he’s already raced – but the brand exposure for him can get built up here in the years to come, especially as he’s paired with a known name in teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who was winning titles in the 1990s when Cameron had only just reached double digits in age. Add him to the “Penske Games” social media video series next year, and it’ll be interesting to see what side of his personality emerges.

For Cameron, while this deal appears to have come together quickly even though as rumors of his name being with Penske have percolated for months, the timing still seems just right.

“It’s all really come together pretty quickly in the last couple days really, to be honest, to get it done,” he said. “That being said, I really only signed the contract last night (Monday). It’s kind of escalated pretty quickly.

“I’m really excited about a tremendous opportunity to represent Acura and to work with everyone here at Team Penske. I haven’t seen much yet so far, but been getting around, shaking a couple hands, been really impressed so far.  Quite excited with what lies ahead.”

Cameron’s experience with Action Express these last three years will be key for Penske, Acura and Montoya to draw upon for 2018. For Cameron, having the stability of a long-term home there was key after the aforementioned five years between 2009 and 2013 when he raced a number of different series and cars but rarely stayed with the same team and/or in the same car for more than two consecutive years.

“It’s been a terrifically successful three‑year stretch, to win a bunch of races, to win a title. I really enjoyed myself there, and I really want to thank everyone at Actions Express and Whelen Engineering for not only the opportunity to go there in the first place, but then for great cars and teams and great results,” he said.

“It wasn’t an easy decision at all to come to this point. It’s been a good home for me there. Yeah, it was not easy, but an opportunity to work closely with Acura and to join Team Penske was a little too good for me to pass up.

“I’m looking forward to the future, but also remaining focused and committed to having a strong couple races here to close out the current IMSA season.”

The testing for Cameron will begin shortly after Motul Petit Le Mans, Oct. 5-7, when he enters officially into the Acura ARX-05 – which by that point, Montoya will have put through its paces. It will be a busy build-up period over the winter before the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but Cameron will be key to getting the car to the starting line, then excelling once 2018 hits.

“It will be fun to be a part of the early stages of the program and try to contribute as best I can,” he said

“Obviously, Team Penske is what it is because of the people that are in place, as well as Acura and the engine that’s going to be part of the program. I think it’s pretty well‑sorted.

“I don’t think anyone who is involved with this program is doing it for any other reason except to win races and championships and pole positions.  I think as a driver you always have that expectation for yourself.

“I don’t think anyone expects more out of ourselves than Juan and I will. I don’t see any reason why we can’t come out of the gate strong at Daytona.”

Bourdais cleared to drive; return date still TBA

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Sebastien Bourdais was in Indianapolis on Tuesday and for good reason – not even three months after his devastating accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, he received medical clearance that he is cleared to return to racing action.

Bourdais posted late Tuesday night he’d had his final appointment with his doctor and has been cleared to return to action. He’d targeted mid-August as the date to get this clearance, and this lives up to that target. He sustained pelvic and hip fractures in the accident in qualifying.

The Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT team welcomed Bourdais back to the Indianapolis shop on Woodland Drive on Tuesday, in anticipation for what would be Bourdais’ return to sports car competition at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale, Motul Petit Le Mans, Oct. 5-7.

As for his day job, back in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, the team is yet to reveal when Bourdais will be back racing. Bourdais has set Watkins Glen as a target on Labor Day weekend, following the next two races on ovals at Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Gateway Motorsports Park.

Provided the Coyne team can get through these two oval races cleanly with the rookie pair of Esteban Gutierrez and Ed Jones, that would increase the likelihood of a Bourdais return at Watkins Glen.

Bourdais tested at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course the Monday after that race, which was a huge step towards his formal comeback. He spoke to NBCSN contributor Robin Miller during the Honda Indy 200 race telecast.