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

WATCH LIVE: Hungarian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23: Top three qualifiers Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing wave to the crowd from parc ferme during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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With Formula 1’s summer break rapidly approaching, the title fight between Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton is becoming increasingly tenuous.

Just a single point separates the Silver Arrows at the top of the drivers’ championship, the momentum having swung dramatically in Hamilton’s favor over the past five races.

Saturday saw Rosberg snatch pole position away from Hamilton in the final minute of qualifying, although the result was not confirmed until almost five hours after the session finished.

Rosberg completed part of his lap under yellow flags, leading to an investigation from the stewards. They eventually deemed him to have slowed enough in respect of the caution.

The post-qualifying drama did not stop there as questions were asked about five drivers’ laps during the downpour in Q1, as a grey area in the 107% rule was found.

The FIA stewards decided to let Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Sergio Perez and Valtteri Bottas keep their positions under “exceptional circumstances”.

After all that drama, the grid for the race was set as it was six hours earlier: Rosberg on pole, Hamilton P2, and the Red Bulls lurking just behind – the stage set for a thrilling battle at the front of the pack.

You can watch the Hungarian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from 7am ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at the Hungaroring providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

What to watch for: Hungarian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 7am ET)

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the post qualifying press conference during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton are poised to renew their fierce rivalry in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix after locking out the front row of the grid for Mercedes.

Hamilton went into qualifying chasing a sixth pole position at the Hungaroring, and looked to have clinched it when a yellow flag was shown at the end of Q3 following a spin for Fernando Alonso. All drivers were forced to slow down, the majority abandoning their lap altogether.

Rosberg was the exception. After lifting through the yellow flag zone, the German lit up the timesheets over the rest of the lap to edge out Hamilton and snatch pole away.

The stewards did investigate Rosberg’s lap later that evening to ensure he had slowed down enough, before ultimately deciding he had.

Another post-qualifying drama followed after a grey area in the regulations emerged regarding the 107% rule, threatening five drivers with grid drops. The stewards opted to let the affected drivers keep their grid slots, citing “exceptional circumstances”.

On a weekend that has already offered plenty of drama, Sunday’s race is likely to follow suit. Be sure to tune in from 7am ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app for all of the action.

Here’s what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

2016 Hungarian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Rosberg, Hamilton up for a fight once again

Relations between Rosberg and Hamilton have been frosty throughout 2016, and with the summer break approaching, the next two race weekends are particularly crucial. Back in 2014, a dispute in Hungary resulted in Rosberg stewing over the summer and hitting Hamilton on-track in Spa in what was arguably the turning point in the title race. Might we see a similar incident this weekend?

Starting from the front row, we may be set for another on-track fight between the two Mercedes drivers – something that has been all too scarce throughout 2016. Austria ended with contact – can they keep it clean on Sunday?

Mercedes bids to complete the set

Hamilton may be a four-time winner of the Hungarian Grand Prix, but this is actually the only race on the 2016 calendar that Mercedes has not won in the hybrid era. 2014’s event was won by Daniel Ricciardo in stunning fashion, while Sebastian Vettel dominated last year.

Mercedes’ bid to complete the set on Sunday is far from academic. On the contrary, with Ricciardo and Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen lurking just behind on a track, and the tight confines of the Hungaroring playing to the strengths of the RB12 car, Mercedes has a fight on its hands today.

Ferrari looks to ignite its season

After taking a huge stride towards Mercedes in 2015, hopes were high at Ferrari for this season. However, it has proven to be a frustrating campaign, with the brief glimmers of victory passing by. With Red Bull now appearing to move ahead in the pecking order, a big result is needed to ignite its season.

Hungary appears to be make or break for Ferrari’s 2016. Victory would justify the repeated claims that it is capable of challenging Mercedes for the title. Anything less would surely push a greater focus onto 2017.

Opportunity knocks for the lower field

The Hungarian Grand Prix has a knack of shaking up the field, with safety cars and races of attrition offering possible gains to those lower down the field.

Haas will be hoping to make the most of another double-Q2 appearance, particularly with Romain Grosjean starting P11, while Renault and Sauber are both in desperate need of points.

Throw in some safety cars and – after Saturday’s sudden downpour – maybe even a sprinkling of rain, and the lower pack could benefit.

2016 Hungarian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
2. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
4. Max Verstappen Red Bull
5. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
6. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
7. Fernando Alonso McLaren
8. Jenson Button McLaren
9. Nico Hulkenberg Force India
10. Valtteri Bottas Williams
11. Romain Grosjean Haas
12. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
13. Sergio Perez Force India
14. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
15. Esteban Gutierrez Haas
16. Felipe Nasr Sauber
17. Jolyon Palmer Renault
18. Felipe Massa Williams
19. Kevin Magnussen Renault
20. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
21. Pascal Wehrlein Manor
22. Rio Haryanto Manor

IMSA: Corvette Racing’s 100th win highlights Lime Rock winners

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Starworks Motorsport, Corvette Racing and Magnus Racing returned to the top of their respective classes in Saturday’s Northeast Grand Prix for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, the two-hour, 40-minute race at the picturesque but tight and occasionally controversial 1.53-mile Lime Rock Park.

Starworks’ pair of Alex Popow and Renger van der Zande won their third race in the last four in the Peter Baron-led Prototype Challenge team’s No. 8 Oreca FLM09, coincidentally all having come since the car switched to a white, red and silver livery.

The pair dominated the race and won overall from PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports, which won this race last year.

Van der Zande held on despite a furious late-race charge from PR1’s Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 car, who shared his car with Robert Alon. Kimber-Smith got nearly to van der Zande’s rear wing but was balked in traffic before the start of the final lap.

The finish of the race was cleaner than the start, which was aborted twice after a pair of incidents.

“Alex did a crazy job in the beginning, P4 to P2 after getting hit twice on the start, then the crew did a fantastic job to get me up front. It looked easier than it was! It was a helluva time getting through traffic,” van der Zande told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam.

GT Le Mans saw Corvette Racing return to the top for the first time since the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, with Tommy Milner and Oliver Gavin leading a 1-2 finish in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R over Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen in the No. 3 Corvette.

The win also delivers Corvette Racing its 100th win overall as a team, after being stuck on 99 since Sebring.

“What a job today from these guys – Olly and the whole crew. We had some great wins, then had some struggles. What a way to get 100, with 1-2 for the team, it’s so special,” Milner told Adam.

“Ordinarily we would share the victory between the engineering, crew, drivers… but today the engineers and crew guys did their work, today it’s in the drivers’ hands, at Lime Rock Park, this track, the drivers earned it today,” Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan told Adam.

“Any victory is pretty cool. When you’ve got 99 of them, but 100, who would have ever thought? This is a testament to what this team is capable of doing. With the intense heat, it worked out that way.”

The No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT, which had won the last three races in GTLM dating to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in early May, ended third with Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe driving. Briscoe and Giancarlo Fisichella had late race contact, which took the No. 62 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE out of a podium spot. Fisichella shared his car with Toni Vilander.

Questionable racecraft occurred elsewhere in class with both BMWs hit during the race, the second incident coming at the downhill, when Earl Bamber (Porsche) hit Dirk Werner (BMW) in a heavy accident. The other BMW, driven by John Edwards, was hit just after the scheduled start.

GT Daytona witnessed an incredible run from Andy Lally in the final half hour of the race, delivering an incredible charge through the field in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS he shared with John Potter to win at a track that’s been a perpetual thorn in Magnus’ side.

“John was on it all weekend. This is so special – these guys worked so hard after the wreck at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Lars planned the setup, we dialed like 80 degrees of wing into this thing, and it stuck,” Lally told FOX’s Justin Bell.

The No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS of Andrew Davis and Robin Liddell was second with the No. 33 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R third of Ben Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen; Bleekemolen finished the race despite a busted diffuser.

Five drivers avoid Hungary grid drops over 107% rule

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 23:  Max Verstappen of the Netherlands drives the 6 Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 23, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen, Nico Hulkenberg, Valtteri Bottas and Sergio Perez have all avoided grid drops for Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix despite failing to lap within 107% of the fastest time in Q1.

During qualifying for the Hungarian Grand Prix on Saturday, 11 drivers fell outside of the 107% time requied to qualify for the race in a session affected by rain and red flags.

Many were unable to post a late lap time while others improved dramatically on intermediate tires, causing laps to reach as much as 118%.

All six drivers who were eliminated in Q1 were outside of the required time, as were Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez. The latter quintet took part in Q2 as they had got into the top 16, with all bar Perez making it through to Q3.

Ricciardo and Verstappen qualified third and fourth for Red Bull, while Hulkenberg and Bottas were P9 and P10 in Q3.

Teams are ordinarily required to submit a request to the FIA stewards to race if their drivers fall outside the qualifying time.

A request by Renault for Kevin Magnussen was accepted, with the final line of the document reading: “As there is more than one driver that failed to set a qualifying time within 107% of the fastest time in Q1, the cars will be arranged on the grid in the order they were classified in P3.”

However, it now transpires that this will only apply to those eliminated in Q1, with the FIA confirming that due to “exceptional circumstances” Ricciardo, Verstappen, Hulkenberg, Bottas and Perez will not drop back. All keep their qualifying positions.

The 107% rule was re-introduced in 2011 to prevent drivers from going too slowly in qualifying, requiring them to finish within 7% of the fastest time in Q1.

The rule was last enforced at the 2012 Australian Grand Prix when HRT drivers Pedro de la Rosa and Narain Karthikeyan were not allowed to take part in the race.

Since then, the 107% rule has been triggered but not enforced. For example, drivers who crash out in Q1 and do not set a time come into it, but are ordinarily given permission to race if they have set a competitive time in free practice.