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

Conor Daly’s IndyCar gets painted

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Conor Daly will compete full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year in a ride for Dale Coyne Racing.

Daly will make laps in the No. 18 Honda sponsored by Jonathan Byrd’s. The 24-year-old driver tweeted out a picture today of his race car getting painted for the season, which starts on March 13.

Daly has six IndyCar races under his belt so far.

USF2000 reintroduces National Class for 2016

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The National Class is officially back in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series for 2016.

Yes, when Eric Filgueiras and Spencer Racing announced they’d be in the National Class, that kind of gave it away that the class would be back without it being formally introduced.

Luckily though, the series has released the news today. A formal release is below:

Drivers seeking to make their way onto the Mazda Road to Indy now have an alternate, lower-cost route onto the first rung, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, with today’s confirmation that the National Class will be returning in 2016.

The Mazda Road to Indy is unique in the world of auto racing, offering a scholarship-funded path all the way from karting via USF2000, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.

Eligible to drivers at least 20 years of age before or during the 2016 season, the National Class will be open to all Sports Car Club of America-legal FC (Formula Continental) cars, from any chassis manufacturer, dating back to 2000. Any aerodynamic devices approved by the SCCA are permitted, although in the interests of safety all cars must be fitted with a nosebox crash structure, wheel tethers, Staubli devices, approved head surrounds and seats and yellow light system as required by all other current USF2000 cars.

Cars will be permitted to run either the same 2.0-liter Mazda MZR engine per the USF2000 Championship Class regulations or sealed 2.0-liter Ford Zetec motors as prepared by Elite Engines or Quicksilver RacEngines with National Class mapping. Any SCCA-legal 6″ and 8″ wheels may be used, although all cars must run on Cooper tires.

Entry fees will be discounted 50 percent below the Championship Class rate, and each race winner will earn a free entry for an upcoming event in the same season. The second-place finisher will claim a 50 percent reduction in the entry fee for an upcoming race. In addition, race winners equipped with the MZR engine will take home a $1,000 award from Mazda.

As an added benefit and based on a minimum average car count of five entries per race weekend, the 2016 National Class champion will receive an “entry ticket” to the Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout in the fall of this year where champions of select junior level-open wheel and karting series from around the world will compete for a Mazda scholarship to enter the USF2000 Championship Class in 2017.

The point system will be the same used by the Masters Class (formerly Expert Class) in the Pro Mazda championship.

“We are excited to bring back the National Class and allow drivers to sample the Mazda Road to Indy,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “RC Enerson began his path on the ladder system in the National Class. It’s a great first step onto the platform for many drivers, and we are excited to offer this year’s champion an entry into the Shootout as well as a full-season entry package to USF2000 in 2017 in either the Championship or National Class.”

The Mazda Road to Indy will head to Barber Motorsport Park for Spring Training on March 5 (Indy Lights) and 6/7 (USF2000/Pro Mazda). The 2016 season will kick off on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 11-13 in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Report: Scott Tucker arrested by FBI in payday lending scheme

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JANUARY 30:  The #95 Level 5 Motorsports BMW Riley driven by Scott Tucker, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Richard Westbrook and Raphael Matos during The Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway on January 30, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)
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For four years from 2010 to 2013, Scott Tucker and Level 5 Motorsports were American Le Mans Series regulars, first in the Prototype Challenge class and then the LMP2 class. They won, a lot, and were a regular championship-contending effort, plus those who worked for the team had nothing but positive things to say about the operation that was run.

That said, the funding of the team was always perpetually questioned, as Tucker was always allegedly involved within the payday lending business, and had reportedly abusive practices towards customers.

This has been something of a bubbling story for five years but per Reuters, on Wednesday, Tucker and one of his lawyers were arrested by the FBI for their alleged exploitation.

Per Reuters, an indictment filed in Manhattan federal court outlined millions that went to Tucker, who then used it for various luxury items. Allegedly, more than $67 million went to the Level 5 Motorsports race team.

Level 5’s last IMSA series start came under the unified TUDOR United SportsCar Championship umbrella in January 2014, when the team won the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the GT Daytona class. The team withdrew from the championship following that race.

Social Roundup: IndyCar tests at Sonoma, Fontana

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Simon Pagenaud
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There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?

The engines of the Verizon IndyCar Series have roared back to life this week, a month before the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

After a test at Phoenix International Raceway two days ago, two more tests are occurring today in California, at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana and at Sonoma Raceway.

At Auto Cub Speedway is Ryan Hunter-Reay, Carlos Munoz and James Hinchcliffe.

In Sonoma is the entirety of the Chip Ganassi Racing team and Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud from Team Penske.

Here’s a look at how the day is progressing at each test through social media. We’ll update throughout the day. If you’re attending either test, tweet us pictures at @MotorSportsTalk or @danielmcfadin of how you’re taking in the beginning of the 2016 season.

Sonoma Raceway

Auto Club Speedway