Paul Menard shooting for better performance with new crew chief Justin Alexander

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When a Sprint Cup driver is paired with a new crew chief, usually one of the first things the new duo does is start with a bonding experience.

It could be as simple as dinner or drinks, giving each other an opportunity to get to know the other one better and to start building a foundation of communication upon.

When Slugger Labbe moved to a new role last October overseeing research and development at Richard Childress Racing, team engineer Justin Alexander was promoted to replace Labbe as Paul Menard’s crew chief.

Given that the move came while the season was still underway, and that Menard and Alexander already had a working relationship, they skipped the usual dinner or drinks in favor of something a bit unconventional to begin the bonding process.

“Actually, the first thing we did together as a driver-crew chief was we went to a shooting range and shot guns,” Menard quipped during last week’s NASCAR media tour in Charlotte.

That was just another step in a getting-to-know process that began early in 2014 when Alexander became Menard’s lead engineer after more than a decade at Hendrick Motorsports.

“It was great to get to know Justin since the first part of last year,” Menard said. “He impressed me with how he handled himself and his knowledge of cars.

“We made the decision to try something different in October and it’s paying off,” Menard said of Alexander replacing Labbe. “We had a great run in Miami and some fast cars at the end of the year.

“What’s nice about (Alexander’s) engineering mentality is it’s kind of yes or no, so you kind of get to the point really quick. We don’t mince words very much, we just get to the point and try to figure it out.”

Alexander is used to success: During his 11-year tenure at Hendrick, he was first a shock specialist and then lead engineer at different times for both Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

Alexander likes what he sees in Menard, the veteran Cup driver in terms of tenure at RCR. He likes the communication the two have established.

“There’s things I have to see in him and I recognize things when he says them certain ways,” Alexander said. “There’s a trust we have to build with each other. So obviously hanging out and being friends away from the racetrack just strengthens that bond there and it ultimately carries over into race weekend.”

Menard, who finished 17th, 16th and 17th from 2011-13, is looking to make a big gain after last season’s 21st-place finish.

That also includes making the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time.

“Last year, I feel like we had fast cars and were fairly consistent,” said Menard, whose lone Cup win came in the 2011 Brickyard 400. “We just had a string of bad luck in the summer. Everyone has that. You can pinpoint some races you’d like to have back.

“The fact of the matter is we never won a race. To get into the Chase, you don’t have to win a race, but we show up every week to win races. I think Justin has a great handle on the race cars, and with this sport being so engineering-based, and with the lack of testing this year – there’s really no testing to speak of – a lot of our information comes off the computer.

“Justin is really good with that. James (Small), our engineer, is awesome on the simulation. We try to rely on that and me to give them feedback they need to get the cars to react the way I need them to. A lot of that falls on my shoulders and kind of what I need and how to go about getting it.”

But the thorn in Menard’s side has long been his performance – or lack thereof – on short tracks.

“Short tracks have been our weakness, frankly, and it’s something we need to get better at,” he said. “Bristol has actually been one of our best tracks. I don’t really consider it a short track with the way you drive it and the way the car loads up.

“Places like Richmond have been a struggle, New Hampshire has. If I could pinpoint it, we’d fix it. But the way the car loads up and transitions from brake to acceleration and trying to find the balance and me trying to give the right input to Justin to try and fix it, there’s not much we can do.

“The engineers are burning the computers up, trying to find different packages. We get to the track and have two or three different options to try, depending on what I tell ‘em. That’s about all you can do, is be prepared when you show up and then try to figure it out.”

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NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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