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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Photo gallery: IndyCar iRacing at Barber Motorsports Park

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
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VIRTUAL LEEDS, Ala. — The second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge was held on a picturesque Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park, which looked as pristine in a simulation as in real life.

Scott McLaughlin won over Will Power by 0.4241 seconds, leading a 1-2 sweep by Team Penske in a wild 45-lap race. Sage Karam started on pole and led the first 24 laps in pursuit of his second consecutive victory, but he was out by Lap 29 after multiple on-track incidents.

Even though the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is keeping cars off the track in the real world, there still some beauty to be found in iRacing.

WINNER: Scott McLaughlin holds off teammate Will Power

WHAT DRIVERS SAID: Postrace reactions on social media

RESULTS: Where everyone finished at virtual Barber Motorsports Park

Courtesy of Getty Images’ Chris Graythen, here are a collection of screenshots from around the rolling hills and sweeping vistas of the 17-turn, 2.38-mile road course that features some interesting sculptures:

Alexander Rossi, who finished 22nd in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda, races alongside the No. 55 Chevrolet of Alex Palou (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

The No. 6 Chevy of Robert Wickens, who was eighth in his return to competition Saturday, makes a climb at Barber Motorsports Park, whose famous spider structures lurk in the background (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

Graham Rahal, who finished 14th despite his lack of iRacing experience, races next to a thicket of trees at Barber Motorsports Park (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

A sweeping overhead shot of Barber Motorsports Park during Saturday’s IndyCar iRacing Challenge (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

Kyle Kirkwood (top) and Colton Herta race their Andretti Autosport Hondas down the frontstretch at Barber Motorsports Park (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

James Hinchcliffe, whose Dallara-Honda thankfullly started this week, placed 17th at Barber (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Defending series champion Josef Newgarden was sporting a nice shade of baby blue on his No. 1 Dallara-Chevrolet in finishing ninth (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

Watkins Glen winner Sage Karam led the first 24 laps before falling behind in the pits and then falling out after contact from multiple incidents (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

Five-time series champion Scott Dixon’s No. 9 Dallara-Honda made its IndyCar iRacing Challenge debut, finishing 16th (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

Scott McLaughlin briefly goes off course while leading the field in a winning drive from his home in Brisbane, Australia (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

Oliver Askew, who spent more than a dozen hours practicing on a simulation with his Arrow McLaren SP engineers, started ninth and finished 15th at Barber Motorsports Park (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

 

It was another tough iRacing outing for 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who said he struggled with pitting glitches in a 26th-place finish (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Barber Motorsports Park is known for its collection of large steel structures featuring overgrown animals and insects, such as this spider keeping watch over Saturday’s race (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).