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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