Shame on all those people who accused Paul Menard of milking his family fortune for a ride in NASCAR.
Of course, that's exactly what it looked like as Menard sputtered along, failing to put up any reasonable results while racing free of job security issues. Armed with sponsorship from his father's chain of home improvement stores, Menard always had a healthy list of teams willing to give him a car despite four winless seasons at NASCAR's top level.
Funding from Menards, a Midwest-based chain, got the driver a job first at Dale Earnhardt Inc., then Yates Racing, last season at Richard Petty Motorsports and now Richard Childress Racing. But the August hiring by RCR was met with criticism: Money was the only thing Menard had that qualified him for a ride with such a prestigious organization.
Well, through the first month of his new job, Menard is getting the last laugh.
His fifth-place finish Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway — just his third top-five in 151 career starts in NASCAR's elite Sprint Cup Series — moved him up one spot to fifth in the standings. He's the highest-ranked RCR driver, and has been the highest-finishing RCR driver in three of four races this year.
Not too shabby for the new driver at an organization that put three in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship last season.
"I feel bad for Paul because everybody looks at him as a fortunate son, the kid who has a billionaire dad who just buys him rides," said crew chief Slugger Labbe, who moved with Menard from RPM to RCR.
"I hope sooner or later people start looking at him as Paul Menard the race car driver, not the fortunate son."
On-track results is the only way to change perception, and Menard is working hard to prove himself. But there's no denying that driving for one of NASCAR's top teams has finally given Menard the opportunity to show he's talented.
He could have had the skills of seven-time champion Richard Petty, but so long as he was in mediocre to substandard equipment, nobody would have known. With RCR, Menard is certain that Labbe is getting full access to team owner Richard Childress' toolbox.
"I've got all the confidence that Richard is going to give me what I need," Menard said. "In the past, without getting into details, we've had issues with that. We've brought it to the attention to the people that mattered and it kind of seemed like it fell on deaf ears sometimes.
"Richard wants the No. 27 team to succeed. He's very personally invested in it and it's cool to be a part of."
Menard has shown promise right from the start at RCR.
He led 11 laps in the Daytona 500 and was in position to make a run at the win until the typical late-race chaos shuffled him back to a ninth-place finish. He was OK with a 17th-place finish at Phoenix, but Labbe said Monday if not for a bad crew chief call near the end of the race at Las Vegas, Menard would have finished far better than the 12th he earned.
Then came Sunday at Bristol, where Menard led 35 laps while driving down a cylinder for more than half the race to finish a career-best fifth. His previous best at Bristol was 16th in 2008.
All told, Menard has already led a career-high 49 laps this season — he led 28 in 2008 — and has two top-10 finishes after scoring just eight of them through his first 147 races.
Labbe, who began working with Menard at the start of last season with RPM, praised his driver for a dedicated work ethic and commitment to learn as much as he can about the car.
"He's a really, really smart kid," Labbe said. "He gets in early, spends a lot of time with myself and the two engineers and asks a lot of questions. He's trying to learn the simulation side of it. I told him he needs to stop letting people knock him around on the track, and he's working really hard on that. I told him he needs to be perfect on pit road, and he spends a lot of time practicing getting onto pit road, understanding the timing lines. He's trying to get better at everything he does. You push him, but he takes it well."
Menard gives a lot of credit to Labbe, who had nothing at RCR when they made their move in December. But because RPM was cutting back from four teams to two, and the economy had led to layoffs at other teams, Labbe was able to hand-pick his team members from a deep pool of talent.
His group worked hard through the short offseason on starting RCR's fourth team, and the depth of the organization has given Labbe time to spend attention on details — a luxury they didn't have at underfunded RPM — and have cars ready to race when they arrive at the track.
Menard is not running the full Nationwide Series schedule — he ran all 36 races last season but isn't scheduled to make his first start this year until Texas. Labbe believes that has helped Menard focus on only the Cup car.
So is Menard taking any satisfaction from his strong start to the season? No way, Labbe said.
"He's a quiet and reserved guy," Labbe said. "All he wants is to run well."