The NASCAR Sprint Cup series goes west, with Sunday’s running of the Auto Club 400 (3 PM ET, Fox) in the Los Angeles suburb of Fontana. Paul Menard isn’t a driver you’re going to hear a lot about, but the 32-year-old is making a slow and steady ascent, both in his career and within this young season, as he arrives at the Auto Club Speedway.
Menard hasn’t exactly made a huge impact on the Sprint Cup. He’s been driving regularly since 2007 and has only won one race, but the past four years have seen consistent improvement. He’s gone from 31st to 23rd to 17th to 16th in the final point standings. And we see a similar pattern to his performance in 2013. After a 21st finish to start the year in Daytona, he’s come in 20th, 10th and then 9th. Is this a driver on the rise?
That was the question I posed to TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, and I was met with a round of skepticism. “I doubt it,” Bill said, after mincing no words regarding his dislike for Menard. The dislike surprised me because Menard is from Wisconsin, the home venue of TheSportsNotebook and Bill generally assumes that everything from the Badger State has been touched by the hand of God (well, with the exception of its lax voter ID laws).
“I have no love for him,” Bill said, in dispelling my misconceptions. Bill feels—accurately—that Menard only got onto the NASCAR circuit because the Menard family wealth essentially bought the driver’s way in. The Menard’s own a popular department store chain that started in Wisconsin and is now found around the Midwest.
Whatever the means Menard used to get onto the circuit, and even allowing for his less-than-stellar career, he is making strides and is ninth in the overall standings. Now he needs to take the next step and start getting some top five finishes and wins. Will he do it? Well, he’s posted as a 100-1 shot on Sunday. Apparently Bill’s not the only one skeptical of the son of the department store magnate.
THE ADVENTURES OF DENNY HAMLIN
Denny Hamlin might be running a steady sixth—not notable either good or bad at this point in the year, and be without a win, but he’s managing to keep himself in the headlines. First there was the $25,000 fine he incurred for ripping the new NASCAR car. Then last week in Bristol he got into a fistfight with Joey Logano, over what appears to be Hamlin “punting” Logano, a practice us layman might call bashing a guy in the rear bumper. Logano and Hamlin are former teammates, and the bad blood appears to come from that. Whatever the case, a lot of media reports speculate this isn’t the last we’ve heard of these two. “This could be the Feud of the Year,” Bill concurred.
Hamlin will be on the pole at Fontana on Sunday, although that might not mean a great deal. The Auto Club Speedway is a bland track without any distinguishing characteristics. It’s going to lend itself to wide-open racing and a driver’s initial position won’t matter all that much.
Jimmie Johnson is slotted as the favorite for Sunday at 6-1, a role and number he seems to get by default pretty much every week. Four drivers are at 8-1 in points leader Brad Keselowski, the winners of the last two weeks in Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth, and then Kyle Busch. Hamlin goes off at 10-1.