Paul Menard has been in the game long enough to have experienced the highs and the lows of being a NASCAR driver. His rookie year of 2007 was such a disaster that he failed to qualify for six races and finished 34th in points, with a season-high finish of 12th at Michigan in June.
Since that disastrous season with the now-defunct Dale Earnhardt Incorporated organization, Menard has managed to rack up the results in the seasons since, with his first pole coming at Daytona in July of 2008 and his first win coming at Indy in July of 2011. He had a career season in 2012 with one top-five and nine top-10s on the way to a 16th-place points finish.
On paper, Menard is easily one of the dullest, middle-of-the-pack drivers who seems to get lucky with a fast car every so often. With that being said, what is up with his 2014 Sprint Cup season?
After 17 races, Menard is on pace to top his career-best nine top-10s in a season. He's already posted three top-fives this season, with a season-best third at Las Vegas. He has 14 lead-lap finishes this season, and to top it all off, he has yet to record a "did not finish" in 2014. That is what is keeping him well in the Chase grid as he currently occupies the 11th spot in Sprint Cup points.
It may help that he's the senior Richard Childress Racing driver right now, but then again, with Childress's recent deterioration that may not be saying much. You'd expect the best equipment to be going toward Childress's grandson Austin Dillon, but somehow Menard has seemed to defy that logic.
What is most likely the case here isn't a matter of seniority or equipment, however. It's all a matter of experience.
Menard has been slow to succeed, but he's gotten better over the years.
Poised for his first Chase appearance as a Sprint Cup driver, Menard's rise could be attributed to years of experience, and to be honest, his Nationwide Series success as well. He isn't just some rich kid who happened by his ride thanks to his father's money and is popularly parodied on Twitter (@NotPaulMenard).
He's a hard worker who has managed to persevere through the trials and tribulations of being a Sprint Cup driver in an ultra-competitive sport. He's managed to make the most of his opportunities, and these days, he's closer to actually earning a win than ever.
Of course, before anything can be said about whether or not Menard is a contender, he'll have to keep on doing what he has been doing throughout the 2014 season and carry it on through 2015. It would be too easy to claim he's finally made it only for him to turn around and bomb like Elliott Sadler in 2004-05.
Then again, taking into consideration that Menard has gotten better slowly but steadily, his caliber of performance isn't very likely to wane over the next few seasons. He may very well make the Chase this year only to miss it next year or the year after only to make it in the next Chase field. He may very well mirror Martin Truex Jr.'s career in the Sprint Cup Series.
But he'll be a truly established driver in the Sprint Cup Series, one who has earned his spot among the sport's elite. That could definitely help Menard's placid image.
But for now, it would be safe to keep an eye on that No. 27 Chevrolet. He may not be a championship contender, but he could very well make it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2014. He's definitely knocking on the door for a win this year, and one place definitely seems the likeliest spot for that.
Considering he led 29 laps there in February, Saturday night's race at Daytona could very well see Menard pulling his RCR Chevy into Victory Lane. He's definitely a favorite for the win.
Follow Joseph on Twitter: @Shelton500.
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