Paul Menard: The Early Season Feel Good Story of the 2011 NASCAR Season

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IMarch 29, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 12:  Paul Menard drives the #27 Menards Chevrolet during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 12, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

I almost feel as if I am about to brag. Before the season started, I said that Paul Menard was poised to be the breakthrough driver of the season, and five races in, he hasn't let me down.

Through five races, Menard sits seventh in Sprint Cup points, and is the highest ranking driver in the Richard Childress stable. Made all the more impressive is the fact that Menard is in his first season with RCR, and last season, the other three members of the team all qualified for the Chase.

Menard's worst finish so far this year is a 17th place run at the season's second race, Phoenix. At that race, he finished one lap down, and that is the only lap he has failed to complete this season.

He has also led 49 laps so far through five races, which is already a new career high. His previous career high was 28 laps led in 2008.

Menard is currently the only driver inside the top 12 in points that has never qualified for the Chase in his career. In fact, every other driver inside the top 12 finished higher than Menard in the 2010 final point standings.

Last season, Menard set a new personal best with six top 10 finishes. So far this year, he has already scored two. That puts him on pace for 14. He also scored a top five finish at Bristol. That already ties his career best.

While all of Menard's early season statistics are very impressive, and maybe to some, mildly surprising, there is one statistic that speaks volumes as to the improvements made by the driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet, that his father's business sponsors.

Menard's finishes at each of the first five tracks the Sprint Cup Series has run, he has set a new personal best. He opened the season, as one of the strongest cars in the Daytona 500, and finished with a ninth place.

His next four finishes were 17th, 12th, 5th and 16th respectively, at Phoenix, Las Vegas, Bristol, and Auto Club Speedway.

His race day runs are not the only place that he has improved. Menard has also seen his qualifying efforts set new personal bests as well. Among drivers that have started at least two races this year, Menard is tied for fifth best average starting position, at a 13.8.

If he is able to maintain that pace, it would shatter his previous career best average starting position of 19.6, which he set last year as a member of Richard Petty Motorsports.

Menard has led more laps this season than any of his three teammates, and he is single-handedly out performing teammates, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer combined. Menard has two top 10's while those two have combined for just one. He has also scored a top five, while neither of them have accomplished that feat this year.

So, while the NASCAR season is still very young, at only five races in, it is hard to find a bigger feel good story than Paul Menard. While Trevor Bayne's surprise win in the Daytona 500 was a nice story, he has failed to back it up with much.

Menard meanwhile, started out strong in Daytona, and has continued his success through all five races. Who knows how long it will last. Maybe his dream run, comes to an end this upcoming weekend in Martinsville.

Maybe Menard carries the momentum all the way into a berth in the Chase later this year. Either way, it is nice to see a fresh face in the mix week in and week out. And if he continues with these strong runs, the feel good story of Paul Menard may very well turn into a feel good first win.


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