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Vegas Review: TV ratings up, third straight plus for NASCAR...and how about that Paul Menard!


   By Mike Mulhern


   Leaving Las Vegas…and look who's atop Richard Childress' team standings:
   Not Kevin Harvick, not Jeff Burton, not Clint Bowyer, who all three challenged for last year's NASCAR championship…but newcomer Paul Menard, and crew chief Slugger Labbe, also new to the Childress operation.
   And look at the TV overnights from FOX' Sunday broadcast of the Las Vegas 400: up almost 30 percent from last year.

   That's the third straight week ratings have been up significantly for NASCAR's Sprint Cup. Carl Edwards' rally to beat Tony Stewart pulled a 5.3 overnight rating, up from the 4.1 overnight for 2010.
   Too bad this week is an off-week, because NASCAR cut the Atlanta 500 from this year's tour. That could hurt NASCAR's momentum.
   Out on the track, the season so far, short as it's been, has been rather wacky, with some big crashes and some big names blundering along and mistakes way too frequent. Consider this – only one man has notched top-10 finishes in all three tour events so far.
   So being smooth and consistent has been key to doing well. And Menard – ninth at Daytona, running strong and leading, then a modest 17th at Phoenix, when all about were crashing and burning, and now a 12th here. Good enough for sixth in the Sprint Cup standings heading into the rare off-week.
   The early-season success has boosted Labbe's stature in the pecking order. Menard has been noticeable quick in practice, and that has not been overlooked by Labbe's fellow crew chiefs. "We've had a lot of different-colored shirts up in the hauler asking about tire pressures and springs…." Menard says.
    "It is neat to have people asking you for help too.
    "Being the new team, the new guys on the block, it is cool they respect us and want to learn some things.
     "Obviously we go right back to them with questions we have for them. We know some things that worked for us last year (when running Jack Roush Fords) aren't going to work this year, and we are going to have to learn these new cars -- It is a totally different chassis.
    "I've been really well received in the whole group…and that's neat for me personally and professionally.
    "Same with Slugger -- he fits right in with Gil Martin and Todd Berrier and Shane Wilson.
    "It has been a very seamless transition so far."
    Yes, all four of these crew chiefs have, ah, reputations for reshaping the box whenever they can, and being innovative and forceful.
    While the Hendrick crew chiefs, for example, may come across as more 'corporate,' and the Roush crew chiefs, for example, as more 'technical,' Childress' guys tend to be, well, racers. And Labbe should fit in just well. He knows just what it's like to in the NASCAR doghouse…..

    Menard himself, for a guy who's been on the Cup tour since 2006, is still something of an unknown. Of course part of that has been bad timing – he was part-time at Dale Earnhardt Inc., just as DEI was falling apart. Then he moved over to the Ford camp for 2009, just as that group was hitting the skids technologically, in a fall that took nearly two years to get back on track.
   For this season Menard moved on to the Childress group….perhaps finally with just the right timing, with Childress' guys at the top of their game.
   Now three races doesn't make a season, and Menard and Labbe were fast starters last season too, when running for Ford's Jack Roush, only to fade.
   However there's a sense that Menard and Labbe during their short time together have become good teammates.
   And considering how strong Harvick, Burton and Bowyer have been over the past year, well, maybe that puts Menard's work into sharper perspective.
   Menard, as the racing son of one of the country's top businessmen, John Menard, has carried an asterisk by his name for several years now – the feeling by some that if not for John Menard, then Paul Menard wouldn't be in the big leagues. It's been a tough burden for the son to carry….but then as Paul points out, his father is a racer to begin with, and John Menard would be backing a driver anyway, so why not his son.
   Menard has become, under Labbe, a workman at the wheel. Not flashy, not wild and daring. But increasingly solid, and comfortable.
   "I was a big fan of Al Unser Sr. when he was racing Indy-cars: To see how he approached racing, he was always there at the end. If you are there at the end, you have a shot."
   During his time in NASCAR Menard has had his share of run-ins, with Tony Stewart, with Harvick, and others. But pretty much he's stayed under the radar.
   That could be about to change.

   And remember, this is an expansion operation that Childress has just launched. A team that is still growing.
   Menard says he likes what he's seen so far, with the cars, the engines, and the chemistry: "The cars are very light, and they do a really good job with the fit and finish; the welds are beautiful. You can tell they are nicely built."
    But even more important than the hardware is the team, and Labbe himself, a man who has been around the track more than a few times and who carries a bit of an edge that he's still got something to prove.
   "Slugger coming over is a huge deal," Menard says. "He has assembled a group of guys that were with me last year and guys he has worked with in the past, people he is familiar with.
    "It is a really good group of guys -- So far this year we've gone out to dinner at some point every weekend. Everybody just gets along really well, and that is cool to see.
   "This team set expectations high for the start of the season. And we were more ready for these first three races than I've ever been with a team. Each track we have visited has been different.
   "We all had hopes for better finishes at Daytona and Las Vegas, because the superspeedways and intermediate tracks have been strong points for me and Slugger. We have managed to produce solid finishes, though, while others have had some bad luck.
    "Starting the season off and being sixth in points is very important to a successful year for us."
    If Menard and Labbe can keep the ball rolling.
    And Bristol, the tour's next stop, March 20th, isn't an easy place to deal with.
    But Menard's season so far shows the depth that Childress has added to his operation over the past year and a half, from that very low point in the summer of 2009 when it appeared things were falling apart.
    Last year Childress not only got Harvick and Burton back on track but also got Bowyer up in the game too.
    Making a fourth successful, however, even for men like Rick Hendrick and Roush, hasn't been easy.
    Can Childress, who tried four once before, make it work this time?
    Menard, coming over from the Roush operation, has a good measuring stick. And he says Childress' operation is deep: "The knowledge base across the company -- from the engines, to the teams, to the drivers -- is very wide. And I feel we can add to it…and benefit from it.
    "We’ve had a good start to the season. Daytona went really well for us. We came out with a ninth…and we were disappointed with that. We had a really fast car down there.
    "Phoenix we had a good car again. Got some damage early in the race, got the toe knocked out and had some tire-wear issues from there on that hurt us at the end of the day.
    "But I'm just proud of the way a brand new race team is coming together. They build me really nice-looking, beautiful cars. And they are fast; we have awesome horsepower."
    After Bristol, California, the wide two-mile that has some characteristics similar to Las Vegas – speeds are too fast at both, and the new nose on these cars could prove just as troublesome for drivers at the Los Angeles track as it did here Sunday. Goodyear is providing generally hard and durable tires (though there were too many questionable blowouts at Vegas over the weekend), but not the nice, soft rubber that drivers might prefer.
     And it's unclear at the moment if teams are hanging bodies on these chassis in some manner reminiscent of those sideways-cantered bodies of a few years ago – bodies laid on the car to improve cornering, particularly corner-entry, but leaving drivers running somewhat sideways down the straights. And if so, how might that overwork the tires?
    Menard has a 'cool' personality, low-keyed, compared to high-voltage racers like Kyle Busch and Harvick. And it's really been difficult to read Menard's head very well during his time on the tour.
   However that may be changing, now that he's starting to have some success.


If NASCAR is truly interested

If NASCAR is truly interested in their TV Ratings, then they should be racing this weekend and taking the opening weekend of the NCAA Basketball Tournament off. They have little competition as far as sports programming goes on Sunday from the Daytona 500 through Labor Day Weekend except for the NCAA Tournament and the golf majors. Not sure why NASCAR is still gung ho on going to Bristol in March when Texas and Talladega would be better locations that early. Not quite as bad as going to Richmond or Rockingham in February, but the weather outlook is much better at least three weeks later in those Virginia hills. They would get much higher ratings for Bristol if they would not run that race the same weekend as the NCAA Tournament or The Masters. Showcase your biggest races, and put a scrub race up against another major sporting event if you're intent on running a race those weekends.

i agree 100 percent. not sure

i agree 100 percent. not sure i understand a lot of aspects of nascar's 2011 schedules -- cup, nationwide or truck. some of that stuff simply isn't logical, or cost-effective.

Body Raking Alive And Well

I'm noticing more and more how off-set the bodies of these cars are getting. The apparant NASCAR idea that the Claw supertemplate would stop such twisting was preposterous on its face and it is becoming more obvious that teams are getting these bodies raked as they did before.

hey, great call. i thought i

hey, great call. i thought i was just seeing things. give us some more insight here.....i think it may have something to with those strange brake issues and tires problems we're seeing.....i know drivers were pretty much running scared at las vegas....except for tony....

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