By Toby Christie (Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie)
Paul Menard may not have made many headlines and he may not have received much fan-fare in 2018, but what the driver did in his first season with the Wood Brothers Racing team amounted to his best season in the past three or four years.
Menard, 38, kicked off the season with a strong showing in the Daytona 500.
He started 16th in the Great American Race, but as the iconic race unfolded chaos ensued. Big crash led way to more big crashes. By the end of the race, nearly half the field was no longer on the track. However, Menard played the race smartly and when the battle for the win was on, he was in the thick of it.
When the checkered flag was displayed for Austin Dillon, the Wisconsin native was in sixth position.
Two races later, Menard recorded his second top-10 finish of the year with a ninth-place finish in Las Vegas. Menard looked to be on track to a career year. Then came an abysmal Spring.
Menard would suffer three DNFs (all from crashes) over the next eight races. In this stretch, Menard had just two finishes (both 13th-place) inside the top-15. Menard, who looked like he was heading toward a possible Playoff berth, had faded in the standings.
Before the Playoffs began, Menard would rack up three more top-10 finishes (sixth at Kansas, fifth at Michigan and ninth at Indianapolis). The finish in Michigan would mark his season’s best finish and it came after having to work his way through the field twice on the day.
“We had a good car today and all weekend. We didn’t qualify as good as we would have hoped and went from the back and got put to the back twice. Once I sped and another time we got door slammed,” Menard explained. “I am really proud of my guys. We made a gutsy call to stay out on no tires with a bunch of laps on it. Gutsy call. We had the car to hold on though, so it worked out.”
The driver would also secure a pole at Chicago. It was a good return to form, but it just wasn’t enough for Menard to work into the Playoffs.
Menard would end the season with two more top-10 finishes in the Playoffs. When all was said and done, Menard finished 19th in the championship standings. Even though it was a disappointing finish to the year, Menard’s seven top-10 finishes are his best totals since 2014.
It was a good first year at Wood Brothers Racing after his departure from Richard Childress Racing.
Menard and the No. 21 team should inch their way to being even more competitive in 2019. Menard will have another offseason to gel with his crew chief Greg Erwin and the team still has a very strong relationship with Team Penske.
The team and driver excelled at big tracks this past year as all of Menard’s top-10 finishes came at tracks 1.5-mile or larger.
I expect Menard to hit double digit top-10s this season. If he plays his cards right, Menard could be a Playoff contender as well. If he breaks through to victory lane, Menard will have the prestige of securing Wood Brothers Racing’s 100th Cup Series win.