This week Paul Menard will return, once again, to the speedway at which he experienced the single most glorious moment of his NASCAR career.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is special for Menard; in fact, it is special for his entire family. For years the Menards competed at Indy in the Indianapolis 500 as team owners and sponsors.
“When we ran the IndyCar team, we only ran the one race, Indianapolis,” Menard said. “So Goodyear and Firestone, depending on which tire manufacturer was building tires at the time, would come to us to do tire testing for the Speedway.
“I got out of school once in a while, maybe a couple of times a year, to go attend a tire test at Indy.”
Last year Menard, in his first year with Richard Childress Racing, won the Brickyard 400. It was in his 167th career start and was his first and, so far, only Sprint Cup win.
It was an emotional victory, not only because Menard finally broke through to victory lane, but also because he did it at Indy, a place so revered by his family.
In one week, Menard will again race on the venerated, 2.5-mile Indy track. He will doubtless get more media attention because he is the event’s defending champion.
And doubtless he so wants to win the race again. It’s Indy, after all, and victory there means so much to him and every other NASCAR driver.
“For me personally, the Brickyard 400 is the biggest race that we go to,” Menard said. “And I know for the sport, Daytona is considered the Super Bowl, but for me personally, there’s no race I would rather win than the Brickyard 400.“To be a two-time winner there would be even better yet.”
But there is also this: If Menard can win, it will be the first real positive to be added to a season full of negatives.
In 2012 Menard has no wins and only four finishes among the top 10. He hasn’t finished among the top five all year and did so four times a season ago.
He is 15th in points. To be a part of the Chase is possible, but that’s about all that can be said.
However, this year Menard does have an average finish of 16.0, better than last season’s 18.0.
But clearly the season hasn’t gone nearly as well as Menard and RCR would have hoped. And it’s fair to say his career hasn’t improved as many thought it might given the momentum, and potential, of the Indy victory.
Menard is obviously not the only driver who has struggled this year. Fact is he’s in the company of two other Childress drivers.
Kevin Harvick is sixth in points but is winless. Jeff Burton is also without a victory and is 19th in points with little hope of making the Chase.
Menard realizes the significant role Indy has played in his career and for his team. But he also knows that now, it cannot be treated any differently than any other race.
“Yeah, for sure it is special, but it’s no different than any week,” he said. “RCR as a whole has run competitively this year but we need to get better to make the next step up, everywhere from Kevin and myself and Jeff, across the board.
“We have been doing some testing, trying to develop some new ideas and theories to get better, and really this week is no different.
“The off-week is nice, but a lot of guys are taking the time off to catch up with family more than anything. We are pretty far ahead in the shop and things are going well.”
Menard, like others in a desperate attempt to make the Chase which stars only seven races from now, is confident he and his team can get the job done.
It certainly won’t be easy. Menard has to earn at least one victory to make it – and that might not be enough. His best finish this season is sixth in the Daytona 500.
“Obviously I’d like to repeat at Indy,” Menard said. “That one win would go a long way for the ‘wildcard.’
“The series is so competitive that we go into this week as the defending race winner, but you can’t go in there expecting to win.
“You need to do the best job you can to hope to win and put yourself in position to win. You know, everybody catches up with you pretty quick.
“I don’t think I’ll put any extra pressure on myself to repeat at Indy, outside of just going out there and doing what we do every week to try to get the best finish we can at any track we go to.”
For Menard, strategy may be pretty much the same at Indy as it is at other tracks. But there will be some very significant differences for the 31-year-old driver who is one of 11 drivers to win in the track’s 18-year NASCAR history.
As the winner in 2011, this year he will receive more notoriety, and all that comes with it.
“I am looking forward to revisiting the track, and we have the Haulers Parade on Thursday night and I’ll get the winner’s ring from last year,” Menard said. “So a lot of neat things are going on this weekend for me, for sure.
“It’s neat to go back. I have not been back to the Speedway since I won.
“Since I was a little kid, every time I go through the tunnel at turns one and two, I get goose bumps. That will be no different.
“But, more importantly, I’m just looking forward to getting back on the track and driving around the Brickyard.”
And, no doubt, Paul Menard will be driving with the hope, and goal, of a much-needed positive result.