Paul Menard leaving Richard Childress Racing and moving to Wood Brothers Racing while Ryan Blaney joins Team Penske next season leaves high expectations for both drivers, notably Menard.
The past couple of weeks has seen silly season kicking into high gear NASCAR hasn’t seen in quite some time where top drivers are being replaced and young guns climbing up the ladder into high established teams.
NASCAR’s top teams (Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske) have already made some decision making for their future. Erik Jones was announced to replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 next season two weeks ago. Alex Bowman will replace Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in the No. 88.
The latest came Wednesday as Wood Brothers Racing driver Ryan Blaney will join Team Penske and Richard Childress Racing driver Paul Menard will be taking Blaney’s ride next season.
The announcement came a day after Penske mainstay Brad Keselowski—Blaney’s boss when he was competing in the Camping World Truck Series from 2012-2015—agreed to a multi-year contract extension to reamain with the team.
Wednesday’s announcement was an indicator Blaney can now be tossed into conversation as NASCAR’s future top guy with Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. It’s also an indicator Menard’s financial backing rewards you a ride despite results being unsatisfying in the eye of fans.
Although Blaney’s stint with the Wood Brothers will come to an end just as they’re climbing up the ladder as top contenders, the move was expected.
Unlike some drivers—such as Casey Mears going from Ganassi to Hendrick in 2007—who made the move to a high-caliber team, Blaney already has a Cup win under his belt and showcased what he’s capable of doing in an affiliate car.
Blaney made the No. 21 Wood Brothers team contenders again after years of mediocrity and poor performances.
Blaney is 12th in the points standings with three top-5s and seven top-10 finishes. He’s also a fast driver with an average start of 9.4 including a pole at Kansas, feats Trevor Bayne (Wood Brothers Racing’s last driver before Blaney) couldn’t do when drove for the team from 2010-2014.
With 16 races left, who knows what kind of noise Blaney will make in the playoffs before joining Penske. It’s a matter of staying out of trouble, a detriment preventing Blaney being inside the top-10 in points. If things go in Blaney’s favor, nothing should stop him from succeeding.
With Menard taking Blaney’s ride, I’m concerned if they’ll fall back to those dark days of the 2000s and early 2010s. Menard has been a mid-pack driver all season. Correction, his entire career.
On a positive note, Menard’s move to the Wood Brothers is a breath of fresh air after spending seven years at RCR, scoring a single win at Indianapolis 2011.
The past couple of years—notably since making the playoffs in 2015—has been underwhelming with results averaging in the 20s with some flash of brilliance at the plate tracks.
Consider this, Menard has scored more than 10 top-10s only once (2014 with 13) and never scored more the five top-5 finishes (2014 with 5, the most in his career).
At one point in time, Menard was the subject of having strong runs during the first seven races of the season with top-10 finishes at tracks like Las Vegas and Bristol. A far cry to today’s results and replacing Blaney is an opportunity where Menard can prove critics wrong and deliver in better equipment.
Menard currently sits 23rd in the standings and has two top-5s, both at Daytona with third in July being his best effort. No way Menard will make it via points with six regular season races left. The way he’s performing, consider Menard eliminated from the playoffs as the chances of winning are slim to none.
RCR has won twice this season with Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman. Besides those wins, the team hasn’t made much noise and they’re not in the same level as the No. 21 team. The Wood Brothers has been fast throughout the season with Blaney, Menard hasn’t been all that fast all season and results has proven this case.
With that in mind, there shouldn’t be any excuse why Menard doesn’t improve and contend for top-10s. Another thing Menard fans can look forward to is Wood Brothers remaining an affiliate with Penske. It’s produce or fail for Menard in 2018. No questions asked.
Fans out there would say the reason why he’s lasted this long is because he’s a “paid-driver.”
While it may be true, Menard going to a Penske affiliate shouldn’t be shocking either because his primary sponsor Menards—founded by his father John—already sponsors Penske’s IndyCar Series driver Simon Pagenaud.
From a business standpoint, this boosts Wood Brothers Racing’s revenue and should result in better performances.
It’s how racing functions today, if you have the sponsor, welcome aboard. Money rewards drivers instead of talent, one of auto racing’s main criticisms. This will not change and has been around for decades in Formula One and other sanctioning bodies. Family backing does a driver’s wonders, ask Cody Coughlin, Brian Scott and John Wes Townley.
For now, it’s early to tell how Menard and Blaney will fare in their new rides. One thing is certain, Blaney will start being considered a serious contender for wins and championships. Menard on the other hand, gets a chance to overcome his mid-pack reputation and go back to his solid early season starts.