Viva Las Vegas – A lot of luck to go around as new season keeps surprising
By RICK MINTER / Cox Newspapers
NASCAR’s season of surprises continues even though Carl Edwards’ win in Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway wasn’t unexpected given his recent performances on the intermediate tracks and Ford’s strength at Las Vegas.
But on down the finishing order at Las Vegas – and the Sprint Cup points standings after the first three races – there are some unexpected names showing up.
Among the biggest surprises to date is the strong start by Paul Menard in his first year at Richard Childress Racing. Menard came to RCR with backing from his family’s home improvement company of the same name, but so far he’s proven to be much more than a driver with money behind him.
After three races Menard is ahead of his fellow RCR drivers in the points standings. He’s in sixth place, 17 points behind leader Tony Stewart, who finished second at Las Vegas after leading the most laps but also drawing a penalty for removing equipment from his stall during a pit stop.
Menard also had the best Las Vegas finish of any of his teammates. He finished 12th, while Clint Bowyer was 15th, Kevin Harvick was 17th and Jeff Burton was 21st.
Menard told reporters at Las Vegas that one of the main keys to his success of late is that he and his crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe have been made to feel at home in the RCR camp.
“Everybody has been good to work with, from all four crew chiefs working well together to all four of us drivers working well together,” he said. “I’ve been really well received in the whole group, and that’s neat for me personally and professionally.”
Another surprise is over at Hendrick Motorsports, where Dale Earnhardt Jr. has moved from fourth to first among his teammates.
He finished a Hendrick-best eighth at Las Vegas, and is a team-best 10th in the points standings. Mark Martin is 11th, Jimmie Johnson 12th and Jeff Gordon 19th.
Earnhardt told reporters at Las Vegas that his success so far is due in large part to his crew chief Steve Letarte and Letarte’s crew, which spent the last few years working with Jeff Gordon but took on Earnhardt in a big off-season shift at Hendrick.
“It’s a fun team, a great group of guys,” Earnhardt said. “I’m proud to be a part of it and hope I can keep working well and keep doing well.”
He said that even though he qualified poorly (33rd) at Las Vegas, he wound up with a good car at the end of the race.
“I guess the best thing that we did all day long was the adjustments,” Earnhardt said. “I kept telling Stevie what I thought I needed and what the car felt like it was doing wrong, and he was hitting on it every time.
“We were kind of working together on some ideas and we hit on one idea that was really good and it really woke the car up.”
Earnhardt said that it’s imperative for him to make things work with Letarte and to do it right away.
“Failure at this point is completely unacceptable, and I’ve got to put it all out on the line and do everything I can to make this work,” he said. “If it doesn’t work with him, I got nowhere else to go. I got no other options, really other than just to race myself into oblivion with my own team and Tony [Eury] Jr. and those guys.
“But I want this to work. I want to be in a [Car of Tomorrow] the rest of my career as long as I can, and I want to be successful and so I’m just trying to work hard.
“We’re getting better. It feels like it’s working.”