Somewhat lost among the much bigger headlines coming out of Atlanta is the story of two drivers who have far surpassed anyone's expectations so far this season. Those two drivers are Paul Menard and Scott Speed. Both were mired back in the 30s in points throughout all of 2009; Scott Speed even failed to qualify on three occasions and finished outside the top-35 in owner points. But both teams are off to fantastic starts in 2010.
Starting his fourth full-time season in the Cup Series, Paul Menard has shown considerable improvement. He has never even finished inside the top-25 in the final point standings (his best was 26th in 2008). In 2009, he had just six top-20 finishes all season long and only finished on the lead lap 1/3 of the time. However, he has racked up four straight top-20 finishes to start off this season and sits an astounding 9th in points! His 5th-place finish at Atlanta is just his third-career top-10 in 115 total starts. His first top-10 actually came at Atlanta as well, back in 2006 before he started running full-time. His best career finish was 2nd, but that took place at Talladega after about half the field had wrecked. (That was the race which then-teammate Regan Smith "won".) He didn't sneak into this 5th-place finish, either; sure, he took two tires at the end and gained a few spots, but he ran very well all day long.
Will Menard qualify for the chase? I wouldn't completely rule him out, but it is unlikely. A lot of really good drivers have gotten off to poor starts this season but will likely rebound in the weeks to come. Still, his strong start cannot be ignored. I wouldn't be surprised to see him end up inside the top-20 in the final standings if he can continue to have such strong runs. At the very least, I hope this will quiet those people who insist he only has a ride because his father owns Menard's. Certainly, that sponsorship guarantee gives him some extra security, but he clearly is a talented driver and it looks like his equipment has finally improved to match his level of talent.
Scott Speed couldn't seem to get out of his own way in his rookie season of 2009. He missed three races (though he did wind up driving Joe Nemechek's car for two of those), had just four top-20 finishes all season long, and had a streak of 8 consecutive races during the summer in which he did not finish better than 31st. Similar to Menard, he did manage to steal a 5th-place finish at Talladega, but aside from that he did not finish better than 15th. He had just six lead-lap finishes in 2009. He ended up 36th in owner points which has forced him to qualify on time for the first five races of this season.
Clearly the offseason was beneficial for Speed. It's almost like there is a different driver behind the wheel of that #82 car this year. He has finished on the lead lap in 3 out of 4 races, accumulating two finishes around 10th place (10th and 11th) and two finishes around 20th place (19th and 22nd). Similar to Menard, he is still a longshot to make the chase, but he is currently tied with four-time champion Jeff Gordon for 12th in points. That is an amazing turnaround from just one year ago!
I would still be surprised if either of these drivers wins a race this year. However, their turnarounds should not be overlooked. I look for both drivers to continue to have good runs and solid finishes, and they both will likely far surpass anyone's expectations in 2010.
Opinions expressed in blogs are those of the individual bloggers and do not necessarily represent the views of racing-reference.info.