Our series of weekly NASCAR driver interviews continues with Paul Menard, who is enjoying a breakout season at Richard Childress Racing. Menard spoke with us at Auto Club Speedway.
SBN: Who is the most underrated driver in NASCAR?
PM: That's a tough one. Everybody's so good. I might say Regan Smith. He works hard, we're good friends off the track. I can see his work ethic. He's trying hard. He qualifies really well, but it seems like the races don't go his way sometimes.
SBN: What's one race you feel you should have won, but you didn't?
PM: Talladega in fall of '08, we had a really good shot at winning there. But probably the most disappointing one was Daytona, in the 500 (this year). We had a great car and it was kind of anybody's race at the end. If you're in the top 10, you have a shot. The last restart, we got hooked up with AJ (Allmendinger), and his car wasn't as fast as mine – so I had to drag the brake a lot more. We didn't end up where we wanted, but we definitely had a shot.
SBN: If you could pick any teammates aside from your current ones – manufacturer and sponsor conflicts aside – who would you pick?
PM: Well, you'd have to say Jeff Gordon, with everything he's done. Jimmie Johnson, he's on top of his game. How many more can I pick?
SBN: Well, it's up to you. Kind of a fantasy team.
PM: Let's make it a four-car team. So I need one more – and I'll say Tony Stewart.
SBN: What do you want your retirement story to say about you when you step out of the car for good someday?
PM: Just 'had a successful career.' Whether that's win races, win championships, whatever. Just a successful career.
SBN: What's a memorable post-race escape you made from the track to get to the airport?
PM: I haven't really made many; nothing really stands out. I fly with the team, so I have time to go back to the motorhome and take a shower, then book it to the airport. But typically I'll still beat the team there, because they're loading up the car and stuff. So I'm not in as big of a rush as a lot of guys are.
SBN: Who is a famous person you'd like to meet who you haven't met yet?
PM: There isn't really one. A guy like Ronald Reagan, I would have liked to meet a guy who has been through what he went through and seen what he's seen. That would have been cool, but I won't have that opportunity now. I'm pretty content with knowing the people I know.
Actually, there is one: The guy's name is Louis Zamperini. I just read his book, called Unbroken. He's a World War II bombardier. Really good book, you should check it out. He was a P.O.W. in Japan, and he went through some shit. He's like 95 years old or something.
SBN: Would you rather have a season where you won a couple huge races but missed the Chase, or would you rather make the Chase and contend for the title but not win any races?
PM: Contend for the championship with no wins. The championship is a bigger deal than the wins. Pretty simple.
SBN: Where does your motivation to win come from? Do you want to do it for personal pride, or proving people wrong, or what?
PM: Just competitive spirit, I guess. I played sports growing up. I played hockey, raced, played football. It's just something that's kind of born into you: You want to go out and compete and do the best job you can. It's more selfish reasons than anything – you want to compete against other people who are at the top of their game and do the best you can.
SBN: So what position did you play in football?
PM: I was a middle linebacker.
SBN: So you liked to hit people?
PM: (smiles) Oh yeah. Yeah.
SBN: How different is your personality inside the car and outside it?
PM: Probably pretty similar. I'm a pretty calm guy, inside and outside. I go about my daily affairs kind of the same way I go about driving the race car.
SBN: Have you always been that way?
PM: I think so. When I was young, I had a really bad temper. Probably 10, 15 years ago I learned to kind of control that. So that's probably the calm nature I have now.
SBN: If you could switch lives with an athlete from a different sport, is there anyone you'd want to swap places with?
PM: No. I'm content. (smiles)
SBN: If you could take a year off from NASCAR and go do whatever you wanted, knowing you had a ride guaranteed when you came back, would you want to do that?
PM: That's a tough question. If I had to do that, I'd probably just go ski. I'd go to South America in the summer and everywhere else in the winter. I'm not sure if I would do that or not – probably not.
It's a tough sport, and if you're out for a year, you lose something, I think. You have to be involved in it all the time and immerse yourself. If you did do that, it would definitely hurt you when you came back.
SBN: Would you rather win the championship having locked up the title before you get to Homestead or do it off Turn 4 of the last lap of the season?
PM: I'd clinch it the week before. (chuckles) Then you don't have to worry about it. You can go to Miami and just race.