The first question Paul Menard wanted to know when he called up north was if there was a snowstorm in Wisconsin, and he seemed genuinely disappointed that no, there hasn’t been a true "snowstorm" in his home state for about two years.
The Eau Claire native only gets home to deer hunt a bit in November and visit family over the holidays, and he misses winter, believe it or not.
"I do," he said. "It’s too damn hot down South."
Menard was in Daytona Beach, Fla. preparing for Sunday’s Daytona 500 at the Daytona International Speedway where he qualified to start in the 14th position. The 32-year-old is coming off a sixth place finish from a year ago – a race won by Cambridge’s own Matt Kenseth – but it’s hardly a predictor for 2013.
"It’s been a busier offseason than normal because of the 2013 car," said Menard, who is once again in the No. 27 for Richard Childress Racing. "They’re basically the same car, it’s just the body’s so different. We’ve done quite a bit of testing at the end of last year and the offseason just to try and develop it. They look cool. They drive really good. They have a lot of grip. A lot of the places we’ve tested at we’ve ben faster than the previous car."
Menard believes he won't get a true feel for the car for a few weeks, though.
"It’s just a matter of how they’re going to race in a group and we really won’t know that until probably Las Vegas, the third race of the year, which is kind of our bread and butter intermediate track," he said. "That’s when we’ll all kind of understand what this car is."
The new car, along with new paint and decals, was brought about to help raise fan interest in the sport. Menard doesn’t buy the complaint that the racing isn’t any good – he pointed to a record number of passes and a near record number of different winners in 2012 – but rather a loss of identity.
In the quest for speed, the cars on the track began to be indistinguishable from one another while looking less and less like models seen on the street.
"People can relate to the new car and I believe they will," he said. "That’s going to be the single biggest thing we do to increase the fan base."
A diehard Green Bay Packers fan, Menard compared it to the branding of the NFL – the unique logos and colors of the helmets attract the populace, from what the clothing they wear on the street to replicas they purchase for their homes.
"They take it personally," Menard said. "I take it personally when the San Francisco 49ers knock us out of the playoffs. It’s just a pride thing. I think if you make these cars, what we race on a track, very similar to what you see on the street, what you can buy in a showroom. I’ve seen side-by-side pictures with all the makes – the Chevy, the Ford, the Toyota the race car versus the street car – and it’s pretty crazy how closely they resemble each other. If we get that personal connection I think that’s going to go a long ways."
As for Menard, he enters the 2013 season hungry. It’ll be two years since he won at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis and while last season he was very consistent in the Cup series – he never finished below 31st – he felt his car lacked enough speed to truly contend for titles.
"Everybody goes into the offseason having the best intentions for the next year, so everybody thinks that they can make their cars faster and make everything better and we’re no exception - but I truly feel we have made gains in our organization to get better," Menard said. "As far as consistency, that’s just a matter of putting together a race. The races are so long, they’re 400 to 600 miles basically every week, and really long races are a matter of putting it all together to understand how your car is going to be on new tires versus old tires, lap five of a run versus lap 40 of a run, and just understanding is experience.
"That’s something I feel I’ve learned a lot over the last couple years with what the car wants. The consistency with Slugger Labbe, my crew chief, this is our fourth year together and we have a pretty good understanding of each other. Every year it seems like it gets better for us."
As for Sunday, Menard says that Daytona remains a marquee race in the eyes of the drivers, one that you want on your resume – but the end goal is always capturing the most points possible. To do that at the Daytona 500 however, it’s about survival.
"The new car on any other track besides Daytona or Talladega has more downforce than last year’s car," Menard said.
"This car at Daytona and Talladega, the plate races, have less downforce by quite a bit. So they’re a handful. In the pack, in the draft, they’re pretty fast. It almost feels like a few years ago before they resurfaced Daytona when the track was worn out and you were slipping and sliding around. A lot of it is going to be survival, just managing your race (for) 500 miles and try to be there at the end. It sounds cliché but that’s how it is at these plate tracks, is just try to avoid trouble for 450 miles and go race at the end."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.