Speed and Menard enjoy view from the top | NevadaAppeal.com

Speed and Menard enjoy view from the top

JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer

BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) – A quick scan of the top drivers in NASCAR shows the usual suspects – the likes of Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin – holding down the top eight spots.

Then it gets interesting.

Paul Menard and Scott Speed made their first appearances this week inside NASCAR’s coveted top-12 rankings, and both drivers clearly liked the view from the top tier of the standings. Menard goes into Sunday’s race ranked ninth, while Speed is 11th.

“It feels good for everyone, mostly because we’ve come a long way and we can see how much progress we’ve made since we started,” said Speed, a former Formula One driver.

Neither driver is accustomed to being so high in the standings.

Menard, in his fourth full season, had a best finish of 26th in 2008 when he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He finished 31st in the final season standings last year with Yates Racing, where he failed to notch a single top-10 finish.

But Menard is coming off a fifth-place finish two weeks ago at Atlanta – only his second career top-five and his first since 2008 – and has a strong outlook this season. Yates Racing merged with Richard Petty Motorsports during the offseason, and Menard is pleased with his progression.

“We’ve come out of the box pretty strong and we’re working on a lot of things to make the cars even better so we can hopefully improve throughout the year,” Menard said. “I could definitely get used to this. It’s only four races in, so a lot can happen obviously. But we’ve had fast cars.”

Speed, in his second full season, was 35th last year with Red Bull Racing. But he’s benefited this year from some calculated pit calls that have put him out front for 19 laps – equaling the 19 he led all of last season – and his 22nd-place finish at Las Vegas is his lowest of the season. A year ago, Speed had just six finishes better than 22nd.

“Listen, we’re going to make mistakes, there’s no question,” Speed cautioned. “I think it’s not exactly super realistic that we’re going to stay here (in the top 12) for very long. But it certainly shows how much progress we’ve made, and we’ve still got more to make.”

WALTRIP RETURNS: Retirement was short-lived for Michael Waltrip, who returned to the track this weekend as a driver a mere three races after giving up full-time racing.

Waltrip hired Martin Truex Jr. this season to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing, a personnel move based on his desire to plan for the future of his organization. Although the season-opening Daytona 500 was initially scheduled to be his only race of the year, he quickly put together a deal to race next month at Talladega Superspeedway.

Then came the opportunity to run this weekend at Bristol.

Waltrip agreed to help Prism Motorsports by qualifying the car for Sunday’s race. He got in with the 39th spot, but the team doesn’t have enough money to run the entire race. Waltrip said qualifying the car for the race means a check for team owner Phil Parsons that can be used toward bolstering that operation.

Prism, who will field Waltrip’s car at Talladega, buys used cars from MWR.

“I’ve gone from two Daytona 500 championships to a start-and-park deal,” Waltrip joked. “We didn’t have the money to race here and Michael McDowell usually drives it and he’s bouncing back-and-forth from Nationwide and doesn’t have a lot of experience here. We thought maybe our best chance to make it was with me.

“It was just a chance for me to say hi to my team and get used to the guys calling the shots so we have the best chance (at Talladega).”

Waltrip said he watched the race two weeks ago from atop an MWR pit box, and quickly realized he doesn’t miss full-time racing.

“They threw the green flag at Atlanta and I’m on the pit box with a headset on and I’m happy,” Waltrip said. “My cars were running good. They threw the green flag and they flew down into Turn 1 and I said, ‘Why are they in such a hurry?’

“They act like they’re going to throw the checkered (flag) off of 2. What the hell? Why don’t they calm down?”

PETTY’S TAKE: Richard Petty has a solution for feuding drivers that doesn’t include on-track retaliation.

Petty, the seven-time NASCAR champion and a member of the inaugural Hall of Fame class, raised his fist to show how drivers resolved arguments during his racing years.

“If that would have been in our day, the two parties would have penalized each other before it was all over with,” Petty said, holding up his fist.

Petty offered his opinion in the wake of Carl Edwards’ deliberate wreck with Brad Keselowski two weeks ago in Atlanta. Petty felt Edwards’ action was excessive, but believed if Keselowski’s car had not gone airborne, no one would be upset about the incident.

“NASCAR told them at the beginning of the year they could beat and bash on each other,” Petty said. “And if (Keselowski) had just spun out and hadn’t turned over, it would have just been a no-event deal.”