Why Upsets Happen: Introducing the Menard Principle

After Chase Briscoe’s first career Cup Series win last Sunday in Phoenix, 24 of this year’s 33 full-time drivers have won in the Cup Series. Eight of them– Briscoe, Austin Cindric, Bubba Wallace, Christopher Bell, Michael McDowell, Cole Custer, Justin Haley, and Chris Buescher – boast a single victory apiece, nearly a quarter of the field.

These eight drivers join a list of 57, if not illustrious per se, at least significant, others as the one-win wonders of NASCAR. Regan Smith, Casey Mears, Johnny Benson – guys like these typically fill out the middle sections of the timing sheet. The “casual race fan” might not know their names, but we die-hards take notice of their occasional top-10 and pull for them to get that shot at a frontrunning team, even if we know in our hearts they won’t be able to take advantage. So it’s that lone tally in the win column that proves they were here, they were good race car drivers, and they were important, despite a career spent in the middle of the pack. 

There is no better example of the one-win wonder than Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s Paul Menard.

Menard ran 471 races for Dale Earnhardt Inc, Robert Yates, Richard Childress, and the Wood Brothers, almost always in the neon yellow colors of his family’s chain of Midwest home-improvement warehouses. He made the Playoffs once, in 2015, and scored a single victory, winning at Indianapolis on a fuel-mileage play in 2011. 

While he initially faced accusations that his name was only on the driver rail because it was also on the quarter panel, over his sixteen-year career he eventually became a respected veteran of the series. Yes, Menard never looked to be a championship contender during his Cup Series career. He rarely even threatened for wins. Nevertheless, that Brickyard 400 trophy speaks for itself.

Since NASCAR returned to a 30-plus race schedule in 1993, every driver that has made it six full seasons with an average finish of 25th or better has scored at least one win by the time their career has ended.

This win (or wins, in some cases) won’t necessarily come in those seasons– Brian Vickers’ 2013 New Hampshire victory came in a part-time campaign that doesn’t contribute to his total, (I put the “full season” cutoff at 30 starts, allowing for injuries or DNQs) but no driver has maintained an average finish above 25th for six years without taking home a trophy at some point. I call this phenomenon the “Menard Principle”, because Paul Menard’s career statistics are the perfect example: ten quiet seasons with an average finish above 25th, and that lone first place result.

The Menard Principle describes how, due to NASCAR’s long calendar and relative parity between teams, if a driver can put in enough halfway decent performances, they will eventually end up in the right place at the right time to score a win. A lot of these wins are lucky: weather-shortened events, pit strategy gambles, the seas parting just the right way on a restrictor-plate restart. It could be the good fortune of an otherwise mid-pack driver and team both putting in their best possible performances on the same day. Regardless, these drivers have a positive number in the wins column, and that’s all that matters.

A NON-EXHAUSTIVE LIST OF MENARD PRINCIPLE DRIVERS:
(active drivers bolded)

Paul Menard (1 win/10 full seasons with top-25 average finish)

AJ Allmendinger (2 wins/10 full seasons top-25)

Elliott Sadler (3 wins/10 seasons)

Casey Mears (1 win/9 seasons)

Jimmy Spencer (2 wins/9 seasons)

Johnny Benson Jr (1 win/8 seasons)

David Ragan (2 wins/8 seasons)

Brian Vickers (3 wins/7 seasons)

Michael McDowell (1 win/6 seasons)

John Andretti (2 wins/6 seasons)

Though the inverse of the rule is not necessarily true: some drivers with fewer competitive years have won races that feel Menard-y, including his fellow 2011 one-win wonders Regan Smith and Trevor Bayne. Likewise, it is far too early to use the label on Justin Haley and Cole Custer, despite the Menard-esque style of their first career wins.

So perhaps the Menard Principle is better suited to being a loosely-defined category, one that describes the general tendency for random chance to eventually shine on every driver in the field, a force that motivates us fans of the underdog to keep tuning in on Sunday. The term isn’t meant to dismiss those wins when they do happen, only to refocus the conversation on the importance of a driver just continuing to show up.

I mean, Darrell Waltrip believes in Vortex Theory, and this is more scientific than that.

Menard Principle winners might not deserve to have won the races they did, (assuming any driver deserves to win at all – a conversation for another time) but they certainly deserve recognition for a career’s worth of talent, grit, and effort. This type of recognition is, for better or worse, only afforded to race winners.

The NextGen era seems to have brought with it even more parity, and new teams continue to enter the sport with the budgets to prepare semi-competitive cars for competent-enough drivers. Fans and competitors alike expect to see more first-time, underdog, and upset winners as soon as this year. We might have just entered the Age of Menard.

Featured image from @IMS on Twitter and indianapolismotorspeedway.com

Published by Jack Swansey

Originally from North Carolina, Jack has been a NASCAR fan since 2008, and his favorite driver is Bubba Wallace. At Wesleyan University, he studied film and anthropology and wrote his senior thesis about the fan culture of American stock car racing. When not watching NASCAR, Jack is probably looking for some other motorsport to watch, scouring antique stores for hard-to-find diecasts, or investigating the history of some obscure backmarker team or another. To fund his HotWheels collection, Jack works in television production.

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