Three Questions with Paul Menard.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. makes no bones about it: former Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Paul Menard has definitely improved as a driver this season.

"Paul has really turned it up," Earnhardt said. "He’s run so much better this year if you really look at the overall statistics and his average in qualifying and finishing order and how he runs over the distance of the race. He’s doing a lot better."

This past weekend at Daytona, Menard not only earned his first career Cup pole, it was also – surprisingly – the first Cup pole ever earned at Daytona or any other restrictor plate track by a DEI driver.

Menard, who finished a respectable 15th in the race, talked about how his overall performance has improved this season in-between his qualifying run and the race itself last weekend.

Q. You had poor outings at Sonoma and New Hampshire, but then go out and earn a pole at Daytona. Can you contrast the highs and lows you've had this season?

A. "We started off the year pretty good, had some really good runs like at Bristol where we had drove up to the top 10, but wound up getting in a wreck with some other cars. We were running top five in Talladega and got turned. We’ve had some good runs; we just haven’t had the results to show it. The last two races, really, were just not good but this is a real boost."


Q. Most people have identified success at DEI primarily from Dale Earnhardt Jr. But at Daytona, three DEI cars were among the top eight in qualifying. That's got to give the entire organization a huge boost of confidence now that Junior is at Hendrick Motorsports, right?

A. "But the (No.) 15, the (No.) 1, and the (No.) 8, obviously are all in the top-ten and we all did our homework.  Obviously the (No.) 1 car didn’t work with their backup car enough to get a good qualifying lap, but they’ll be fine.”

Q. You've won a couple of Busch/Nationwide Series poles, but this was your first Cup pole. What does that mean to you personally?

A. "A pole at a plate track like this is not about myself or any driver who gets the pole, it's all about the guys at the shop. I mean they put their hearts and souls into it.  They work so hard on four plate races a year and massage the body and with the COT it’s much harder because you can only do so much with it. The engine shop has been putting out good horsepower at every track we come to – we’ve made pretty significant gains and the last couple months they’ve made some more gains that have put us in this position."

Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports and a featured contributor for Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at NASCARColumnist@Yahoo.com.