Paul Menard hasn't won a Sprint Cup Series race since 2011 at the Brickyard… (Cheryl Senter / Associated…)
INDIANAPOLIS — Paul Menard probably will feel bittersweet emotions when the NASCAR driver returns to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend.
Menard won the Brickyard 400 at Indy in 2011 for his first Sprint Cup Series victory, ending four years of winless frustration.
But Menard hasn't won since. As NASCAR prepares for this year's Brickyard 400 on Sunday, the 32-year-old Menard has gone 71 races without revisiting Victory Lane.
While five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has won races every year since he joined the series full time in 2002, including four victories this season, several other drivers continue to slog through winless streaks that extend well beyond one of the series' 36-race seasons.
The list of drivers with winless droughts includes veteran Jeff Burton, a Menard teammate with 21 career wins but who now has gone 168 races without one.
"It is a challenge" to keep racing without a win, said owner Richard Childress, whose Chevrolet team includes Menard, Burton and Kevin Harvick. But "you never give up," Childress said.
Harvick is enjoying a terrific year; he's fourth in the Cup standings and has two wins this season. But he can understand his teammate Burton's frustration. Although Harvick has won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in his career, he once endured a winless spell of 115 races.
"You get tired of talking about it," Harvick said after his drought finally ended with a win in 2010. "You know you can win. You've done it before. And all of a sudden, you just don't."
Two drivers recently did break through. Martin Truex Jr. ended a 218-race winless streak with a victory in Sonoma, Calif., last month and his teammate Brian Vickers won in New Hampshire two weeks ago to end a 75-race drought.
There are plenty of reasons why NASCAR drivers who line up at the starting line each week can't shake their slumps, reasons that can change from race to race: A car that's slower or more ill-handling than its rivals', accidents, fuel or tire strategies that backfire, a bungled pit stop or a lousy qualifying run that buries a driver deep in the 43-car field, to name a few.
It's all what NASCAR legend Richard Petty — who won a record 200 races and is now a team co-owner — likes to call the "circumstances" that dictate a race's outcome.
And though drivers don't suddenly forget how to drive, a winless streak can erode their self-confidence.
"We all have pretty fragile egos," said Carl Edwards, who has won 20 Cup races in his career, but who has also twice had to deal with winless droughts. "When you're not getting that positive reinforcement and you're not winning, it is tougher," he said earlier this season.
Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Indy 500 and raced with success on the Formula One circuit, switched to NASCAR in 2007. He has notched only two NASCAR Cup series wins and his winless streak is now up to 105 races — and he has never won a Cup race on an oval track.
Jamie McMurray won the Brickyard 400 in 2010 but has won only one other race since, and now he has gone 96 races without a victory.
Montoya and McMurray drive for the team Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, which continually struggles to keep cars near the front. Despite Chip Ganassi's success as a team owner in IndyCar racing, he has failed to replicate it in NASCAR.
But even NASCAR's best teams can't guarantee their drivers a checkered flag.
For instance, it has been 38 races since fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr., who drives for powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, crossed the finish line first.
Earnhardt's last win, at Michigan last year, was only his second win in 197 races over the five-plus years he has been with Hendrick.
The rest of Hendrick's All-Star lineup includes Johnson, a four-time Brickyard 400 winner who's again leading the Cup standings this season; Kasey Kahne, who won this year at Bristol, Tenn.; and Jeff Gordon, another four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup Champion.
Even Gordon, who has won 87 Cup races in his legendary career, suffered a dry spell from 2008 through 2010 and won only one race.
"You question a lot of things" during a winless streak, Gordon once said. "Is it me? Is it the car? Is it a combination? I don't care who you are or how many races you've won, you question those things."
Or consider Joey Logano, who joined reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski at Penske Racing this season.
Logano, 23, has gone 41 races since his last win, at Pocono in Pennsylvania last year. And that was only the second win in 166 starts for a young driver many thought would quickly become one of NASCAR's best.
Edwards knows all about how easily victories can seem out of reach.
After a whopping nine wins in 2008, the Roush Fenway Racing driver did not win again for 70 races, or nearly two years. Later he went through another 70-race winless streak until earning a victory in Phoenix in March.
"You're working harder, you're trying more, you're questioning yourself more" during a winless streak, Edwards said after the Phoenix win. "When you're struggling, it seems like time slows down. It is very frustrating."