Paul Menard wins first career NASCAR race in Brickyard 400
by Matt Taliaferro
There are 16 races left in the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and already it is being remembered as the “Year of the Upset.” And Paul Menard solidified that designation in the Brickyard 400 at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Menard, winless in 166 career Cup starts and a longshot in his No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Chevy, conserved enough fuel over the final 35 laps and held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon to earn the unlikely win at the Brickyard.
In the process, he joined Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, Southern 500 winner Regan Smith and Coke Zero 400 winner David Ragan as first-time winners on the circuit this year. Three of those — Bayne, Smith and now Menard — not only hit paydirt for the first time, but did so in crown jewel events, marking a first in the Cup Series.
“I knew that we saved plenty of fuel, but I was more worried about the guys that pitted for fuel and were coming hard,” Menard said. “Slugger (Labbe, crew chief) told me where Jeff (Gordon) was and he how fast he was coming. They set me loose with three laps to go, and the car was really good.”
Gordon, who led 36 laps and had one of the best cars on the grid, finished second. Smith, 2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth rounded up the top 5.
“As disappointing as it is not win this race, it sure was great to run that good,” Gordon said. “And I gotta congratulate Paul Menard. I don’t think there’s anybody in this garage area that appreciates a win here at the Brickyard more than Paul. He grew up here as a kid and I think that’s pretty cool.”
Ah yes, the back story on Menard and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Menard’s father, John, owns the Menards chain of home improvement stores throughout the Midwest. As a long-time supporter of automobile racing in the United States, he has sponsored numerous Indianapolis 500 entries going back to 1982 — including three cars manned by Tony Stewart (1996-98), as well as son Paul’s ride since his debut in NASCAR in 2003.
Needless to say, with the family’s history and affinity for Indianapolis, there could not have been a better track for 30-year-old Paul — having run full-time on the Cup circuit since 2007 — to get his first win.
“My first year here was in 1989 — that I can remember, anyway,” Menard said. “Just spent a lot of time in the garage area. I didn’t miss an Indy 500 from ’89 to 2003; I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 — it’s just a really special place for my family and myself.”
No win at Indy comes easy, and this race was no exception. An otherwise staid race was thrown for a loop when Landon Cassill went for a spin with 41 laps to go. The top seven cars, led by Brad Keselowski, remained on track under the caution period, choosing track position over fuel and fresh tires. Menard, along with McMurray and Smith, among others, topped off their fuel cells just before the race went back to green with 34 laps remaining. Menard restarted 16th.
Once back to green, the majority of the field that had not pitted under caution made stops, as it cycled into a fuel window that would carry them to the end, handing the lead to Menard with 15 lap to go, although he was quickly passed by McMurray. Gordon, who pitted with 26 laps to go, found himself charging threw the field as the laps wound down, but was still 12 seconds out of the lead with only 12 laps to make something happen.
As the top-10 cars conserved fuel by running noticeably slower laps, Gordon surged, picking off positions as the race came to its conclusion. Menard was told to go full throttle with three laps remaining, as Labbe’s calculations showed the No. 27 machine had enough fuel. When the word came to the driver to punch it, he flew by McMurray and, although Gordon was able to work his way back to second just after Menard took the lead, the gap was too great for the four-time Brickyard winner, and Menard won the race to the checkered flag by .725 seconds.
“Every time I got to a car that was saving fuel it kind of held me up,” Gordon said. “I knew that we weren’t going to get to Paul, it was really about him running out of fuel.”
As for the race-winner, Menard not only enjoyed his most memorable day in NASCAR, but moved into a wild-card spot in the Chase for the Championship standings. NASCAR’s new Chase qualification rule states that positions 11 and 12 be awarded to the drivers with the most wins ranked 11th-20th. Menard and Denny Hamlin currently occupy the spots with six races until the playoffs begin.
“I think we're 14th (in points) now (and) with the wild card,” Menard said of the upcoming Chase. “We got five or six races left. We got a lot of work to do. We have Richmond and New Hampshire — those are two of our worst tracks, honestly. We have a lot of work to do.”