July 31, 2011
Paul Menard has never garnered incredible respect in many NASCAR circles. The reasons for that aren't hard to see, as Menard has never had much success in NASCAR competition. He's also had the benefit of a guaranteed sponsor, thanks to his father, John, owner of the midwestern home improvement chain Menards.
Paul was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, the theory goes, and wouldn't be in the Cup Series without his father's support.
So when legendary team owner Richard Childress signed up Menard (with Menards as a sponsor) to race as a fourth team at Richard Childress Racing in 2011, eyebrows were raised and murmurs rumbled. How could Childress, a team with championship capabilities, sign a driver that had just seven career top 10s to his name and never a finish above 23rd in the Sprint Cup point standings?
[Related: Complete Sprint Cup standings]
Those questions may still linger, but Menard did a lot of good in elevating his racing brand Sunday at the venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Menard, never a winner in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, scored his first victory Sunday in the Brickyard 400 — one of NASCAR's most prestigious races — by holding off Brickyard tour de force and NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon in some dramatic closing laps. The win proved all the more sweet for Menard after his father, a longtime IndyCar owner, had come up empty multiple times in the Indianapolis 500.
"Man, I've been coming here for a long, long time, but not nearly as long as my dad," said Paul Menard, who didn't miss an Indianapolis 500 between 1989 and 2003. "To be the first one after all those years of trying to win him a race at Indy, [this is] very special."
His dad watched the race from his son's pit box.
"This is just great," John Menard said. "It was Paul's day, but in a way, our whole family has been at the Speedway for so long."
Menard's crew chief Slugger Labbe gambled on fuel strategy to put the neon yellow No. 27 in position to take the checkered flag. It was a strategy not completely outside of the No. 27 team's element, however.
"Saturday we made a 22-lap run in practice and knew where we were going to be with fuel mileage," Labbe said. "We knew with 35 [laps] to go it was a gamble we were willing to take."
The race played out in an oddly-similar fashion to May's Indianapolis 500 at the track. In that event, rookie J.R. Hildebrand conserved fuel over the final run and had the race nearly won before crashing in the final turn.
Sunday, Menard had to pedal his car perfectly to make the fuel stretch after he and a handful of other teams dedicated themselves to going the distance after what turned out to be final yellow flag period from laps 121-126. He conserved while Gordon, eight seconds behind with nine laps to go, sailed through the field with two fresh tires and a tank full of gas. Gordon closed within car lengths by the white flag, but Menard had saved enough to race at full song for the final corners and easily held off the four-time Indianapolis winner.
"Obviously we kept track — Slugger kept telling where Jeff was," Paul Menard said. "When he got to two, three seconds behind us, [Slugger] said, 'Take off.' "
The "take off" sentiment is something that Gordon and other drivers predicted could be the new direction for the Wausau, Wisc., driver's career. Gordon compared it to when he won the first Brickyard 400 in 1994.
"That race changed my life forever, certainly my career has never been the same since," Gordon said. "I think Paul is going to experience that same thing. This will be a big boost for his confidence."
It may also put Menard in the Chase. If NASCAR's playoff were to begin today, Menard, now 14th in the standings, would earn one of the two wildcard spots.
Of course, winning a race doesn't guarantee success in the next. The larger impact may be on Menard's reputation to those who don't know him inside and out of the NASCAR garage.
"I mean, we're winners in Sprint Cup. That's a big deal. To do it at Indy — even bigger deal," Menard said. "[You] can't change people's opinions. They're going to say what they want to say. That's fine with me. We'll celebrate this; we'll enjoy it."
They've won a lot of races, but never a Brickyard 400. And now, Paul Menard has.
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