Son-of-a-gun, Menard wins
But success came slowly. In four full seasons, the low-key Menard had no wins and only two top-five finishes, and that led to whispers about whether Menard had his seat merely because of daddy’s money.
This year, though, veteran NASCAR team owner Richard Childress—whose drivers have included the legendary Dale Earnhardt—saw something in Menard and hired him as the fourth driver on his Cup team.
On Sunday, Menard validated Childress’ decision.
Menard passed defending winner Jamie McMurray with four laps left and then held off a charging Jeff Gordon to win the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Menard’s first Cup victory in 167 career starts.
That the win came at Indy was especially sweet for Menard, because his father John and their Wisconsin-based family business, the Menards home-improvement chain, had owned and sponsored cars in the Indianapolis 500 for years without a win.
“It’s a special place for us,” said Paul Menard, 30, who spent hours hanging around the speedway’s garage as a kid. “Here we are in Victory Lane. It’s unbelievable.”
Gordon, the only four-time winner of the Brickyard 400, finished second in front of an estimated 138,000 on a scorching hot day in central Indiana. Regan Smith was third, McMurray fourth and Matt Kenseth fifth.
Menard’s win also was notable because he became the fourth driver this season to win his first Cup race.
The others were Smith at Darlington, Trevor Bayne in the February race at Daytona and David Ragan at the summer Daytona race.
In addition, Menard’s win lifted him to 14th in the points standings and thus boosted his prospects for making NASCAR’s 10-race title playoff, the Chase for the Cup, which starts Sept. 18.
The top 10 drivers in points qualify for the Chase, as do two wild-card drivers who have the most wins among those who are 11th to 20th in points.
As often happens at the Brickyard 400, the finish came down to those teams with the most judicious fuel strategies. In the closing stages, many of the leaders either had slowed ever so slightly to conserve fuel or make late pit stops, ending their chances of winning.
But Menard’s team, led by crew chief Richard “Slugger” Labbe, had put Menard in what they thought—or at least hoped—was a solid fuel position. And with 35 laps left in the 160-lap race, they told Menard to go for it.
“It was a gamble we were willing to take,” Labbe said. “If we’re going to make the Chase, we’re going to have to get risky. It was our turn to get aggressive.”
Gordon said he could tell Menard was holding nothing back as the laps wound down at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis track.
“Paul had saved enough (fuel) to where he could go back to a full pace,” Gordon said. “There at the end, I couldn’t have passed him.”
Gordon also said Menard’s victory was “not a fluke.”
“They took a big risk” by not pitting for fuel “but they had to beat a lot of other guys that were trying to save fuel,” Gordon said.
After Menard and his team followed tradition by kissing the yard of bricks at the start-finish line—the bricks are left from the century-old speedway’s former surface—Menard was reminded of his detractors.
“You can’t change people’s opinions; they’re going to say what they want to say,” Menard said. “I know what I’m capable of. We’ll celebrate this and enjoy it.”
Childress also recalled how he “caught a lot of flak” when he added Menard to his team—which also includes Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer—but said Menard was “really good. He doesn’t tear equipment up. He’s consistent. He proved today what he’s made of.”
The race largely was free of major crashes and Kasey Kahne showed early strength, leading a race-high 48 laps in his No. 4 Red Bull Toyota. He finished 18th.
Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. also led seven laps before finishing 16th and Jimmie Johnson—Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, the reigning five-time Cup champion and a three-time winner at Indy—finished 19th.
Last updated: 6:14 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012