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Paul Menard breaks through, kisses the bricks

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Jul. 31, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS – Paul Menard added his name to two lists on Sunday, both equally impressive.

His win in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 made him just the 11th driver to win the prestigious NASCAR race at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He also joined another select and somewhat surprising group. Menard, Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith all collected their first Cup wins in this season’s three biggest races.

Bayne shocked the NASCAR world with his season-opening victory at Daytona, Smith held off Carl Edwards to win at Darlington and Menard ended his family’s frustration at IMS by besting four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon on Sunday.

First-time winners had never swept NASCAR biggest events and in the 30-plus years Menard’s father, John, has fielded Indianapolis 500 entries, he had never been to Victory Lane.

“You know, I’ve been coming here since I was a kid and my daddy has been trying to win this race for 35 years, so this is for my dad,” an emotional Paul Menard said in Victory Lane. “I can’t believe we won Indy.”

While growing up in Eau Claire, Wisc., Paul Menard was a frequent visitor to IMS with his father.

“I didn't miss the Indy 500 from 1989 to 2003; I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Just a really special place for my family and myself,” he said.

“Indianapolis – this is the greatest race track in the world.”

John Menard shared in his son’s special moment.

“It’s Paul’s day. But in a way, our whole family has been at the speedway for so long. We all tried very hard,” he said.

John Menard’s best Indy 500 finish as an owner was a third place in 1992 with driver Al Unser Sr.

Given Paul Menard’s up-and-down season at Richard Childress Racing, he wasn’t a favorite entering the race weekend. But this NASCAR season produced a variety of different and first-time winners, so Menard’s win should not be a surprise.

As has become common the last several months, Sunday’s race turned on fuel mileage.

Menard was among the drivers who pitted twice during the race’s final caution to top off the fuel tank. When the race restarted on Lap 127 of 160, Menard wasn’t even in the top 10.

However, several teams that had not stopped during the final caution were forced to pit under green to get enough fuel to finish.

Slowly, Menard made his way to the front and took the lead on Lap 145 when Tony Stewart had to pit for fuel.

Jamie McMurray took the lead away for five laps, during which Menard backed off and saved his fuel. Then, with four laps remaining, he went back around McMurray and led to the finish.

“We had a good meeting on Monday and I said, ‘Look, guys, if we're going to make the Chase, we're going to have to get risky.’ Seems to be a trend in the Cup Series, that people take gambles on pit road,” said Menard’s crew chief, Richard Labbe.

“It was our turn to get aggressive. I told Paul he had to support me. He supported me 100 percent today. Three times he had an occasion where he could have said 'No, I don’t want to do that.' But he did.”

There was still work to be done.

Gordon had plenty of fuel and had made his way from 14th to second over 32 laps. And the four-time champion had his eyes on Menard and a record fifth win at the Brickyard.

But Menard’s fuel held out and Gordon never got a chance to make a pass.

“Every time I got to a car that was saving fuel, they kind of held me up a little bit and made it a little more difficult for me to pass, so I knew were weren’t going to quite get to Paul. It was really about him running out of fuel,” Gordon said.

“I don’t think there is anybody in this garage area that appreciates a win here at the Brickyard more than Paul.”

Smith finished third, Jamie McMurray was fourth and Matt Kenseth finished fifth. Series points leader Carl Edwards finished 14th and holds an 11-point advantage over Jimmie Johnson.

The win moved Menard into 14th in the standings and he and Denny Hamlin would currently be the drivers eligible for the Chase through this year’s new “wild card” entries, based on wins.

“The Sprint Cup Series is just so competitive, so hard to pass, everybody runs so close together, you got to gamble,” Menard said. “Very rarely do you see a car just check out and win the race.”

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