Paul Menard kisses the bricks, pulls off upset

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - July 31, 2011

Paul Menard has heard all the jealous jeering throughout his unremarkable racing career.

On Sunday, he added a new name to that list: Brickyard 400 winner.

Menard became NASCAR's newest first-time winner Sunday with an upset victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track steeped in tradition for his family.

Yes, it came in a car sponsored by the hardware chain owned by his billionaire father. But nobody dared to deny that Menard earned the win and had worked hard to finally make it to Victory Lane in his 167th start at NASCAR's highest level.

True to his low-key and reserved personality even as he crossed the finish line, Menard had no desire to shove the win in the face of his critics.

"We're winners in Sprint Cup. That's the big deal. To do it at Indy, even bigger deal," he said. "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. Whatever they say, they say. Can't control it.

"I know what I'm capable of."

Menard has bounced around NASCAR the past few years as teams were eager to land John Menard's sponsorship money but failed to spend it on winning race cars. Going into this year, Menard's only victory was in 2006 in the second-tier Nationwide Series.

Richard Childress was another car owner willing to cash the checks from the Menard's chain, and he signed both driver and sponsor for this season. But Richard Childress Racing was on an upswing, and the owner believed his new driver just needed a competitive car to prove his worth.

Although Sunday was Menard's first win, he and crew chief Slugger Labbe had been steadily improving all season and his four top-five finishes this season double the amount he had in his first four seasons in Cup.

"I caught a lot of flak back early last year when we decided to (hire Menard)," Childress said. "I've been watching Paul ever since he won the Nationwide race. He doesn't tear equipment up. He's consistent. He's really good. Got a cool head on him in all situations. I knew if the right situation come along, we'd win."

It came Sunday in a race that was at first dominated by drivers with the strongest cars. But when debris cautions jumbled up the pit cycles, the Brickyard 400 turned into a race of pure strategy.

Menard and his RCR team played it brilliantly, as crew chief Slugger Labbe had Menard give the lead up to defending race winner Jamie McMurray in an effort to save fuel. Certain McMurray didn't have enough gas to make it to the finish, Labbe then turned his attention to Jeff Gordon, who fell 12 seconds behind after a late fuel stop but was slicing his way through the field.

Labbe gave Menard the green light with just over three laps to go. He passed McMurray for the lead, and was silent as he circled the track with Labbe giving constant updates on Gordon's lap times. Gordon ran out of time, and Menard cruised to his first career victory in his 167th career start.

Menard's only other victory came in the second-tier Nationwide Series in 2006.

Quiet and reserved by nature, that didn't change as Menard crossed the finish line. As his team screamed over the radio, Menard quietly asked, "that's the checkered, right?"

Atop the pit box, his billionaire father was far less reserved.

"I've been waiting to kiss these bricks for such a long time. I'm ready!" John Menard yelled.

John Menard, owner of the family's Midwest-based hardware chain who has a decades-long involvement in racing, was ecstatic and seemingly near tears. He fielded cars for years in the IndyCar Series, and suffered his own Indianapolis 500 heartbreak as a car owner. He entered 34 cars in the Indy 500 from 1982 through 2003, won three poles but never finished higher than third, in 1992 with Al Unser driving.

"I've been coming here since I was a little kid, my dad tried to win this race for 35 years, so this is for my dad," Menard said. "A lot of emotions right now. I went to every Indy 500 from 1989 to 2003, I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in '94, for my family and for myself, Indianapolis is a very special place."

"He's a good boy," John Menard said before racing to Victory Lane to embrace his son.

Menard's victory Sunday continued the trend of first-time winners this season in NASCAR's crown jewel events. Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500, Regan Smith won at Darlington Raceway and David Ragan won earlier this month at Daytona.

Gordon settled for second, but didn't mind losing to Menard, who he had talked to just this week about the family history at Indy. "We were talking about him coming here as a kid with his family I think from like, I don't know, late `80s or something all the way to 2000, some ridiculous thing where every year he was here for the 500," Gordon said. "Knowing what his dad has done here in IndyCars ... I think he's in awe right now.

"I went and saw him. His eyes, he's like a deer in headlights. I'm so happy for him. It's one thing to get your first win here, but it's another when you can appreciate how special it is to win here. I think Paul certainly has that."

Smith, who picked up his first win this season at Darlington, was third for yet another big finish in a crown jewel race. Smith had never before scored a top-10 in NASCAR's top series, but now has them in the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400.

Like Gordon, Smith was more focused on his close friend Menard, who is scheduled to be a member of Smith's wedding party later this year.

"I just know what it means to Paul. I know how hard he's worked," Smith said. "He always talks about coming up here. He always talks about how much he loves this place. I know if he had to highlight one race to get his first win, I'm sure he'd tell you in a minute he couldn't be happier.

"You only get one chance to get your first win. It's a special thing, especially when you do it here."

McMurray took fourth as Chevrolets took the top four spots. Matt Kenseth was fifth in a Ford and Tony Stewart, a two-time Brickyard winner, was sixth.

Stewart, who led late but had to stop for gas, once drove for John Menard and was complimentary in defeat.

"I'm really happy for Paul Menard," he said. "Paul's been around this place for a long time, been here since he was a kid. It couldn't have happened to a better guy. It's a pretty deserving win right there. I'm happy for him."

Greg Biffle was seventh, while Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch rounded out the top 10.

For Menard, the win lifted him five spots in the standings to 14th, putting him in contention for a wild card into the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. The final two spots in the field will go to drivers ranked 11th or lower who have the most victories. The two currently in position? Menard and Denny Hamlin, who is 11th in the points.

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