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Ingram: Back Home Again At The Brickyard

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 31 2011

"We're going to enjoy celebrating this victory, " Paul Menard said after winning the Brickyard 400. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Indianapolis – Here’s to cheeseheads at Indy.

Paul Menard and his father John, the Wisconsinites who never seemed to get the job done at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or in the Sprint Cup, pulled off a stunning victory in the Brickyard 400 on Sunday.

Driving with sponsorship from his father’s company in the Richard Childress Racing Chevy, Paul Menard first outfoxed Jeff Gordon and then out-raced him.

“I’ve always been a low-key guy,” said the 30-year-old Menard, who kept his cool by saving fuel for the majority of this final stint, knowing that guys loaded with full tanks of gas and riding on fresh Goodyear tires were hunting him down as the laps clicked off.

It wasn’t that long ago, shortly before he began driving stock cars on the short tracks of Wisconsin, that Menard watched Gordon win the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 aboard the DuPont Chevy. At that time Gordon was a wunderkind that many people doubted was worth the bonus team owner Rick Hendrick had paid him to snatch him from the clutches of Ford.

This year, Menard watched Gordon in his rear-view mirror as the laps wound down with the race on the line. “He was catching us two or three seconds a lap,” said Menard, who got the word from crew chief Slugger Labbe that he had enough fuel to run flat out to the finish

Paul Menard has watched a lot of races at Indy. On Sunday, he starred in one. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

with just three laps remaining. Menard concentrated so hard that he didn’t notice the race was over. “Was that the checkered?” he radioed his crew chief in a situation when most drivers are screaming about winning.

Menard also kept his cool when contact early in the race with contender and fellow Wisconsinite Matt Kenseth might have ended his day early. A penalty resulting from a crew member stumbling on pit road dropped Menard to 38th before a long stint of green and his good fuel mileage put him back into the thick of things on a high-speed and demanding track where the pressure seems to leverage already high speeds.

Then a caution flew following a four-wide pass on the backstretch, led by Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson in moves typical of a full-contact event, one that demonstrated how much a Brickyard trophy is valued. Labbe saw a window of opportunity and began his strategy of running what turned out to be 34 laps of green without a pit stop.

His driver stayed focused just as Paul minded his Ps and Qs as an under-aged kid smuggled into the Indy garage by his father. “He had to sit at the back of the garage on a work bench and keep quiet or else the yellow shirts would have thrown him out,” said John Menard, who first began entering Indy cars at the Speedway in 1982.

As a team owner and sponsor, building supply magnate John Menard spent two decades,

Richard Childress and Paul Menard get ready to kiss the bricks. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

not to mention many millions, trying to win the Indy 500. Menard invested in engines such as the Buick V-6 turbo and the Old Aurora, and drivers like a young Tony Stewart, who finished sixth at the Brickyard on Sunday when his fuel mileage gambit fell short.

Menard’s Indy car teams won three poles at Indy and a season’s championship with Stewart, but never the big prize at the big racing plant at 16th and Georgetown Rd. “We didn’t have any success with those engines,” he said, “but by God we were fast.”

One of those pole days turned tragic when Menard’s driver Scott Brayton suffered a fatal accident at Indy during practice after recording one of the fastest pole-winning times in the Brickyard’s history. Menard’s team was so dominant in qualifying, Stewart moved over to the pole in another Menard entry powered by a Buick V-6 turbo. But as was too often the case, Stewart’s Buick blew up.

Though it all, Paul Menard has been one of the biggest fans of his father’s teams and the hallowed ground at the Speedway. And he’s been one of the hardest working drivers in NASCAR, where he was often considered the young man riding his father’s well-monied coattails as he carried the family firm’s sponsorship from team to team. Last year he rode with Richard Petty Motorsports. The year before that he was with Yates Racing. This year, he moved to the Childress squad.

“People are going to think whatever they want to think,” said Paul in his usual matter of fact delivery. “You can’t change people’s opinions. We’re going to enjoy celebrating this victory.”

Even in a year when 21-year-old Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 and in a year when

Paul Menard's crew celebrates after the race. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

unsung Regan Smith won the Southern 500 at Darlington, nobody would have bet on Paul Menard to win the Brickyard 400. Until he held off Gordon on the final lap. “This was not a fluke,” said Gordon, who ran the tires off his Hendrick Motorsport Chevy and then fell short. “They took a big risk and I couldn’t have passed him at the finish.”

Gordon, who moved to nearby Pittsboro, Indiana as a teenager, said he could identify with Menard’s situation of winning his first race in 167 Sprint Cup starts on familiar and consecrated ground. “It was a dream to win at Indy,” said Gordon. “That changed my life forever.”

In terms of the big picture, John Menard said his investment in motorsports over the years has paid dividends for the family business. But the biggest dividend was clear on Sunday and he confessed his heart was running “1,000 miles an hour” shortly after the checkered flag fell.

But the father, known for a sometimes offbeat view of the world, was well composed by time he joined team owner Childress and crew chief Labbe in the media interview room. As is typical, the winning driver had not yet arrived in the interview room due to post-race obligations. Asked about his emotions after finally winning at Indy, father John Menard kept his cool, too. “My first thoughts are,” he joked, “Where the heck is that son of mine?”

He was in Victory Lane, where Paul Menard, who literally started off bench racing at Indy so many years ago, looked quite at home.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, July 31 2011
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