Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been like a second home to Paul Menard, who drives the No. 27 Menards-sponsored Chevrolet - what else? - for Richard Childress Racing. The 30-year-old Wisconsin native practically grew up at the legendary auto racing venue, and on Sunday he captured his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win at the track of his childhood dreams, beating the field in one of NASCAR's premiere races, the Brickyard 400.
Menard, who started 15th, took the lead in the race for the first time on a green-flag restart on lap 97 following the second caution flag of the day, and regained the lead for only the second time when two-time Brickyard 400 winner Tony Stewart was forced to pit late in the race to take on fuel with just 13 laps remaining. Last-year's winner, Jamie McMurray jumped in front of Menard for several laps, and for a short time it looked as if McMurray's No. 1 Bass Pro Chevrolet might hold on to make it two in a row at Indianapolis and take his first checkered flag of the season.
It was questionable, however, if McMurray, who grew up in southeastern Missouri in Joplin, would have enough fuel to make it to the end. Because the No. 1 car was trying to conserve fuel, Menard was able to retake the lead, and held off the charging Jeff Gordon, himself a four-time winner at the Brickyard, to the finish.
Regan Smith, who won the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway in May, finished third behind Gordon. It was Smith's fourth top-five finish of 2011 after having no top-tens in his career coming into this season. McMurray was fourth, his best finish of the year, and Matt Kenseth, in the No. 17 car of Roush-Fenway Racing, came in fifth.
In 166 previous Sprint Cup races, Menard had six top-five finishes to his name, but no wins. There is no other place he would rather get that first big career win, he said afterwards as he was swarmed by reporters on his way to victory lane.
"It's a special win because of my family's long history at Indianapolis (Motor Speedway)," the Wisconsin native said. "My dad (John Menard Jr., founder of Menards, a major Midwestern home improvement retail store) has tried to win this race (as a race sponsor and former IndyCar team owner) for 35 years. This is for my dad.
"There's a lot of emotion right now," the young Menard said. "We've been trying to win this race since I was a youngster. The team kept telling me where Jeff was, but we were able to hold him off in clean air."
Runner-up Gordon, who led the field for 20 laps up to the midpoint of Sunday's race, picked up 12 seconds on Menards with 12 laps to go, but couldn't get it done in the end. "It sure was nice to run that good. We tried to push the kid all the way to the end," the four-time Sprint Cup champion said.As they have so often in the Sprint Cup Series this year, Clint Bowyer, who calls Emporia, Kan., home, and Columbia, Mo.'s, Carl Edwards, finished back-to-back in the Brickyard 400. Bowyer, who has two top-ten finishes in his five previous races at Indy, was 13th. Edwards was the next one across the signature all-brick finish line, in 14th place, More important, he was able to hold on to his lead in the drivers' standings by 11 points over Jimmie Johnson and 12 points over Kevin Harvick.
Interestingly, the average finishes of Edwards and Bowyer at Indianapolis is 10th and 11th, respectively.
Bowyer is currently in 12th place in the standings, and without any Sprint Cup wins in 2011, is in danger of missing out on one of the two wild-card spots in the season-ending Chase for the Cup field if he doesn't climb into the top ten over the next six Cup races. The driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet is currently 32 points back of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who holds down the last qualifying position in the race for the Chase.
The Sprint Cup Series will make it second stop of the season at Pocono Raceway next Sunday for the Good Sam RV Insurance 500.