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Author: Mark W. Theisen
July 31st 2011 -  SPEEDWAY, INDIANA July 31, 2011:   The 18th running of the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came down to a fuel mileage race and at the checkered flag it was Paul Menard holding off the fast closing Jeff Gordon to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at the track that his father and home improvement center magnate, John, tried to win at for 35 years as an Indy car owner and sponsor and a stock car team sponsor.

     Menard thus becomes the first Wisconsin driver to win the Brickyard and joins Dave Marcis, Matt Kenseth, who finished fifth today, and the late Alan Kulwicki as winners in the premier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

     The race started under sunny 90 degree temperature weather with Kasey Kahne jumping from his second starting position to lead pole sitter David Ragan at the end of the first lap and he began to pull away from the rest of the field almost at will building a quick 25 car length lead before the end of the fifth lap.

     By the 10th lap Kahne built a 3.166 second lead over Ragan, A.J. Allmendinger, Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kenseth.

     10 laps later the lead was over 4 seconds as Kahne’s Toyota was the early class of the field and by the 25th lap teams were already preparing for green flag pit stops with Kahne being the first of the top five to stop giving the lead to Gordon who pitted a lap later giving the lead to Kenseth who gave way to Landon Cassill before the lead cycled back to Kahne, who now had a 8 second lead over Gordon after all the stops were completed.

     That huge advantage was wiped out on lap 34 when the yellow flag waived for the first time for debris spotted on the back straightaway.  The top five, having just made a pit stop, elected to stay on the track with the balance of the field coming back into the pits for some fuel only stops while some took two and others all four tires as teams began to plot their race strategy.

     Kahne led Gordon, Johnson, Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya on the restart and was able to keep the talent quartet behind him as the caution came out on lap 51 when David Reutimann hit the SAFER Barrier in turn 3 after a tire came apart as he entered the turn.

    Wholesale pit stops followed as Menard suffered an early race set back after hitting a tire on his pit stop forcing him to restart the race at the end of the longest line of cars.  

     Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had just pitted prior to the caution for Reutimann, emerged as the leader of the race as the running order was shuffled because of various strategies on the pit stops.

     Earnhardt led the race until the 59th lap before Gordon, one of his teammates on the powerful Hendrick Motorsport Team showed the strength of his Chevrolet taking the led with a third Hendrick driver, Johnson right in tow.

     At the halfway junction it was Gordon, Johnson, Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards as Earnhardt fell back because of being out of sequence with the rest on pit stops.

      The second round of green flag pit stops began right after the halfway mark as Johnson and then Menard took turns at leading the race before making their respective stops.  It was Menard’s first ever lap led at Indy.

    When this round was over Gordon was back in front but the yellow quickly came out for debris that again was spotted on the track.  Again it became a battle of strategies’ in the pit with Menard’s crew electing to keep him out on the track and in the clean air that the leader enjoys on this track.

     Menard was followed by Kenseth, Gordon, Montoya and Ragan on the restart and held on to the lead until lap 105 when Kenseth was able to pass him for his first lead in the race.

     Gordon got around Menard quickly but was unable to get around Kenseth as the yellow came out for the fourth time on lap 114 when Kyle Busch hit the outside retaining wall on the back straightaway.

     Brad Keselowski, Jeff Burton, defending Brickyard champion Jamie McMurray and Cassill elected not to pit, Montoya, Ragan, Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Joey Logano took two tires on their stops while the rest of the field took four tires to really jumble the lineup on the restart on lap 118 but those strategies were tossed right out the window on lap 120 when Cassill became the meat in the sandwich between Ragan and Johnson with Cassill spinning to quickly bring out the yellow again.

     Kahne, Kurt Busch, and Edwards had to make pit stops to clean grass of their grill as the trio dove to the inside to avoid the spinning Cassill and thus were relegated to end of the line on the restart on lap 127.

     With 33 laps remaining crew chiefs began calculating fuel mileage and track position as Keselowski led through both cautions.

     Almost immediately cars from Richard Childress Racing of which Menard was a part of, began pitting early to set themselves up for the end of the race with Burton and Harvick setting the tone for the rest of the teams as with each passing lap the top running teams came off the track with Kenseth stopping on lap 133 and Gordon being the last of the leaders to pit on lap 134.

     When all the copy-cat pit stops were done it was Tony Stewart, Brian Vickers, Menard, Martin, McMurray, Greg Biffle, Ragan Smith, Kyle Busch and Bobby Labonte in the top ten. Gordon was 24th after pitting with 26 laps remaining and the only thing clear was that he and Kenseth could go the rest of the race, those in front were all gambling.

     Vickers was the first to fold on his gamble pitting on lap 142 with Stewart following on lap 145 giving the lead to Menard, who was told to start the fuel conservation mode.  The same was true for McMurray and Martin as the trio raced nose to tail around the track but at the same time Gordon was on his march through the field as car after car made pit stops to make it until the end.

     Menard bobbled coming off the fourth turn on lap 151 and lost the lead to McMurray but by lap 156 McMurray was told to back off and save what he could giving the lead back to Menard with four laps to go and Gordon 3.520 seconds behind.

     Gordon closed that gap to 0.725 seconds at the end but could not mount a run on Menard as the checkered flag flew over the field.  Gordon finished second, Smith had enough fuel to take third followed by a sputtering McMurray in 4th.  Kenseth rounded out the top five.

     “I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid,” said Menard.  “My dad has been coming here for 35 years.  This is for my dad.  A lot of emotions right now, I just can’t believe we won Indy.”

     “We (our team) have been working on fuel mileage all season long and going into today I knew we were good with that,” said Menard.  “When Slugger (crew chief Labbe) told me we had run 34 laps early in the race on fuel I was confident we could do it at the end.  He kept me informed me on Jeff’s (Gordon) run through the field and I knew he was coming.  When he got there I was told I could go and I did.  It is just unbelievable!”

      Menard becomes the fourth different first time winner in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series this year and the 14th different overall in the series this year and shows that the level competition has truly escalated and it is clear that teams are more than willing to take that gamble to put them in the season end “Chase” that pits the top 10 in points and the two top winning drivers into the battle for the season title.

     Labbe echoed that sentiment as he talked about Menard’s first win of the season when he said, “We looked at what the others have done and said it was time to do the same.  Our fuel mileage was never a question, it was our asset.  We needed to get our cars to be fast on both long and short runs and today all our work began to pay off.  We’ve built 13 cars this year and now are poised to win more and make the chase.

     Gordon, who was looking to become a five time winner of the Brickyard, was both happy and sad at the end.  “We got to him but I used the car up,” said Gordon.  “I knew I had the fuel to go to the end and with fresher tires I was confident but when I got to Paul (Menard) I got tight and could not pull out to pass.  He had the fresh air and the lead and that is the biggest asset you can have here.”

    “Running behind someone is a big disadvantage,” Gordon continued.  “I was faster than Matt (Kenseth) but I could not pass him.  I thought a big key was when I was able to make that final stop and come out on the track ahead of him.  At that point I though I might have a shot as I was told those in front would all have to stop.  I just kept digging but had nothing left by the time I got to Paul (Menard).

     Gordon could have joined Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher as the only five time event winners at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a win today.

     “If I could not win the race, I was very happy to see Paul win,” said Smith, who himself was a first time winner in the series this year at Darlington.  “We have not been as consistent as we would like this year but to come out of the race in third, here at Indianapolis, is a real plus and perhaps we can build on this finish.”

     “With five laps to go I was told to back out as were really short on fuel,” said McMurray, “and then the left front tire began to vibrate, so I just backed out of the battle and hoped to make it to the end and I did just that.  How much fuel left in the tank is anyone’s guess?”

     Kenseth broke up the Chevrolet stranglehold among the top finishers with his fifth place spot in his Roush Fenway Ford “It was a good run,” said Kenseth.  We were probably the second-best car most of the day.  I think the 24 (Gordon) had the field covered so I’m happy for Paul Menard being a first-time winner and from being from Wisconsin.  It is a shame Jeff didn’t win. They looked so solid and it was fun to race him.  I just wish the race hadn’t come down to fuel mileage.  I don’t like those kinds of races and I don’t think the fans care much for them either, but they are a part of the sport we have to deal with.”

     Stewart, Biffle Martin, Keselowski and Kyle Busch rounded out the top five in the jumbled finish of the race but to a person they were all happy with the outcome of the race as they all view Menard as a deserving first time winner.

     On had to watch his son win was father, John, who beamed from ear to ear even an hour after the race ended and the interviews were done.  “For Paul to get his first win here is unbelievable.  He’s a good boy and followed this place all his life.  I can’t believe it.  I almost fell off the pit box at the end of the race my heart was going 1,000 per minutes.  It is so fulfilling to finally win here after these years.”

     Menard brought his sponsorship dollars to Childress this year with the hope that what was achieved today would actually happen.  “He (Childress) puts all the sponsorship money into the team,” said the senior Menard.  “Cars, engines, engineers, and people!  I saw that with his other teams and he did the same for me.  It’s exciting to be part of the tradition at Richard Childress Racing and I hope we can all build on today.”

     Childress Racing now has won the Brickyard three times, the first with the late Dale Earnhardt, then Harvick and now Menard.  Team owner, Richard Childress said, “Each win has come eight years apart.  Its exciting to win each and every time I just hope we can do it quicker the next time!”

     Series Sponsor Sprint instituted the Sprint Summer Showdown that commenced with today Brickyard 400.  Menard will join the winners of the next four series races at Atlanta and should of those winners also win Atlanta they will claim a One Million Dollar prize for themselves, a lucky fan and the Habitat for Humanity charity in the process.  Menard now has a leg up on the rest as the series moves to Pocono Pennsylvania next Sunday.