News & Media


For Menard, a validating victory at Indianapolis

August 01, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Drivers throughout garage excited for Menard and his first victory

When he named Paul Menard as driver of his fourth team prior to this season, Richard Childress knew some would question the decision. After all, he was adding to his championship-contending organization a young driver who had never won on NASCAR's premier circuit -- in fact, he had recorded all of two career top-five finishes to that point -- and was better known for being backed by his father's home-improvement chain, a sponsorship that made the move with him to RCR.

"I caught a lot of flack back early last year when we decided to go with four teams," Childress said. "I've been watching Paul ever since he won the Nationwide race [at Milwaukee in 2006]. 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 came along, we'd win."

Paul Menard leads Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon. (Getty Images)

Breakthrough


Paul Menard turns misfortune into triumph as he scores his first career Cup victory at the Brickyard.

And that situation came along Sunday in one of the biggest races of the NASCAR season, when Menard stretched his final fuel run to a stunning victory in the Brickyard 400. For any driver, it would have been a special moment. For someone like Menard, who's father, John, has long been active in the Indianapolis 500, who roamed the Brickyard as a kid and watched the inaugural NASCAR race here from a suite in Turn 1, it was a dream realized.

"I just know what it means to Paul," said friend Regan Smith, who finished third. "I know how hard he's worked. He's one of the really good close friends that I have on this circuit, [who I] always go to if I have a question or need something. 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'll tell you in a minute he couldn't be happier. It's cool. You only get one chance to get your first win. It's a special thing, especially when you do it here."

Sunday's outcome may go a long way toward altering the perception many in the grandstand have of Menard, a quiet upper Midwesterner who lets his race car do the talking for him, and has shown glimpses all season that he was ready to break through. He was in the top 12 in points for the first eight weeks of the year, scored top-fives at Bristol and Texas, looked like a different driver surrounded by the personnel and equipment of a super team like RCR.

But still, there was that sponsorship, those nagging questions over whether he got where he was because of his father. As long as Menard's backs Menard's car, they may never go away. But Sunday, surrounded by teammates and family members, passing a bottle of champagne around a trophy topped by a giant gold brick, he didn't seem to care.

"I mean, we're winners in Sprint Cup. That's the big deal. To do it at Indy, even bigger deal," said Menard, now 14th in points and very much alive for a wild-card Chase berth. "You 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. We're going to work hard for Pocono, try to make the Chase. Whatever they say, they say. Can't control it. I know what I'm capable of. I have total belief in Richard, [crew chief] Slugger [Labbe] and everybody. I think we can win a couple more."

The perception that Menard somehow had it easy or was handed his position doesn't fly with those in the Sprint Cup garage area who know the native of Eau Claire, Wis. Sunday was a tough day for many competitors, after fuel-mileage gambles turned the race upside down and ruined what had shaped up as promising finishes for some. Even so, there were still plenty of kind words about NASCAR's latest first-time winner.

"He's been running great all year long," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., Menard's former teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "He's a good talent. He's got a really, really good crew chief in Slugger, and it's a matter of time. He had been doing well in the points earlier in the season and like us, had some ill fortunes, and he's done great. It's a good program for him."

Tony Stewart agreed. "I am really happy for Paul Menard," he said. "Paul's been around this place for a long time. He's been here since he was a kid. It couldn't have happened to a better guy. That is a pretty deserving win right there. I'm happy for him getting his first one that way."

"I am really happy for Paul Menard. It couldn't have happened to a better guy. That is a pretty deserving win right there."

--TONY STEWART

"I've worked with Paul as a teammate," added Carl Edwards of Menard, who made a number of Nationwide starts earlier in his career for the Roush Fenway team. "He's a great race car driver. He's a better person. I really like Paul a lot. I couldn't be happier for him. If we couldn't win the race, I can't think of a better person."

The least surprised person Sunday might have been Menard himself, who always thought his familiarity with Indianapolis would make it a prime candidate for his first career victory. It might not have seemed that way, though, the Monday after last season's finale at Homestead, when Menard and Labbe teamed up to comprise the core of a fourth RCR team that to that point didn't have a dedicated transporter or a single race car. "Nobody bellyached," Labbe remembered. The vehicle Menard won in Sunday was the No. 27 team's 15th new car this year, according to the crew chief.

"They didn't give us hand-me-downs," Labbe added. "Richard let us hire the people we needed. Got a great pit crew. He let us do our job. We run the race teams like we own them, manage our money, try to make sure we don't waste money. But we take what we need to be successful, and [Sunday] was living proof of that."

And there was no more perfect setting than Indianapolis, where a young Menard watched Gordon claim the first NASCAR victory at the celebrated race track 18 years ago, and Sunday held off the same driver to win the event for himself.

"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," Gordon said. "Some ridiculous thing where every year he was here for the 500, knowing what his dad has done here in IndyCars. I don't think there's anybody that could appreciate a win, even if it is his first win. 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. I think a lot of people are. 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."