Race Weekend Central

Paul Menard Wins 2011 Brickyard 400

Paul Menard finally fulfilled his father’s dream of 35 years, winning at Indianapolis. Menard’s father John has sponsored and owned open-wheel cars that have competed at the Brickyard for years and, while he frequently had the fastest car at the track, he never had the one that was the first over the finish line. Sunday (July 31), Menard made his fuel load in his car last until the 160th lap and held off a charging Jeff Gordon to claim not only his family’s first victory at Indianapolis, but also the first win of his Sprint Cup career.

Menard was asked in the post race press conference if this win would be more gratifying because people have always held his sponsorship deal against him.

“We’re winners in Sprint Cup and that’s a big deal,” Menard said. “To do it at Indy is even a bigger deal. You can’t change people’s opinions and that’s OK with me. We’re going to celebrate this and we’re going to work hard for Pocono.”

In a race that featured a myriad of fuel strategies at the end, Menard was the best at saving his gas until the end. Gordon took the checkered flag second with plenty of gas, but tires that had been worn out by his charge back through the field.

Regan Smith came close to putting the second crown jewel race trophy of the year on his mantel but settled for third position. Jamie McMurray was also on a fuel conservation strategy and had to settle for a fourth-place finish in order to make his gas last until the end. Matt Kenseth had a strong car most of the day but simply ran out of time, eventually rounding out the top five.

Kasey Kahne started off the event by pulling out to a large lead and maintaining it through most of the first 51 laps of the race. Kahne led 48 laps, only relinquishing the top spot for three laps during a round of green flag pit stops from lap 25 through lap 28. Kahne finally lost the lead to Dave Blaney and eventually Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the second caution of the event for David Reutimann hitting the wall hard thanks to a blown tire in turn 3.

While Earnhardt led when the race went back to green, there was no doubt who the Most Popular Driver in Indiana is when Gordon passed him for the lead on lap 60 and the crowd erupted. Gordon led through the midway point when he pitted for fuel, relinquishing the lead to Jimmie Johnson for a lap on a round of green-flag pit stops. Menard led for the first time on the next lap before Gordon resumed the lead as Menard pitted for fuel.

Caution flew again for debris on lap 95 and Menard decided to stay out, leading on the restart until lap 105 when Kenseth caught him in turn four and the two made contact thanks to a miscommunication between Menard and his spotter. Kenseth backed off and let Menard gather himself before passing him on the front straight and assuming the point. Another debris caution on lap 115 started the strategy madness that would alter the complexion of the entire race. Brad Keselowski stayed out on the caution to grab the lead.

The entire complexion of the race was changed on lap 121 when David Ragan got together with Landon Cassill at the end of the backstretch. Cassill spun and the whole field scattered. Multiple drivers went through the grass and Kahne spun while trying to avoid the No. 51. Much of the field pitted for tires, fuel and grille cleaning. Those teams were borderline on making it to the end of the race. The drivers who stayed out would have to pit shortly after the restart.

The merry-go-round at the lead of the pack began when Keselowski pitted for fuel. Over the next several laps Clint Bowyer, Gordon, Ragan and Tony Stewart all took turns at the front. When Stewart came in for fuel on lap 145, Menard grabbed the top spot and held it for all but five of the remaining laps as the conserved fuel and then held off Gordon for the win. McMurray did get past him for five laps as he made a run by Menard while both of them were conserving fuel at lap 152.

Gordon was one of the two most dominant cars in the race and was the fastest car on the track at the end of the race but he wore out his tires by the time he caught up to Menard which left him unable to pass and relegated to a second-place finish.

“I knew, shortly after that last pit stop, that there were some guys that were going to try to stretch it on fuel and all I could do was run as hard as I could to put pressure on them and hope that I got there in time,” Gordon said. “We got there just a little bit short. Paul did a great job saving fuel because when I got there, even Regan [Smith] and other guys, they were still pretty much checking up when I got there. It was easy to get by them. But Paul had saved enough to where he could go back to a full pace. By that time, my car was just too tight behind him.”

Smith was happy with the fact that, if he couldn’t win, it was one of his best friends in the series.

“I certainly can’t be disappointed with third, and in particular when somebody like Paul wins. I don’t have very many close friends on this circuit but he’s one of them. He was at my victory celebration and I plan on being at his tonight or tomorrow, whenever it is.”

Menard’s father John was also in the media center for the press conference. Asked about the impact of this win he put it in context for Menard and his family. “This is Paul’s day but in a way, our family has been at the Speedway for so long. We used to sneak Paul in because he was too young to be in the garage but he was always interested in being a race car driver. I’m just a proud papa.”

McMurray, who Menard passed for the win on lap 156, faded to fourth at the finish. Kenseth rounded out the top five.

Stewart was forced to pit for fuel with 15 laps to go, but rallied to score a sixth-place finish, just ahead of Greg Biffle. Mark Martin ran a strong race, but his fuel supply ran dry in turn 3 on the last lap, which dropped him to an eighth-place finish. Keselowski recovered from his pit stop with 30 laps to go to finish ninth. Rounding out the top 10 was Kyle Busch, who had a decent run going in the race before a pit road mishap with Stewart cost him quite a bit of track position.

Next weekend, the Sprint Cup Series makes a return trip to Pocono Raceway for the Good Sam RV Insurance 500.


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