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Menard Finally Opened Victory Lane at Indy for Family with Magical Brickyard Win

For any race car driver that has competed on the oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, their dream is to come out of the fourth turn on the final lap of the race and see the checkered flag waving with their car in the lead. It’s a moment that Paul Menard long dreamed of when he first came to the Indianapolis 500 when his father, John, was a team owner beginning in 1982 and ending in 2003.

That’s the position in which Menard found himself during the 2011 Brickyard 400 as he came out of Turn 4 on the final lap in the lead. But ironically, Menard missed the moment he had long dreamed of.

“I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t see the checkered flag,” Menard said. “I was looking down at my fuel gauge. Finally when they said over the radio that is the checkered, I looked up and was already past the start/finish line. I wish I had seen it. It’s one of my biggest regrets was not coming off Turn 4 and looking at the checkered.

“I was crying down the backstretch. There were a lot of emotions coming through.”

Menard’s signature moment as a NASCAR Cup Series driver came after a tension-filled last stint of the race when he was in fuel conservation mode. For the team’s strategy to pay off, Menard had to save enough fuel to allow him to race to the victory in the final laps.

When Jamie McMurray pitted on Lap 156, Menard’s Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was in the lead with four laps to go and four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon charging from behind in his Chevrolet.

With so much to be aware of in the closing laps of the race, Menard was more concerned with how much fuel was left in the tank than what lap he was on.

“The way the ending played out for us we were actually involved in the last caution,” Menard said. “Landon Cassill spun, and we got a little damage on the fender and wound up pitting. A lot of the leaders stayed out. We pitted, and as soon as the jack dropped, Slugger Labbe (crew chief) told me to save fuel.

“We saved a whole run up until three or four laps to go when Jeff Gordon got to within two seconds of us. We reached a decision time where we were either going to run hard and run out of fuel and hope we saved enough up until that point or we were going to go down swinging. We weren’t going to continue saving and give up the lead. The car was fast enough to match Jeff’s lap times at the end. The final lap of the race we were quicker than he was. We had a good car – the strategy played into our favor to get up there and showcase it.

“It fell into our hands. If that caution hadn’t come out or if we didn’t get any damage in that caution, we probably would have done it. It’s one of those things that fell into our lap, and we had an opportunity and had to figure out how to make the best of it. The opportunity was to save as much as we can and race the last couple of laps and that is how it worked out. We didn’t plan in that way, but that is how it fell in our lap.”

It was a classic high risk-versus-high reward scenario for Menard and his RCR crew. And when it paid off, Menard became the first driver to earn his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a long time coming for young Menard, who made it to victory lane in his 167th Cup start. But it was an even longer time coming for his father, John – 29 years, in fact.

John Menard first came to the Indianapolis 500 in 1982 with driver Herm Johnson, who started 14th and finished ninth that year. In 1983, Johnson qualified Menard’s entry ninth and finished eighth. John Menard would not enter another car at Indianapolis until 1990 when Jim Crawford and Gary Bettenhausen were in the Team Menard entries. Menard would have cars in every Indy 500 from 1990-2003 and had some of the fastest cars in the history of the race with the legendary Buick V-6 and later Menard V-6 engines.

Scott Brayton won the pole for Menard in both 1995 and 1996, and Greg Ray put the Team Menard car on the pole in 2000.

But in the Indy 500, Menard’s cars could not come close to the success it achieved on Pole Day. Al Unser’s third place in 1992 was the best finish Menard ever achieved in the Indianapolis 500, with Robby Gordon finishing fourth in 1999.

The Menard family had invested many years and millions of dollars in the quest to get to Victory Circle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but had failed until Paul won the 2011 Brickyard 400.

That is why Paul Menard was so emotional on the cool-down lap after the race.

“There are so many great pieces to the process of winning at Indianapolis,” Menard said. “One of the great ones is riding around in the Pace Car after winning with my dad and Richard Childress. Kissing the bricks is right up there. A lot of traditions that I remember as a kid – the winner of the Indy 500 would always ride in the back of the Pace Car and do a celebratory lap. That was the coolest moment for me.

“In Victory Circle at Indianapolis, you are surrounded by the fans. That is a unique victory lane. It’s a unique track where there are fans on both sides of the track. In Victory Circle, you are surrounded by them.”

And Paul was able to give something back to his proud father with the victory.

“It was Paul’s day, but in a way our whole family has been at the Speedway for so long; we all tried very hard to win here,” John Menard said. “Paul came down here as a very little guy. I remember smuggling him into the garage area because he was too young to be in there. He would be sitting on the workbench in the back behaving himself. He had to be quiet or the Yellow Shirts (Speedway security) would throw him out.

“He wanted to be a race car driver.

“I’m just a proud father right now. I think of him as my little boy, but he’s a full-grown man and one I’m very proud of.”

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