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Another big NASCAR upset, this time it's Paul Menard winning the Brickyard 400

  Paul Menard at the finish line, in his first NASCAR Sprint Cup tour victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Paul Menard!
   Yes, it was yet another gas mileage finish on the NASCAR tour, but Menard's narrow victory over fast-closing Jeff Gordon was tense enough to make this Brickyard 400, the 18th running at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, something quite special indeed….particular for the Menard family, a legend at this track.
   "This is for my dad. A lot of emotions right now," Menard said, with a nod to his father John, after his first NASCAR Sprint Cup tour victory.

"I've been coming here for 30 years. I can't believe we won Indy. This is a real special place for my family."
   Crew chief Slugger Labbe made the gambling call to ask Menard to stretch his fuel the last 35 laps, about five laps further at this 2-1/2-mile track than anyone really expected. They made their final stop, routinely with everyone else, under the final yellow, with about 90 miles to go in the three-hour race.
   The final green came out on lap 125 of the 160-lapper.
   However Menard and 14 others were trying to pull the upset by stretching fuel. Gordon on the other hand played the more conservative strategy, like most of the day's front runners, by pitting under green a few laps after the restart, at the anticipated fuel mileage window at lap 130, with 75 miles to go.
   Menard took the lead when the front runners pitted. He gave it up for a while to another gambler, Jamie McMurray, but Menard retook the lead with four laps to go, after conserving enough fuel by then for Labbe to let him off the leash.
   However Gordon had been running nearly a second a lap quicker than Menard, and Gordon was closing fast.
   But Menard managed to hold Gordon at bay the final two laps and won by half a second, about 12 lengths.

  Paul Menard leading runnerup Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin in the final moments of Sunday's Brickyard 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   It was not only Menard's first win on the Cup tour, after a somewhat erratic career so far, but it comes at a track where the Menard family has been so prominent, sponsoring Indy-cars.
   John Menard runs the Midwestern home improvements chain Menards, which has at times sponsored Robby Gordon as well as Paul Menard on the NASCAR tour.
   Menard, 30, has been running NASCAR full time only since 2007, and this is his first year with team owner Richard Childress.  But Labbe has been Menard's crew chief for several years, and Labbe has been key to Menard's breakthrough this season.
   "We've had fast cars, we've just struggled to finish the deal," Menard said.
   The Menard money has been seen by some as something of a cloud over Paul's career, as if he were buying his way into this sport. But, like he said when Childress announced the new team last summer, John Menard is a racer who is going to spend money on racing backing someone, so it might as well be his son.
   Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Kasey Kahne had the best cars, in what was pretty much expected single-file action.
   Kahne got caught up in one of the day's few incidents.
   Kenseth, not gambling on fuel, finished fifth, just behind two more fuel gamblers, Regan Smith and Jamie McMurray.
   It was Gordon's late charge that held the crowd of some 130,000 at attention.
   "We got there just a little bit short…but Paul did a great job of saving fuel and then knowing when to go," Gordon said.
   "I was with Paul the other day, and he was talking about coming here as a kid….and knowing what his dad has done here….so I don't think there's anyone here who could appreciate this win as much as Paul.
   "This was not a fluke; they had to take a big risk. And I couldn't pass them.
    "And even if I had gotten to him, I don't know if I could have passed him. I used it all up getting to him.
   "But then another lap and I was hoping he'd run out and it would be an easy pass.
   "Paul probably has a greater appreciation of winning here than even I did in 1994…If you're going to get beat, it's good to get beat by somebody you know will really appreciate it."
    In a sense this running string of gas mileage races has almost turned NASCAR racing in a 'Nerds R Us,' with so many engineers toying with how to measure fuel mileage and how to tweak that part of the game. Starting at Charlotte in May, nearly every NASCAR Cup race, and many Nationwide races too, has been a fuel mileage race.
    Still, Gordon figured Menard and the rest would not be able to make it to the finish.
   And when Gordon beat Kenseth back to the track during the final exchange of pit stops, under green, with about 75 miles to go, "I felt we had the position then to win this race," Gordon said.
    Many of the day's expected headliners failed to produce, for one reason or another: among them, Carl Edwards, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart. Busch simply had another bad day, his second straight on the tour. Edwards was not really a player. Montoya faded late. And Stewart, first attempting to make a gas mileage gambit of his own, similar to the one that won at Loudon, N.H., two weeks ago for teammate Ryan Newman, but then made a gas stop late rather than run out.


It's funny how the stories

It's funny how the stories with the potential to get good press (1st time winners) are all happening at the races most likely to get the biggest coverage (Indy, Darlington, Daytona). We've run out of well-known rookies, so I'm gonna call it now - Mark Martin at Richmond, Junior at Martinsville.

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