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And now Paul Menard is wearing some pretty big shoes.....after winning the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis

  Paul Menard and Slugger Labbe's team celebrating in Brickyard victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Paul Menard isn't just some kid with a silver spoon in his mouth, even though that's sometimes been the rap on him during his five years on the NASCAR tour.
   Yes, his father, John Menard, is one of the wealthiest men in the country, running the Menards chain of home improvement stores.
   But Menard's victory over Jeff Gordon Sunday in a tense finish to one of the oddest Brickyard 400s yet should put an end to those gripes.
   John Menard, who has backed Indianapolis 500 drivers for years and years, without winning, was atop Slugger Labbe's pit box throughout the race. And he was clearly emotional with the win.
  "I told dad 'After 35 years of trying to win at Indy, this one's for you,'" Menard said.
   The silver spoon?
   "We're winners in Sprint Cup now," Paul Menard replied. "You can't change people's opinions. Whatever they say, they say. I know what I'm capable of. And I think we can win a couple more."
   "I caught flak last year when we decided to go with four teams," car owner Richard Childress said. "But I've watched Paul come along, and he doesn't tear up equipment.
   "He's consistent, he's really good, got a cool head on him in all situations.
   "I knew if the right situation come along, we'd win." 


   These guys were dirt-tracking through the corners, really (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The win was Childress' third Brickyard. The first one came in 1995 with Dale Earnhardt. The next one came in 2003 with Kevin Harvick.
   And the win was a key in Menard's bid to make the NASCAR playoffs. If the playoffs opened today, Menard and Labbe would be in, on the wild card; they're 14th in the standings.
   The win also puts Menard in the running to win the Sprint $1 million bonus, in its summer showdown series. If he wins the Labor Day weekend Atlanta 500, he'll take the million.
   Menard, who watched the first Brickyard, in 1994, from a suite above the track, ran his first Brickyard in 2007, 20th. Last year he finished 14th.
   The victory continues a Chevrolet streak here, the ninth straight win for that marque.
   Menard picked Labbe as his crew chief again this year, "and you can't thank Richard enough for going out on a limb with me and allowing me to bring Slugger in. Slugger is a great friend, works as hard as anybody in this garage.  He's won a Daytona 500 and now he's won at the Brickyard 400."
   This was another fuel mileage race, but Labbe was prepared: "With 35 to go it was a gamble we were willing to make.
   "We had a meeting Monday with Richie Gilmore (the engine man) and said 'If we're going to make the chase, we've got to make some gambles.'"
   And after a pit road NASCAR penalty early Sunday Labbe and Menard felt they were really behind the eight-ball.
   "We went from running third to running 38th, so we had to change our game plan," Labbe said.

   Paul Menard, centerstage at the yard of bricks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The win was somewhat surprising, clearly, since Menard had never won on the tour. And this is one of the sport's biggest events.
   However Menard and Labbe have been strong runners most of the season, and there has been a sense that a win was coming eventually.
   Still, this is just a first-year team, Labbe pointed out: "When we started Monday after Homestead last November we didn't have a hauler or a crew or anything," Labbe said. "For a first-year team to win, that's something.
   "They didn't give us hand-me-downs.  Richard let us hire the people we needed.  Got a great pit crew.  He let us do our job.
   "Richard lets us run the team like it's our own. This is our 15th car this year. But we manage our money, and today it all paid off."

    The Menard legacy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is well known. John Menard has had cars in the Indianapolis 500 since 1982, though a best finish was just third, with Al Unser in 1992. Ironically Tony Stewart was on the Indy 500 pole in a Menard car in 1996; Stewart also drove a Menard-sponsored car to the Indy-car series championship in 1996-1997.
   Stewart, who rallied to sixth, after giving up a gas mileage gamble, was happy for Menard: "It couldn't have happened to a better guy. That is a pretty deserving win right there."
   "This is the one I wanted to win," Menard said. "My Dad has had Indy-cars here since the late 70s. For 35 years he's been trying, so giving him his first win here after all those years of trying is pretty special."

   A beautiful, if quite hot, summer afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "Our whole family has been at the Speedway for so long, we've all tried very hard," the elder Menard said. "Paul came down here as a very little guy, and I remember smuggling him into the garage because he was too young to be in there.  He would be sitting on the workbench back there behaving himself.  He had to be quiet or the yellow shirts would throw him out.
    "He wanted to be a racecar driver. I'm just a proud father right now. I just have kind of lapsed back in time, thinking of him as my little boy. But he's a full grown man, one I'm very, very proud of."

   John Menard has spent a lot of money in racing sponsoring teams. He says that's because "it's been good for our business. It's a good form of advertising,  a good form of promotion.
    "Motorsports promotions are underrated a lot by some of the people in advertising. If you look at what you can buy a sponsorship for of a race team, versus some golf or some of the ball-and-stick-type sports, motorsports is a pretty good buy. From a business standpoint, I'd say that investing in motorsports is a fairly wise investment.
    "And teams give you a better return for your investment than others. Richard's team gives a very, very good return, because he takes the money and puts it back into the cars, the people, the research, the engines, the things that you need to win.
    "If there's anybody in motorsports that knows how to do it, it's Richard. I'm proud to be associated with him. Money well-spent."



The guys could get rowdy when they wanted to, particularly on restarts, like this. But generally the Brickyard 400 was again a single-file affair (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    The race was shaping up as a Jeff Gordon versus Matt Kenseth, until the fuel mileage game erupted over the final 90 miles.
    And Menard had challengers in Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Regan Smith in the gas mileage gambit. Menard won that challenge, over Smith.
   "That is the most bitter-sweet third-places of all time," Smith said, "because you can see the leaders. I saw Paul, and I knew he was on the same strategy as us. So we decided to pull the reins back a little bit, hoping some of them would run out of fuel.
    "But then I saw Jeff coming, and I thought we are in trouble now, because he doesn't have to save at all.
    "But I'm so happy for Paul; I know what this race means to that family and to him in particular."
    So Smith and Gordon both went to victory lane to congratulate Menard.
    For Smith, the day was yet another big day in a big season, looking at the big picture: until this season Smith had never had a top-10 finish, but now he's had four, and in the four biggest races of the NASCAR season, a seventh at Daytona, a victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington, an eighth in the Charlotte 600, and a third here.
    Kenseth, though, was less satisfied.
   "We were probably the second-best car most of the day," Kenseth said. "I think Jeff had the field covered
   "But I'm happy for Paul Menard being a first-time winner.
    "It's kind of a shame that Jeff didn't win; I thought we had the fastest two cars, and I was hoping we were going to be able to duke it out on performance to the end and try to race for that thing. But that's just the way the racing is these days.
    "I wish it wouldn't have come down to fuel mileage. But I'm glad he got the win; he's been running awfully good this year, and he deserves a good win.
    "It is a huge win for him, and I'm happy for Paul…although I was irritated after the race since he ran me off the track on that restart.
    "I'm not surprised the race went down to fuel mileage; that's all we've been talking about for three months. It happens so much this year I'm not surprised.
     "I was a little surprised they ran that many laps (35); but Paul had a pretty fast car too, a top-10 car probably. So he could still run fast and save gas.
    "Some of the guys that were saving gas were so slow you were going to beat them anyway. But Paul had a reasonably fast car, and of course he had fuel mileage."
   And what was that incident between Kenseth and Menard?
   "We took the restart, and the inside groove is so much superior that I expected to get some room starting on the outside," Kenseth said. "I went into turn one, and he ran me right off the track -- ran me right up in the marbles and slammed my door.
    "When I got (back) to him, I wanted to pass…but I never hit him.  I got a run off turn three and he blocked me…which I expected, being for the lead. And the air off the car got him sideways. I had to get to him fast because I knew he wasn't going to give me any extra room -- which you shouldn't, because he's the leader."

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