Dustin Long
Monday August 1st, 2011

SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Their names bond, linked in a way that the Four Corners converge in the Southwestern U.S. While these individuals aren't viewed as the Four Horsemen of NASCAR, they are four for history.

Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan and, now, Paul Menard own sweat-soaked uniforms stained by sports drinks and soft drinks in post-race celebrations at some of NASCAR's biggest venues.

Bayne punctuated his Daytona 500 victory by shouting on the radio, "Are you kidding?'' Smith told his crew that winning the Southern 500, was "too cool.'' A calm Ragan basked as his family celebrated his Daytona win last month. Menard dedicated his Brickyard 400 win Sunday to his father, who tried for parts of three decades to win the Indianapolis 500 only to see his son be the one to take him to Victory Lane at Indianapolis.

Never before in NASCAR history had drivers scored their first career win in the Daytona 500, Southern 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year. Take away the Brickyard 400, which held its 18th running Sunday, and the Daytona 500 and Southern 500 each had never crowned first-time series winners in the same season.

This is becoming a season unlike any other. Whether that means five-time defending champ Jimmie Johnson's reign will end, we'll see, but the way this season has gone, one might want to find an underdog to cheer for in the title race.

How confounding has this season been? While Bayne, Smith, Ragan and Menard each have a win this season, Tony Stewart does not. Each member of the freshman class of the winner's club has as many victories this year as Johnson and points leader Carl Edwards do.

Consider this: Smith had never had a top-10 finish in a Cup race before this season. He has four this year -- all in the sport's biggest races. He won the Southern 500, finished third in the Brickyard 400, was seventh in the Daytona 500 and finished eighth in the Coca-Cola 600.

Or this: Bayne was making his second career start, which came a day after his 20th birthday, when he won the Daytona 500. Or this: Menard had never scored a top-10 at Indy before Sunday. Or this: Ragan, sidelined by NASCAR briefly for his inexperience five years ago, winning a race at Daytona where two cars have to work together so well.

So, why the sudden parity a year after Denny Hamlin and Johnson combined to win 14 of 36 point races?

NASCAR has become the NFL.

The cars are similar, the tires are so good that speeds don't fall dramatically the longer into a run and aerodynamics dictate how a car performs in traffic. All that makes passing difficult and track position critical. Or, as is the case in the NFL, it means anybody can win. Three drivers outside the top 20 in points have won a race this season: Brad Keselowski (21st), Smith (26th) and Bayne (scoring points in Nationwide Series instead). Last year, no driver outside the top 20 in points won a race.

The two Chase wild card spots also add to this mix. The reward for a crew chief to gamble on a pit call is greater. Thus, pit strategies have dictated results in a string of races from Keselowski's fuel gamble to win at Kansas to the lack of fuel that foiled Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last corner of the last lap in the Coca-Cola 600.

Menard's crew chief, Richard Labbe, knew that with his driver 19th in the points entering the Brickyard 400, he had to be bold to get his driver a win and contend for a wild card spot.

"Look guys,'' Labbe said in a team meeting at Richard Childress Racing six days before the Brickyard 400, "if we're going to make the Chase, we're going to have to get risky.

"Seems to be a trend in the Cup Series that people take gambles on pit road. It was our turn to get aggressive. I told Paul he had to support me. Three times [Sunday] he had an occasion where he could have said, 'No, I don't want to do that,' but he did. Fortunately, it worked out.''

Just as it did for Smith in the Southern 500. Smith did not pit during a caution with 11 laps left. He moved into the lead as those in front stopped for tires. The move denied Edwards a shot at victory although he had one of the stronger cars.

That's the norm this year. Only six times has the car that led the most laps won in 20 races this season. Last year, the car that led the most laps won eight of the first 20 races.

With cautions falling -- or not falling -- at certain times, crew chiefs are more creative in their calls. Of course, what works one race, won't necessarily work the following week.

"Every scenario is different,'' said Mike Ford, crew chief for Hamlin. "Everything is a variable. There's no formula for figuring that out, you just have to try to play it to your strong suit and not leave any liabilities.''

It's not just the pit calls that have been bizarre this season. It's been everything from a pastor's prerace invocation to a postrace standoff on pit road between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. There's also the racing at Daytona and Talladega where the Noah's Ark style of racing with cars 2x2 replaced pack racing, that traffic jam in Kentucky and the possibility that the points leader, Edwards, will switch teams after this season.

The talk Sunday, though, was about Menard stretching his fuel mileage to win his first Cup race and end a 166-race winless drought.

"As disappointing as it is to not win this race,'' runner-up Jeff Gordon said, "I couldn't be happier for Paul Menard. I don't think there is anybody in this garage that could appreciate a win here anymore than Paul.''

Menard has come to Indy since the late 1980s. His father, John, joked how he would sneak his son into the garage even when Paul was too young to be there. The younger Menard also was at Indy for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, watching from a suite as pole-sitter Rick Mast led the field to the green that day and Gordon took the checkered flag. It wasn't until 2007 that Menard raced at the track. By then, he knew it so well.

"I'm not an Indiana native son, but Wisconsin is not far away and I spent a helluva lot of time here as a kid,'' Menard said.

So it seemed only right for him to win at this track and join the growing fraternity this season.

"We're winners in Sprint Cup,'' Menard said. "That's a big deal. To do it at Indy, even a bigger deal.''

Smith understood.

"Certainly can't be disappointed with third, and in particular when somebody like Paul wins,'' he said. "I have very many close friends on this circuit and that's one of them. He was at my victory celebration.''

Menard's victory celebration was a bit unique Sunday. Friends covered his motorhome in toilet paper.

In this topsy-turvy season, such a celebration made sense.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

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