Menard takes Brickyard, continues season of first-time winners

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With the most historic track in the world as its backdrop the 18th Brickyard 400 had a surprise winner as Paul Menard gave team owner Richard Childress his third victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Kasey Kahne led three times for 48 laps but faded to 18th while four-time winner Jeff Gordon led four times for 36 laps before narrowly finishing second to Menard, who had his Chevrolet in front four times for 21 laps.

That the race featured just five caution periods came into play at the end as the outcome was determined by fuel mileage, which gave NASCAR fans a new face in Victory Lane.

So in a race that could have a huge impact on the Chase let's jump into the Five Things we Learned from the Brickyard 400.

1. The season of first-time winners in NASCAR's major races continues. First, it was Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500. Then Regan Smith won the Southern 500 in May. Now, Menard wins his first race in the Brickyard 400. The only driver that won a major race this season that was already a proven winner was Kevin Harvick winning the Coca-Cola 600.

Menard's victory made him the fourth first-time winner this season and the 14th different winner in 2011. He drove to his first victory in 167 Cup starts but he becomes the first driver to score his first victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"This is the one I wanted to win," Menard said. "My family, my dad had had IndyCars here since 1982, so for 35 years he's been trying, so giving him his first win here after all those years of trying are pretty special."

John Menard fielded some of the fastest cars in Indy 500 history with the Buick V6 engine. Menard's cars won the Indy 500 pole in 1995 and 1996 with Scott Brayton (who was killed in practice in a crash at the Speedway just six days after winning the pole in 1996) and Greg Ray in 2000. But Menard's best finish at Indy was third by Al Unser in 1992.

While Bayne's Daytona 500 win was an emotional one for a 20-year-old driver who brought the Wood Brothers back to prominence, and Smith's win at Darlington was one of gritty determination at NASCAR's first superspeedway, Menard's victory was as important to his father as it was for himself.

"This is for my dad," Paul Menard said. "I can't believe we won Indy. I didn't miss the Indy 500 from 1989-2003. I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400, too. This is the greatest race track in the world."

"For Paul to get his first win here is unbelievable," John Menard said. "He is a good boy. He has followed this place all of his life. It's a wonderful place. Our family has spent so much time here. It's unbelievable."

2. Menard moves into position for a spot in the Chase. By scoring his first career Cup victory Menard is in line for one of the new wild-card spots, given to the winningest drivers outside the top 10 in the standings. He is now 14th in points, and second to another wild-card contender in Pocono winner Denny Hamlin, while David Ragan, who won the Coke Zero 400 earlier this month at Daytona, had dropped out with Menard's victory because he is 16th in the standings

"It's great," Menard said. "We have five or six races left but have a lot of work to do. Richmond is one of our worst tracks and that is the race before the Chase."

Added crew chief Slugger Labbe: "For use I think we still have to be pushing. We are 14th in points with a win. That doesn't guarantee you a thing. There are a lot of things that could happen. Ryan Newman has moved back into the top 10, and if falls out could take away a spot from us. We have to keep pushing, be aggressive, make it that way and not relay on this victory."

3. He didn't win another Brickyard 400 but Gordon's drive for a fifth championship is very much alive. Gordon remains seventh in points but the way his No. 24 Chevrolet drove Sunday the championship fire is burning brighter in the driver whose formative racing years were spent in nearby Pittsboro, Ind., as a USAC Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown driver in the 1980s before becoming a NASCAR living legend.

"This says a lot," Gordon said. "Obviously we wanted to win this race but we also wanted to make a statement. I think we certainly did that. This team is for real. We showed that today.

"The team that wins here at Indy usually has a great chance to win the championship. While we didn't win I think we definitely showed that we're a championship-caliber team. We've been knocking on the door getting closer every single weekend and won a couple of races. For me this is going to be a huge boost for this race team and hopefully a bit of a statement to the competition as well that we're serious about our efforts at a championship this year.

"If we can run like we did today here at Indy I know we're capable of winning just about any place we go."

Gordon winning would have been huge for this event, adding some much-needed luster to a race that is suffering a decline. Gordon fell just short but he had the look of a winner. Expect him to keep that drive alive for the rest of the season.

4. A tense finish made up for what was a boring event. Much of the race was NASCAR at its worst -- long lines of single-file racing with cars separated by several hundred feet if not several hundred yards. These cars need clean air in order to properly handle the 2 ½-mile flat oval and the only close racing came after caution periods on the side-by-side restarts. But the tension at the end of the race more than made up for the high-speed parade.

What made this unusual is the decisive pit stops came just a few laps after the final caution period. That caution was between laps 121-126, after Landon Cassill spun out of Turn 3 after making contact with pole sitter Ragan.

When the green flag waved on Lap 127, Brad Keselowski was the leader but pitted for his fuel three laps later. Clint Bowyer was then in the lead for two laps before he pitted, and then one-by-one, the leader of the race or a prime contender headed down pit road. That included Gordon on Lap 134, giving the lead to Tony Stewart, who stayed in front for 10 laps before he had to pit 16 laps short of the finish. That gave the lead to Menard, who made his last pit stop on Lap 123 but he had to conserve fuel. He gave way to Jamie McMurray before regaining the lead with four laps remaining.

Would he make it to the finish? Would Gordon have time to catch him for the win?

Gordon was 12 seconds back with 10 laps to go and closed in on Menard on the final lap, but he fell just 0.725 seconds short of taking the away the win as Menard went the final 34 laps of the race on his final tank of fuel.

5. Despite its faults the Brickyard 400 remains one of NASCAR's biggest and most important races. The crowd estimate at the bottom of the NASCAR unofficial race results was 138,000. In 2008 the estimate was 240,000 and last year's it was 140,000. NASCAR has been known to exaggerate those estimates and sources on Sunday morning said the Speedway had sold 87,000 tickets heading into race day.

The Brickyard 400 is no longer a major event on the sporting calendar, evident by the huge gaps of empty seats, including many in the prime Paddock Penthouse area of the front stretch. Turn 3 also had many empty sections along with the South Chute between Turns 1 and 2. But even if the crowd was actually 100,000, that would make it one of the best attended NASCAR races of the season.

Any race at Indianapolis is an important event because it is the world's largest theater of human drama. While the oppressive heat, some less than spectacular racing and a general malaise that has hit NASCAR tracks across the schedule all contribute to the Brickyard's decline, a crowd of 100,000 gets lost in a facility that has nearly 300,000 seats.

The Brickyard 400 turned 18 on Sunday, but with a little more maturity it may grow into adulthood and find its proper place on the NASCAR schedule.

It isn't the Daytona 500 -- the crown jewel of NASCAR -- but it is still a notch ahead of any other race on the schedule and belongs No. 2 in a big four that includes the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington.