Menard Fulfills Family Dream With Brickyard Win

John Menard is perhaps the richest man in the state of Wisconsin. But money couldn’t bring Menard the happiness that he felt at about 4:15 Sunday afternoon when Jeff Gordon couldn’t catch Menard’s son Paul, giving John and Paul their first Sprint Cup win, at one of the sport’s most historic venues.

First wins are special, but when your family has tried to win something, anything, here at 16th and Georgetown Rd. for 35 years, nothing else could top this experience. Indy Cars, NASCAR, nothing seemed to click for Menard Sr. for a long time. Their hometown of Eau Claire, WI isn’t exactly the place where Victory Lane dreams start. Kids that grow up there usually dream of being lumberjacks and going ice fishing, not becoming winning race drivers. And when dad owns one of the most successful home improvement businesses in the country, his son might be expected to be the next vice president of regional planning. Paul took a different path and put on a firesuit instead of a business suit. He began this line of work in go karts when he was eight, competed in ice races in his home state when he was fifteen and won a NASCAR Nationwide race at the Milwaukee Mile when he was 25. Summer vacation for Paul was watching Dad’s Indy Car team at some far-flung track. Didn’t every kid know AJ Foyt? His car, a Richard Childress Chevrolet, is a greenish-yellow, almost the color of some types of cheese. People from the Badger State wear their Cheesehead reputation with pride. They wear cheese-like hats to Packer and Brewers games. We have a Cheese Castle to greet visitors to our state, and now we have our first BRICKyard 400 winner. And isn’t Brick a type of cheese?

• Fuel mileage races are looked down upon in motorsports. But today’s Brickyard brought drama and tension to the fans who chose to occupy about half of the allotted spectator space on a hot Hoosier afternoon. Computers have taken much of the guess work out of being a crew chief, so Slugger Labbe knew just when to tell Paul Menard to hold back and when to run away from a fast-closing Jeff Gordon. Gordon had picked off one challenger after another until he got to Menard who was running slowly to save fuel. And with Labbe’s permission, he actually raced Gordon to the flag, maintaining a 0.725 sec. margin for the win. “Slugger kept telling me where Jeff was and how hard he was coming. I knew he was closing the gap every lap.” There seems to be a gap growing in this sport. NASCAR and the tracks are working hard to close that chasm and bring fans back to the races. Today was a beautiful, blue sky day. The people that were here saw a great, enjoyable race. New events are coming to this weekend next year. Events that might take away some luster away from the race that propelled a young kid named Jeff Gordon to the top of this sport when he won the first one in 1994. Menard’s is a great story; a hard working kid who finally broke through. Hopefully this race will also be a breakthrough for the sport and call attention to the great opportunity fans have to come to an historic venue and see an exciting race.

Praise for a first-time winner is often false PR praise; it’s expected, and not always deserved. But when David Reutimann won his first Sprint Cup race in 2009, the platitudes were as genuine and well deserved as could be. No PR praise then and none today for Paul Menard.

Regan Smith: “I certainly can’t be disappointed with third, and in particular when somebody like Paul wins. I have very many close friends on the circuit; that’s one of them. He was at my victory celebration; I plan on being at his tonight or whenever it is.

Jeff Gordon: “I don’t know Paul as well as Regan does. But I was with him the other day. We were talking about him coming here as a kid with his family, from like the 80’s all the way to 2000. I don’t think there’s anybody that could appreciate a win, even if it’s his first win. I think he’s in awe right now. It’s one thing to get your first win when you can appreciate how special it is to win here. I think Paul certainly has that.”

Mark Martin: “I’m really happy for Paul Menard; really, really, really happy. That’s awesome.

Carl Edwards: “I’ve worked with Paul as a teammate. He’s a great race car driver. He’s a better person. I really like Paul a lot. I couldn’t be happier for him. If we couldn’t win the race, I can’t think of a better choice.”

Tony Stewart: “I’m really happy for Paul. He’s been around this place a long time; since he was a kid. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy. That’s a pretty deserving win. I’m happy for him getting his first win that way.”

• And Paul’s feelings on his win? “It’s big, you know? My first year here was 1989 that I can remember anyway and I think I was here when I was like 3-4 years old. I just spent a lot of time in the garage area. I didn’t miss the Indy 500 from 1989 to 2003. I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. Just a really special place for my family and myself. Thanks to all the fans. Indianapolis, this is the greatest race track in the world and we’ve got the best fans here too. I can’t wait to kiss the bricks. That’s cool. Man, its Indy.”

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