- Associated Press - Sunday, July 31, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS — Paul Menard became NASCAR’s newest first-time winner Sunday with an upset victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track steeped in tradition for his family.

The first half of the race was dominated by drivers with the strongest cars. But when debris cautions jumbled up the pit cycles, the Brickyard 400 turned into a race of pure strategy.

Menard and his Richard Childress Racing team played it brilliantly, as crew chief Slugger Labbe had Menard give the lead up to defending race winner Jamie McMurray in an effort to save fuel. Certain McMurray didn’t have enough gas to make it to the finish, Labbe then turned his attention to Jeff Gordon, who fell 12 seconds behind after a late fuel stop but was slicing his way through the field.

Labbe gave Menard the green-light with just over three laps to go. He passed McMurray for the lead and was silent as he circled the track with Labbe giving constant updates on Gordon’s lap times. Gordon ran out of time, and Menard cruised to his first career victory in his 167th career start.

Menard’s only other victory came in the second-tier Nationwide Series in 2006.

Quiet and reserved by nature, that didn’t change as Menard crossed the finish line. As his team screamed over the radio, Menard quietly asked, “that’s the checkered, right?”

Atop the pit box, his billionaire father was far less reserved.

“I’ve been waiting to kiss these bricks for such a long time. I’m ready!” John Menard yelled.

John Menard, owner of the family’s Midwest-based hardware chain who has a decades-long involvement in racing, was ecstatic and seemingly near tears. He fielded cars for years in the IndyCar Series, and suffered his own Indianapolis 500 heartbreak as a car owner.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a little kid, my dad tried to win this race for 35 years, so this is for my dad,” Menard said. “A lot of emotions right now. I went to every Indy 500 from 1989 to 2003, I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in ‘94, for my family and for myself, Indianapolis is a very special place.”

“He’s a good boy,” John Menard said before racing to victory lane to embrace his son.

Menard’s victory Sunday continued the trend of first-time winners this season in NASCAR’s crown jewel events. Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500, Regan Smith won at Darlington Raceway and David Ragan won this month at Daytona.

Gordon settled for second, Smith was third and McMurray fourth as Chevrolets took the top four spots. Matt Kenseth was fifth in a Ford and Tony Stewart, a two-time Brickyard winner, was sixth.

Stewart, who led late but had to stop for gas, once drove for John Menard and was complimentary in defeat.

“I’m really happy for Paul Menard,” he said. “Paul’s been around this place for a long time, been here since he was a kid. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy. It’s a pretty deserving win right there. I’m happy for him.”

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