Thirteen different drivers held the lead for at least one lap in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Paul Menard led 21 of them — including 11 of the last 12 and the last four — to take the checkered flag.
The 30-year-old Richard Childress Racing driver won the battle of attrition and held off a charging Jeff Gordon at the finish to record his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in the 18th running of the race at the track, and he became the first driver to get his first Cup win in this race.
At the same time, he continues a trend of drivers winning for the first time in some of the major races in NASCAR this season, starting with 20-year-old Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500 and continuing with Regan Smith in the Southern 500 and David Ragan in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.
Smith was third on Sunday, posting his first top-10 finish at Indianapolis, followed by last year’s winner Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth in the top five.
Driving the Nibco/Menard’s No. 27 Ford, Menard started 15th in his fifth race at the track where his father, John, had sponsored cars in the Indianapolis 500 for 35 years.
“This is for my dad. I’ve been coming here since 1989. I just spent a lot of time in the garage area. It’s unbelievable to win at Indy,” Menard said after the race.
He posted his sixth top-10 finish of the season and moved to 14th in the Cup point totals in addition to being a wild-card contender and being eligible for the Sprint Summer Showdown in Atlanta.
Menard was in 18th place after 40 laps and moved to fourth after 80. He was back in 15th after 120 laps, but held down first place at the end when it counted.
Childress recalled overcoming a pit-box penalty on the 51st lap. “We went from third to 38th and came back to win. From that point on, we stretched out fuel. We made a 22-lap fuel run in practice … it was a gamble we were willing to take [at the end],” said Childress.
Menard first ran in the Indianapolis race in 2007. His best finish prior to Sunday was 14th a year ago; he finished 41st in 2008.
Gordon said his second-place finish made a statement for him and the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet team. He overcame a 12-second deficit in the last 12 laps and going from 10th to second in the last 40 laps.
“This team is for real and we showed it. Cup champions have won this race. If we run like we did today, we’re capable of winning anywhere. We’re serious about winning the championship,” said the winner of the first Brickyard 400 and three more.
He is seventh in the Cup point totals, 52 points behind leader Carl Edwards, who leads Jimmie Johnson by 11 points and Kevin Harvick by 12. Edwards finished 14th, Johnson 19th and Harvick 11th on Sunday.
Gordon said Menard did a great job of saving fuel. “I’m happy for him,” he said. “Winning the first race here changed my life forever. Paul will experience the same thing,” said Gordon.
While the finish was dramatic, with one driver after another running out or low on fuel, the start basically went according to form with the top qualifiers leading through more than 100 of the 180 laps.
Debris cautions on three occasions starting with the 35th lap screwed up pit cycles and helped account for the 22 lead changes. Cars driven by David Reutimann, Tony Stewart and Landon Cassill were involved in the only mishaps that brought out the yellow caution lights.
David Ragan was on the pole for the good start of the race but did not lead a lap. Kasey Kahne, who started second, took the lead on the first lap and led the first 24 laps before relinquishing the lead to Gordon. Kahne ended up leading a race-high 48 laps.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led seven laps when he stayed out while the leaders pitted but Gordon soon moved to the front for the second time in the race and led 36 laps.
Other leaders included Stewart for 10 turns until he had to pit for fuel, Brad Keselowski for 17 and Kenseth for 10.