News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 1, 2011

Family: Menard’s team won IRL title

Lori Wood
Tribune-Star Correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS — Although it took 35 years, the name Menard finally made it to victory circle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday. When Paul Menard climbed from his car after taking the checkered flag, his father John was in shock.

“For Paul to get his first win here is unbelievable. My heart is going 1,000 miles per minute. He’s a good boy,” said John Menard. “Our family has spent so much time here. It’s unbelievable.”

Paul Menard, 30, was just a little boy when his father fielded entries in the Indianapolis 500.

John Menard showcased his motorsports savvy with such racing notables as Scott Brayton, Robby Gordon, Eddie Cheever Jr. and Tony Stewart in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Gordon finished fourth in 1999 after leading several laps toward the end of the race. That year, John Menard had teamed with Richard Childress Racing. The Menard’s team won an Indy Racing League championship with Stewart, but never could snag the brass ring until now.

Paul Menard has not had it easy since entering the NASCAR Sprint Cup series. Richard Childress Racing is his fourth home in as many years. He has teamed with long-time crew chief “Slugger” Labbe, who felt the younger Menard was very close to his first cup victory, but for that honor to come at Indianapolis gave him an overwhelming feeling of elation not many know.

Four-time Brickyard champion Jeff Gordon knows. “It was a dream come true for me to race at Indy. That race changed my life. I think Paul is going to experience the same thing,” he said Sunday.

Regan Smith, who finished third, is one of Paul Menard’s close friends. “He always talks about how much he loves this place,” Smith noted.

While in the pits on lap 35, a tire changer did not get the tire out of the way and fell down, resulting in a penalty. Menard went from position three to 38, using fuel mileage to fight his way back to the front. Once it came down to the final 30 laps, “We knew we had to gamble,” said Labbe. 

Childress, who had taken flack for adding a fourth car this year, believed in Menard. “I knew if we got the right situation, we could win. For him to win with his family, I couldn’t be prouder,” the owner said.

Childress knew the car was fast and felt good going into the race. “I leaned into the window before the race and I told him, ‘This could be your day.’ ”

John Menard joined Childress, Labbe and Paul Menard in an after-race press conference. “This is Paul’s day, but in a way, we’ve all been at the Speedway for so long. He was always interested and wanted to be a race car driver. Now he’s a full-grown man, and I couldn’t be prouder,” the senior Menard said.

John recalled the days at Indianapolis when he had to sneak Paul into the garages in Gasoline Alley. He was too young to be there, and the yellow shirts would have kicked him out had he been found out. “But Paul was a good boy and didn’t get into any trouble,” said his dad.

Even from an early age, Paul knew how important Indianapolis was to his family. “To be the first one [to win], after all of these years, is very special. Here we are in victory lane,” he said. The first moment he saw his father, Paul told him that after 35 years of trying, this one was for him. Both father and son mirrored the significance of the day’s triumph.

Known to be a little quiet, the last 10 laps Paul was silent on the radio. When he finally spoke, he said, “That was the checkered, right?” 

He acknowledged he is not overemotional. “I’ve always been a low-key guy, but it doesn’t make it any less special,” the driver said.

Growing up in Wisconsin, Paul’s opportunities for racing were in the form of stock cars and not Indy cars. His experience came in late models on the short tracks of his home state. He eventually made his way into the NASCAR circuit.

In 2004 and 2005, Paul competed in just one event each year. Those two years he ran Watkins Glen, finishing 29th and 27th, respectively. His full-time foray into Cup competition was in 2007, when he finished 34th in points but garnered a 12th-place finish at Michigan.

Last season, however, Menard began to have some success. With six top-10 finishes and a season-best second at Kansas, he finished 23rd in the points standings.

This is the first time that the winner of the Brickyard 400 was a first-time winner, but what makes the win even more special for the team is that they are a new team this season. By winning Sunday, Menard moves to 14th in the series points standing with an opportunity to make the Chase for the very first time.