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 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 earlier this month at Daytona.
Gordon settled for second, but didn't mind losing to Menard, whom he had talked to just this week about the family history at Indy.
"We were talking about him coming here as a kid with his family I think from like, I don't know, late '80s or something all the way to 2000, some ridiculous thing where every year he was here for the 500," Gordon said. "Knowing what his dad has done here in IndyCars I think he's in awe right now.
"I went and saw him. His eyes, he's like a deer in headlights. I'm so happy for him. It's one thing to get your first win here, but it's another when you can appreciate how special it is to win here. I think Paul certainly has that."
Smith, who picked up his first win this season at Darlington, was third for yet another big finish in a crown jewel race. Smith had never before scored a top-10 in NASCAR's top series, but now has them in the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400.
Like Gordon, Smith was more focused on his close friend Menard, who is scheduled to be a member of Smith's wedding party later this year.
"I just know what it means to Paul. I know how hard he's worked," Smith said. "He always talks about coming up here. He always talks about how much he loves this place. I know if he had to highlight one race to get his first win, I'm sure he'd tell you in a minute he couldn't be happier. You only get one chance to get your first win. It's a special thing."