NASCAR: Menard a pleasant surprise

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 4, 2011

By Scott Adamson
Scripps Howard News Service
Trevor Bayne’s victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 not only ensured that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series would have its most surprising winner of the season, but one of its most surprising in history.
That being said, Paul Menard’s checker at the Brickyard 400 on Sunday caught just about everybody by surprise.
Until Indy, Menard had won just one race among NASCAR’s three touring series that coming in a Nationwide event back in 2006. And even though he had seven top 10s and one pole in Cup prior to Sunday, the Richard Childress Racing Chevy driver was considered a lightweight.
About his only claim to fame was being the son of billionaire businessman John Menard, who owns a chain of home improvement stores. And considering dad sponsors the son’s car, silver spoon theories abound.
While the elder Menard had owned cars driven by established drivers such as Johnny Rutherford, Paul was often dismissed as just a rich kid benefiting from the spoils of his family.
Maybe so — but a win at Indy is still a win at Indy. And the 30-year-old wheelman is the first to be victorious at the Brickyard under the sponsorship of John Menard.
“Man, I’ve been coming here for a long, long time, but not nearly as long as my dad,” Paul Menard said. “To be the first one after all those years of trying to win him a race at Indy, is very special. 1989 I think was my first year here. I spent 14, 15 years in a row just hanging out in the infield being a fan.
“In 2007, I got to race here. It was definitely the highlight of my career up until that point. Here we are in Victory Lane. It’s unbelievable.”
The winner drove a solid race from start to finish, playing the fuel game to perfection and having just enough juice to cross the finish line first. He passed Jamie McMurray with four laps remaining and was able to keep Jeff Gordon in his rearview mirror on the white flag lap.
The win was sweet in many ways, not just for the Menard family but Childress himself. The car owner who was part of so many Cup crowns with the late Dale Earnhardt was widely criticized for adding Paul Menard to his stable, with some believing it was a quick money grab (Menard family money) that would ultimately have no real payoff.
But now Menard is a Cup winner, and a 14th spot in the standings gives him a realistic shot at making the Chase.
“I’m just so proud of that whole Menard team,” Childress said. “I caught a lot of flack back early last year when we decided to go with four teams.”
I’ve been watching Paul ever since he won the Nationwide race. He doesn’t tear equipment up. He’s consistent. He’s really good.”
Got a cool head on him in all situations.
“I knew if the right situation came along, we’d win.”
And now they have. It won’t be enough to end the “silver spoon” talk, but the race winner doesn’t seem at all concerned about what others may think or say.
“I mean, we’re winners in Sprint Cup,” he said. “That’s the big deal. To do it at Indy, even bigger deal. Whatever they say, they say. Can’t control it. I know what I’m capable of.”