On Sunday, the dream came true. In a season full of improbable first-time winners in NASCAR’s foremost races, Menard, 30, stretched his fuel mileage and held off charging Jeff Gordon to win the Brickyard 400 at the 2.5-mile track.
The victory was Menard’s first as a Sprint Cup driver, and it catapulted him into the conversation for a wild-card berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Gordon, who closed rapidly over the final five laps, crossed the finish line .725 seconds behind the season’s fourth first-time winner.
“My first year here was 1989, that I can remember anyway—I think I was here when I was 3 or 4 years old, too,” said Menard, whose father, John Menard, has fielded IndyCars for a variety of drivers. “I just spent a lot of time in the garage area. I didn’t miss an Indy 500 from 1989 to 2003.
“I was here for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994. It’s just a really special place for my family and myself.”
Regan Smith, who notched his first career win in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington in May, came home third, followed by Jamie McMurray, last year’s Brickyard winner. Matt Kenseth ran fifth, and Tony Stewart salvaged a sixth-place result despite a litany of problems throughout the race.
Greg Biffle, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch completed the top 10.
Smith, who counts Menard as one of his best friends, promised to attend Menard’s victory celebration, just as Menard joined Smith after the victory in Darlington.
“He always talks about coming up here,” Smith said. “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’ll tell you in a minute he couldn’t be happier.
“It’s cool. You only get one chance to get your first win. It’s a special thing, especially when you do it here.”
Menard joined Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Smith as first-time winners on NASCAR’s biggest stages. Unlike Bayne, who is not running a full Cup schedule, and Smith, who is 26th in points, Menard put himself in position to claim one of the two wild-card spots available to the highest-ranking race winners in positions 11-20 in points.
Menard improved five positions to 14th in the standings, passing polesitter David Ragan, who dropped three places to 16th after finishing 23rd Sunday. With six races left before the field for the Chase is set at Richmond, Denny Hamlin, Menard and Ragan are the only drivers in positions 11-20 with victories. Hamlin is 11th.
Menard, in his first season with Richard Childress Racing, also is the first qualifier for the Sprint Summer Showdown, in which he and the winners of the next four Cup races will try to claim a $3 million bonus by winning Sept. 4 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The bonus will be split three ways, with $1 million each going to the driver, a fan and the driver’s designated charity.
Gordon, who won the inaugural Cup race at Indy in 1994, said Menard perhaps can savor his first win at the Brickyard even more than he did 17 years ago.
“Just because he’s been here so much as a kid experiencing Indy, he knows how special it is to compete here, let alone win here,” Gordon said. “So I think the feelings are probably very similar. He probably has a greater appreciation for it than I did in ’94, because while I was watching from a distance and my heroes were Indy 500 drivers, I wasn’t in the garage like he was.
“So he could probably appreciate it even more.”
Notes: Ragan is the fourth driver to get his first Cup win this year. He won the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona on July 2. … The victory was the ninth straight at the Brickyard for Chevrolet. … Menard’s crew chief, Slugger Labbe, picked up his fifth victory and added the Brickyard trophy to his marquee win in the 2003 Daytona 500, when he was crew chief for Michael Waltrip at Dale Earnhardt Inc.