NASCAR

Luck has nothing to do with it

Paul Menard
Paul Menard and his NASCAR Sprint Cup team celebrate at Indy.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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I thought this year's Brickyard 400 was amazing.

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Once again in 2011, we have a first-time NASCAR Sprint Cup winner. Paul Menard is the fourth first-time winner we’ve had this year and that is phenomenal. Not only is it great for these young guys but also for their families, their teams, their fans and their sponsors.

It would be safe to say that no one saw Trevor Bayne’s win coming. The same could be said for Regan Smith’s first victory. Now we sort of knew David Ragan and Paul Menard were eventually going to win. They have been running so strong and putting themselves into the right position to win. Now they have.

The other thing I find amazing about these four wins are they were some of our biggest races. Trevor wins the Daytona 500. Regan wins the Southern 500. David wins the July 4 week race under the lights at Daytona. Now Paul wins the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Those are truly amazing accomplishments.

So what is the common denominator, because there always is one. What helped make it possible for these four guys to be first-time winners? To me, the answer is their crew chiefs. All four crew chiefs are gamblers. They were willing to take a chance and risk it all on their call.

Let’s face it, in these four cases, their strategy was better than 42 others. These four crew chiefs – Donnie Wingo, Pete Rondeau, Drew Blickensderfer and now Slugger Labbe – these are all really smart guys. Let’s face it, they wouldn’t be in the high-level position with each of these teams if they all weren’t really, really sharp guys.

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Back in February, Donnie Wingo knew he had a fast race car at Daytona but the reality was he has a rookie driver. He knew that he had to keep his driver calm and help get him into a position to win.

In early May in Darlington for the Southern 500, Pete Rondeau makes the call for his driver to stay out on very worn tires. Regan was able to hold off a charging Carl Edwards to get his first win. It was an unbelievable call.

July in Daytona saw Drew Blickensderfer make a deal with his teammates with the No. 17 car of Matt Kenseth to help push Ragan to the win. Ragan had knocked on the door before and needed that win desperately. They brought home the win.

Sunday saw Slugger Labbe get his car within its fuel window and then, combined with Paul, the team managed the situation perfectly. See that is part of it, being smart enough to manage the situation. You have to manage your tires, manage your pit stops and, in this case, manage your race pace and fuel strategy.

Slugger helped Paul understand that he needed to slow down and run a consistent pace so he could make it to the end. That takes a lot of discipline on a driver’s part. The crew chief comes in your ear and says to slow down and run this pace as a driver and you feel like you are crawling. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 5, 10 or 15 laps, he is in your ear reminding you to do it.

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That’s what Slugger was doing to Paul. He got him to slow down those last 10 laps of the Brickyard 400 to pull off the win. Paul let Jamie McMurray pass him and then drafted off him for a little while. Doing all that and having the discipline to do it, and Paul having the trust in his crew chief, paid huge dividends.

By being patient and sticking to their strategy, they were ready when Jeff Gordon was tracking them down at a second a lap. Gordon had plenty of fuel and fresh tires and he was closing the gap. So when it came time to pick up the pace again, Slugger and Paul knew they had enough fuel to make it to the end and were good to go.

That’s just smart strategy.

Jeff Hammond and I used to do that back in the day. A lot of crew chiefs still do it today. You have to take risks. You can’t play follow the leader on your strategy. If you do, well you are simply going to follow the leader to the checkered flag.

Joey Logano made a postrace comment that “it looks like anybody can win these races and you just have to be lucky.” I disagree 100 percent. It’s not luck. You don’t luck into these wins. It’s preparation meeting execution meeting opportunity.

If you are prepared and have a strategy for when you find yourself with an opportunity to win, well then you capitalize on it. That’s what Paul and Slugger did at Indy.

You simply have to give these first-time winners this year a lot of credit. It takes the combination of a driver and crew chief that have trust and chemistry. It takes a well-prepared car and then a team to back that all up. All four of those guys have pulled it off and have beaten the best in the business.

Paul Menard has been criticized by some, even when he first came to NASCAR, because his father’s company has been his sponsor. I’ve never quite understood where that resentment comes from. The Menards are an incredible racing family. Paul’s dad has been trying to win a race at Indy for years with IndyCars and in NASCAR.

Paul’s dad is a racer through and through. It’s been a big commitment on his part over a number of years. What’s wrong with a father supporting his son?

If I had a son and he had the passion to be a race car driver I would support him every way possible. Our sport is full of dads and families across the board dedicating their lives to helping their children reach their dreams of driving a race car.

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  • What is most surprising win of the year?
    • Trevor Bayne winning Daytona 500
    • Paul Menard winning Brickyard 400
    • Regan Smith winning Southern 500

So Sunday at Indianapolis, Paul Menard and his dad accomplished two dreams in the same race. Paul got his very first NASCAR Sprint Cup win and did it at, of all places, Indianapolis. Indy is holy ground to the Menards.

So it was a great day. Like I said earlier, Paul was one of those we thought was going to break through with a win, but we just didn’t know when. Going over to drive for Richard Childress was just what he needed. Paul is a good driver and a nice guy. I am thrilled for him.

The other benefit to winning Sunday is Paul jumped from 19th in the points to 14th and right now has one of the two wild-card slots for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This year, the two drivers with the most wins that are outside the top 10 and inside the top 20 are eligible for the wild-card berths.

That’s huge. It was also Richard Childress’s third win at Indy. Plus, it marks Richard Childress Racing’s 98th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory and that ties them with the famed Wood Brothers for fifth place in all-time wins. That’s pretty good company right there.

Now after breaking through for that first win, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paul get another or two before the 2011 season comes to a close.
 

Tagged: Jeff Gordon, Paul Menard, David Ragan, Regan Smith

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