Menards turn Indy into family affair

Paul Menard’s victory in the Brickyard 400 was truly a family affair.

After crossing the bricks for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup win, Menard radioed the message to his father John, “Dad, this one is for you.”

For most stock car racers, winning Daytona would be at the top of the wish list. And while some would consider the Brickyard 400 NASCAR’s second-most prestigious event, it’s the race Menard, 30, has always wanted to win.

Given the Menard family’s emotional and financial investment in Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s not surprising. Patriarch John Menard’s presence at the Brickyard started first as a supporter in the late 70s then turned into that of a winning Indy Racing League owner for Tony Stewart.

For more than three decades John Menard has been a loyal supporter of race teams in both open-wheel and stock cars. On Sunday, his investment paid off in the best possible way — Paul Menard’s first victory at the track he holds closest in his heart.

“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 him trying to win a race at Indy, (it’s) very special.”

Paul Menard’s first trip to the Brickyard was in his father’s arms. John joked that when Paul was a youngster the family had to keep him quiet so the “yellow shirts (IMS security staff) didn’t throw him out.”

“Paul’s been coming here since we carried him in at 3 years old,” John Menard said. “I remember sneaking him into the garage in an engine box because he was too young to be in here. All his life he wanted to race.

“He’s such a good boy. He’s a good young man. He’s persevered through it all and for the family, for him, for everybody it’s unbelievable.”

Although John Menard’s first passion is open-wheel racing , after his driver Scott Brayton was killed here during a practice run in 1996, Paul said it made him “think more about open-wheel versus stock cars.”

“What’s safer? It was kind of a no-brainer when I was kind of jumping from go-karts to cars,” Menard said. “In the Midwest, there were a ton of short tracks where you could go racing three, four nights a week. In the IndyCar route there was really nothing you could do but jump in a Formula (car) at Elkhart Lake once a month or travel to a couple of road courses throughout the Midwest.

“We grew up racing — and racing three or four nights a week in a stock car, which is probably safer than an IndyCar, was a smart decision.”

In 2003, Menard dabbled in NASCAR’s top three series and ARCA. At 24, he ran the first of two full seasons in the Nationwide Series with Dale Earnhardt Inc. before moving full time to Cup in 2007. When DEI disintegrated following the 2008 season, Menard spent two lackluster years between Yates Racing and Richard Petty Motorsports — neither which still exist in their original form.

The one saving grace Menard took from RPM was his association with crew chief Slugger Labbe. Labbe offered Menard stability and the pair picked up momentum through last season despite conditions turning tumultuous at RPM. Menard posted his first top-five finish in two years and set a career best with six top-10 showings as well as finishing 23rd in the points standings.

At the end of 2010, a decision had to be made. The Menards opted to take their driver, their sponsorship and Labbe to Richard Childress Racing — one of the most revered organizations in NASCAR and a company that could propel Paul from also-ran to contender.

The Monday following the season-ending race at Homestead last November, Labbe started from scratch with the RCR team. Since then, Labbe’s built his fleet to 15 race cars and a top-notch crew.

“We didn’t have a truck, trailers, race cars, nothing,“ Labbe said. “They didn’t give us hand-me-downs. Richard let us hire the people we needed. Got a great pit crew. He let us do our job.”

Before Sunday’s win, Menard had led more laps and posted more top-five finishes in the No. 27 Chevrolet in 19 races than he had in overall throughout his entire career.

In RCR’s competition meeting last Monday, Labbe told the crew in order to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the team would “have to get risky”.

They tested fuel mileage during practice at Indianapolis and knew 35 laps would be “a gamble” but one they “were willing to take.”

“It was our turn to get aggressive,” said Labbe, who called for the last pit stop on Lap 125 of the scheduled 160. “I told Paul he had to support me. He supported me 100 percent today. Three times he had an occasion where he could have said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,” but he didn’t it. Fortunately, it worked out.”

Despite a tire getting loose from the No. 27 pits on Lap 51 and Menard being sent to the end of the longest line as a penalty, the driver rallied back from outside of the top 25 to lead on Lap 82 and again on Lap 96. With 15 laps remaining in the race, Menard took the lead after Tony Stewart pitted for fuel but was passed by Jamie McMurray while in conservation mode.

Once Labbe unleashed his driver with four laps to go, Menard’s spotter Stevie Reeves shouted, “In the park home run. Let’s go get it.”

John Menard admits he couldn’t breathe as his son wheeled the car around the track for the final four laps. He has seen his share of heartbreak at the Brickyard — as recently as in May at the Indy 500 when J.R. Hildebrand hit the wall in Turn 4 just short of the checkered flag.

But when Paul crossed the bricks, his father cried.

“You never want to believe it that it can’t happen, but I couldn’t relax until he took that checkered flag,” John Menard said.

And Menard was waiting as his son rolled into Victory Lane.

“He came up to the window, said something like, ‘35 years of trying here, here we go, this one’s for you,’” Paul Menard said. “Definitely, for him. He’s been trying to put a lot of time and energy into winning at Indy. It’s just a big deal.”

Menard had his share of well wishers visit him in the winner’s circle. His best friend and third-place finisher Regan Smith and hugged him from behind. Second-place finisher Jeff Gordon, who Menard watched win the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, and NASCAR president Mike Helton joined the celebration.

As the party moved out to the start-finish line, Menard was joined by his team, his family and his girlfriend, Jen Roster, with whom he shared a kiss with after celebratory kissing bricks.

But the warmest moments were the ones spent between father and son.

“Yes, he’s my dad,” Paul Menard said. “Yes, he’s my boss. In many respects, we’re just really good friends. We share racing on a similar level. He’s been around it way longer than I have. He understands racing.

“I grew up around racing. Before I was born, he was going to the Indy 500 and my relatives were go-karting and ice racing. We share a love, a passion for racing and it’s something we’ve always connected on. And we’re good friends because of it.”