No one saw that one coming - not even the driver himself. When it looked as though Paul Menard might be on his way to win one of NASCAR's biggest Cup races, the Brickyard 400, fans were virtually rubbing their eyes and doing comedy double-takes at what was unfolding at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Before the green flag came out, the pundits had been in broad agreement that this year's Brickyard 400 would be an indicator of which of the leading teams most had its whole operation working smoothly and optimised for the forthcoming Chase post-season shootout. Someone like three-time winner Jimmie Johnson, for example, or perhaps two-time winner Tony Stewart whose Stewart-Haas team was looking reinvigorated after its 1-2 at New Hampshire two weeks ago; or even four-time winner Jeff Gordon, the man who won the first ever Brickyard 400 race in 1994 when NASCAR made the still-controversial transgression onto hallowed IndyCar ground.
If there was going to be a 'surprise' then it would surely go to someone like Juan Montoya, the 2000 Indianapolis 500 winner in IndyCar and who has also raced here in F1, someone who has come close to breaking through to his first oval victory at the Brickyard twice before only to falter in the final laps. Or perhaps someone like Carl Edwards, the Cup championship leader, even if he was not one of the favourites for this race by virtue of the startling statistic that the Brickyard 400 has never been won by a car running a Ford engine. What it wouldn't be was someone winning out of the blue like last year, when Jamie McMurray took the chequered flag.
Even David Ragan winning the race wouldn't have been considered so out of the question: he was undeniably on a roll after all, claiming his first two Cup poles in July as well as his maiden win, at Daytona - another "big track" even if the Daytona International Speedway configuration is profoundly different from the unique "four straight" Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The race has been won twice before from pole position - most recently by Johnson in 2008 - and Ragan must have been hoping that the stars were aligned for a third to complete his best-ever month in NASCAR Cup competition.
Sadly, it was not to be: after leading the field to the start, Ragan was immediately usurped by Kasey Kahne and although he ran near the front for much of the race never seemed a real contender, eventually finishing down in 23rd place. Instead, Kahne pulled out a good lead and stayed in front for the next 24 laps, while behind him Jeff Gordon was working his way up smartly from eighth place to move into second by lap 14. Tony Stewart was also looking comfortable and up to 17th having qualified in a disappointing 24th, but would subsequently lose all those places with a drive-thru penalty for hitting the cone marking the pit lane commitment line during the first round of pit stops.
"Kevin [Harvick] lifted earlier than I did coming off turn 4," he explained. "Versus running into him, I went to the outside of him. The problem was when I got to the cone, I was in the wrong spot. It was one of those things; I was trying to get everything I could get. It was either hit the cone or run over the guy in front of me and I chose to hit the cone, so we got the penalty for it."
Kahne surrendered the lead to Gordon at the start of those green flag pit stops, which commenced with AJ Allmendinger coming in on lap 25. Matt Kenseth and Landon Cassill both had single lap turns in front, but once the pit stops were all done it was inevitably Kahne back on front for the next 22 laps of the race, including four under yellow (for debris) for the first time of the day. Neither Kahne nor Gordon came in under that caution, and Denny Hamlin was another to chose to stay out as he sought to recover from having to start at the back of the grid for blowing a tyre in practice on Friday.
A second caution perfectly timed for Hamlin came out on lap 50 when David Reutimann lost his right front tyre and hit the wall, allowing everyone to come into pit lane - including Hamlin who was now happily back in-sync and still well up the running order. But it was not such a great experience for Kahne, whose Red Bull pit crew lost a lugnut and put him down into tenth place.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. stayed out to lead at the restart, having been forced into what had threatened to be a costly green flag pit stop five laps earlier to have his grille cleaned of debris that had been affecting engine temperatures; but Dale soon politely pulled over to make way for Jeff Gordon, which meant that along with Jimmie Johnson the Hendrick Motorsports team had a temporary 1-2-3 lockout at the front.
By virtue of his previous earlier stop, Earnhardt was the first of the leaders in for the next round of green flag pit stops and was in on lap 77. Johnson and Paul Menard briefly led a lap during the cycle, before Jeff Gordon once again resumed the lead in what was looking like a promising, dominating performance by the #24.
A caution for debris on lap 94 allowed everyone to cool their engines down and head for pit lane for fuel and tyres as well as a clean-up of the air intake grills. Paul Menard led the field to the restart, with Kasey Kahne now in fourth ahead of Jeff Gordon in fifth place and Jimmie Johnson tumbling to 13th after opting to take a full set of new tyres, while Kyle Busch - who had been running in eighth - has a long stop to sort out some collision damage on the #18 sustained when he slid through his pit box into Tony Stewart's, putting him down to 21st.
"We made contact on the pit stop when Tony was coming in and I was coming out," explained Kyle. "It was our fault. We should have waited for him to come in. After that, we got into traffic and knocked the nose in. We salvaged along from there."
"It's a long pit road, but it's a narrow pit road," added Stewart. "I feel bad for Kyle and those guys because they had a good day going at that time."
Menard handed the lead to Matt Kenseth on lap 105, and Kenseth checked out taking Gordon with him, the two pulling out 2s over Juan Montoya who was up in third place by the time the fourth caution of the afternoon came out lap 114, caused by Kyle Busch still struggling with handling and finding the wall in turn 2.
Brad Keselowski - who had won the previous day's Nationwide race at nearby Lucas Oil Raceway and was evidently hungry for more success - led at the restart ahead of Jeff Burton, Jamie McMurray, Landon Cassill and Juan Montoya but it was a short-lived green, with Landon Cassill and David Ragan making contact on lap 120 to take the race back to caution again, Cassill's sideways slide sending Kasey Kahne and others into the in-field grass. Kahne dropped to 16th in the aftermath. Kurt Busch - already hampered by bodywork damaged sustained by hitting the wall in the opening laps - was among those to clog his radiator grille with debris and need pit lane attention to get it cleaned out to avoid overheating, as was Paul Menard who also come in for fuel and tyres with a final extra top-up just before the green flag came out in the hope that they might make it all the way given a few more caution laps along the way.
Brad Keselowski was still in the lead at the next restart on lap 126 with Clint Bowyer moving up into second spot. But a strange sight was unfolding behind them: even though there had just been an opportunity for pit stops under yellow less than half a dozen laps previously, suddenly cars including Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton were all piling in under green instead, the absolute outer threshold for being assured of making it to the end of the race on a tank of fuel having finally been crossed.
Keselowski followed suit and came in on lap 132, and Bowyer was in two laps later with Jeff Gordon in the lap after that. Tony Stewart picked up the lead of the race on lap 136, and did not immediately follow the template, making some observers wonder if he could make it all the way to the end on his current tank of gas. His crew chief Darian Grubb was on the radio to say that they needed to save an extra lap and a half to make it - achievable given that Stewart had a lead of 12s to play with over Brian Vickers, Paul Menard, Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray. But Stewart decided otherwise, and rather than risk running humiliatingly dry in the final seconds of the race he decided to play safe, and came in for a top-up on lap 146 with 14 laps left to run.
That left Paul Menard in the lead, but with no further cautions materialising he and those around him were frantically leaning off the fuel as much as was humanly and mechanically possible, the cars even coasting down the main straights on the lowest revs possible to save valuable gasoline in a ploy that made for a strangely ghostly effect as the cars glided near-soundlessly down the Speedway straightaways for long stretches.
The nearest car with a full tank of fuel was Jeff Gordon, and he was 12s down the road, but Menard was working his fuel so hard now that he even lost the lead to Jamie McMurray who seemed less concerned about making it to the end, and rather more alarmed by the way Gordon had now closed to 7.7s with seven laps remaining.
Then word came over Menard's radio from pit crew chief Richard "Slugger" Labbe that Menard didn't have to worry about the fuel anymore: they'd hit the numbers and he could fire it up, get past McMurray again and hold off Gordon. Menard needed no second invitation to escape the frustrations of fuel conservation mode and was quickly back in front with three laps to go, but with Gordon now screaming down the road toward him just 1.5s behind and closing at a rate of over a second a lap.
It looked certain that Gordon had timed his run perfectly. He should have won. It was impossible that Menard, of all people, could win the Brickyard 400. About as likely as an unknown 21-year-old rookie winning the Daytona 500, for example ... But just as Trevor Bayne had triumphed against the odds in February, so Paul Menard had what it took given the opportunity of the chequered flag right there in front of him: with the help of lapped traffic, he held off the #24 just long enough to cross the finish line.
"Every time I got to a car that was saving fuel they kind of held me up a little bit and made it a little more difficult for me to pass," admitted Gordon. "So I knew were weren't going to quite get to Paul, it was really about him running out of fuel. We tried as hard as we could to put pressure on him.
If the race had been a single lap longer, it would have been a different story - but instead, Menard was finally granted the keys to the exclusive victory lane club for the first time in his NASCAR Cup career, becoming the 14th different race winner in the 20 races so far in 2011 with his first Cup win in 167 starts
"A lot of emotions right now," said Menard as he stood dazed by his achievement. "Slugger Labbe and all of these guys just do a hell of a job. I can't believe we won Indy ... Can't wait to kiss the bricks!
"This is the one I wanted to win. My family, my Dad has had IndyCars here since the late 70s, 35 years or so. For 35 years he's been trying so giving him his first win here after all those years of trying is pretty special."
Even Gordon, disappointed as he was not to claim his fifth win at the famed IMS, seemed happy about the end result. "I've got to say as disappointing as it is to not win this race it sure was great to run that good and I've got to congratulate Paul Menard. I don't think there is anybody in this garage area that appreciates a win here at the Brickyard more than Paul. He grew up here as a kid and I think that's pretty special, pretty cool."
Behind Gordon, Regan Smith - another of this season's first-time winners - finished in third just ahead of 2010 Brickyard winner Jamie McMurray in fourth who was on fumes by the end. Among the main championship contenders, Matt Kenseth took fifth place, Kyle Busch finished in tenth with arch rival Kevin Harvick just behind in 11th, Carl Edwards in 14th, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 16th and Jimmie Johnson 19th. Kurt Busch was a disappointing 21st and Juan Montoya 28th, while former Cup regular and F1 driver Scott Speed's comeback drive only lasted 19 laps before he retired with rear gear problems.
That means that in the Cup championship standings
, Carl Edwards maintains his lead over Jimmie Johnson by 11pts, while Kurt Busch falls back three positions and surrenders third place back to Kevin Harvick. Fans of the Omen
films will take delight in seeing Kyle Busch on 666pts, tied with Matt Kenseth in fourth position.
Worryingly for Junior fans, Earnhardt's 16th place means he falls another place in the standings to tenth place - the final position that still gets through to the Chase, putting him very much "on the bubble". The #88 can certainly afford no more mistakes from this point on if he's to stay ahead of Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer who would dearly love to knock him out of the top ten.
Perhaps the most disappointed man at Indianapolis on Sunday night was Juan Montoya, who gambled on changing his long-time crew chief Brian Pattie with Jim Pohlman during the two week interval between New Hampshire and Indianapolis in the hope that it would set him up for a third successive strong run at Indianapolis that would result in a win and an outside shot of getting into the Chase via the new wildcard system which reserves two slots for drivers in positions 11 through 20 with the most race wins.
"It sucks when you run good all day but I think Jim Pohlman and all the guys did a really good job all day," said Montoya. "We unloaded really bad and at the end we were a really competitive car ... We have to work really good with Jim and understand each other and if the wins come, good, if they don't they don't you know? Right now its all about looking at the future and long term I think its pretty good."
Sadly despite running near the front at times, Montoya never really featured in the race and instead the wildcard gambit has fallen into Paul Menard's lap: currently only three drivers in that range have a win - Denny Hamlin, Paul Menard and David Ragan - so Menard has a very real chance of making the cut that comes in the middle of September after the second Richmond race of the year.
However there are six races still so go before that: quite apart from the number of points still on offer in the meantime, that's another six first time winners of the year that could be thrown up along the way. And the way the season's shaping up, it wouldn't even be all that surprising any more if it did just that.
Full results and positions