1 August 2011
Paul Menard stuns with maiden win at Indy
Paul Menard managed to juggle the conflicting demands of making his fuel stretch to the limit while staying out of reach of a charging Jeff Gordon to claim his first Cup race victory.
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.
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