1 August 2011
Paul Menard stuns with maiden win at Indy
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.
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