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.