Commentary

Menard gets big win, vindication

Updated: August 1, 2011, 10:32 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Crew chief Slugger Labbe was screaming wildly over the team radio late Sunday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and congratulations were buzzing in from everywhere when in a soft, almost monotone voice came the words, "Dad, this one's for you."

If you've followed Paul Menard's career, you might smile.

Or shed a tear.

Menard has spent a lifetime being criticized for having a billionaire father advance his career by sponsoring the cars he drives. It never was worse than in 2007 when two-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart said, "You can have your father buy a ride and write [Dale Earnhardt Inc.] a big check, but you can't buy talent."

[+] EnlargePaul Menard
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesPaul Menard became the first driver to celebrate his first Sprint Cup Series victory by kissing the bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Well, this so-called no-talent driver is the 2011 Brickyard 400 winner.

John Menard didn't write a check to get his son into Victory Lane for the first time on this hot, muggy day. Paul earned it by conserving fuel when Labbe said to and then gunning it when Labbe said "race for your life" with two laps remaining and four-time Brickyard 400 champion Jeff Gordon closing fast.

He did it by ignoring all the criticism he's taken during his 30 years and believing he could do what nobody else did.

"It's like redemption," a sweat-soaked and emotionally drained John said from Victory Lane.

Ah, Victory Lane at Indianapolis. It's a place the Menard family has longed to be since John started bringing Indy cars here more than 30 years ago only to see engine failures and other heartbreaks deprive him of a win.

Probably the last person anyone expected to get the family here was Paul.

But there stood John on the hallowed checkered ground, so proud he could barely talk. There stood Paul, almost stunned in disbelief.

"Paul was just a baby when I started coming here," John said. "He just wanted to race. As he got further and further into racing, people said, 'Well, just because he's my kid he gets to drive.'

"Well, that's true. But you know, he can drive a race car. And he's a good kid. I'm so happy for him."

Gordon was so happy for Menard that he put aside the frustration of finishing second to personally congratulate Paul and John in Victory Lane.

"A guy like Paul, who grew up here and his family came here every year for the 500, I don't think anybody could appreciate this win more than him," Gordon said. "Especially for his first win. That's pretty special."

And yes, Gordon believes Menard has talent.

"It's pretty obvious he can drive," he said. "You don't win at Indy by fluke."

Menard drove like he never drove before in the closing laps of this one to become the first driver to win his first race at IMS. He conserved fuel as Labbe told him to with 10 laps to go, then passed defending Brickyard champion Jamie McMurray with three laps remaining.

With Gordon almost two seconds faster and closing fast, Labbe turned his driver loose and said, "Drive the hell out of it."

With one lap left Labbe radioed, "C'mon man! In-the-park home run! Get it!"

Menard knocked it out of the park.

And then he pulled into Victory Lane -- a place where as a child in a suite he watched Gordon celebrate victory in the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 -- let down the window net and greeted his father with, "Thirty-five years of trying here, here you go. This one is for you."

That's about as emotional as Paul gets. He's so unassuming that after crossing the famous yard of bricks on the final lap he asked, "Was that the checkered?"

"I didn't see it," Paul said, softly.

Nobody saw this coming. The list of winners at Indianapolis reads like a "Who's Who" of NASCAR, from Gordon to five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to Dale Earnhardt to Dale Jarrett.

Now there is Menard, the driver Stewart said in 2007 had "just enough talent to be in the way most of the time."

Don't look now Stewart, but the kid born with the silver spoon has a win, something you don't have this season. He also is 14th in points, only five spots behind you and feeling pretty good about getting at least a wild-card berth into the Chase because he has a win.

"To win today was unbelievable for the Menard family," team owner Richard Childress said. "He had a dream and today his dream came true."

[+] EnlargePaul and John Menard
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanPaul Menard, right, and his father John Menard were filled with joy after breaking the family's 0-fer at Indianapolis.

What would Paul say to Stewart and anybody else who criticizes him now?

"Uh, we're winning in a Sprint Cup car," he said. "That's a big deal. To do it at Indy is a big deal, you know. You can't change people's opinions. They're going to say what they want to say. That's fine with me.

"We'll celebrate this and enjoy it and then work hard for Pocono and work hard to make the Chase. Whatever they say, you can't control it."

Paul doesn't deny that he might not be where he is were it not for his dad's riches, $5.2 billion according to "Forbes" in March.

He knows his dad's willingness to provide millions to put the family name -- Menard's is the third largest home improvement store in the country behind Home Depot and Lowe's -- on the hood got him jobs at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Yates Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports and now Richard Childress Racing.

He also believes he can drive.

Now others will, too.

"I know what I'm capable of," Paul said.

That's what is most important. And if you get right down to it, most drivers wouldn't be where they are today if it wasn't for the financial and time commitment of their parents.

John Menard just had more cash than most.

"Money well spent," John said as the postrace celebration moved into the media center.

But this win wasn't about money. It wasn't about conserving fuel even though Menard did it better than anybody when he was forced into that mode after a pit-road penalty around Lap 34.

This was about a family.

Overcoming odds.

Vindication.

"This is Paul's day, but in a way our whole family has been at the Speedway for so long ...," said John, reliving how he smuggled a young Paul into IMS garage area for the first time and telling him to be quiet so nobody would throw him out. "He wanted to be a racecar driver, you know. I'm just a proud father. I lapse back and think of him as a little boy, but he's a full-grown man."

He's also a race winner.

Money well spent, indeed.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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