In a year filled with improbable story lines, Paul Menard’s 2011 Brickyard 400 victory certainly ranked high on the list.
Menard came into the prestigious event having not won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race in 166 starts. And his father, John Menard, endured 34 mostly fruitless runs as a car owner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, never managing to win the Indianapolis 500.
Suddenly, years of frustration for father and son were erased when the younger Menard held off a hard-charging Jeff Gordon to win the 2011 Brickyard 400.
It was a triumphant, historical moment for the Menard family, and one week from Sunday, Paul Menard gets a chance to defend his victory at the fabled Brickyard.
Realistically, the odds do not favor a repeat.
In 19 races so far this season, neither Menard nor his Richard Childress Racing teammates has found victory lane so far.
As for Menard’s fellow upstart winners from 2011, neither Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500) nor David Ragan (Coke Zero 400) has even a single top-five finish this year.
But the beauty of it is, no one expected Menard to win last year, either. He came into the 2011 Brickyard 400 19th in points and frankly had struggled to put together good finishes prior to his big victory.
This year, though, Menard is consistently finishing races decently, even if the entire RCR fleet could use more speed.
Asked during Wednesday’s NASCAR teleconference if he thought he could repeat at the Brickyard, Menard had the perfect answer.
“We are going to try like hell to,” Menard said. “We were fortunate enough to win the race last year and kiss the bricks, and like to do that again, for sure.”
Menard knows it’s time to step it up.
“We have to get better as a team,” he said. “We are sitting 15th in points, lost a few spots last week, but in order to contend for race wins, we have got to get better and we all understand that and we are all working hard towards it.”
One source of optimism for Menard is that he finished ninth last month at Pocono, his first top 10 since he ran seventh at Las Vegas in March.
“Pocono and Indy are very similar, had a good run, qualified third and finished ninth at Pocono and a lot of those things translate back over to Indy,” said Menard.
“I look forward to going to Indy,” he added. “We are bringing a new car. It's one that we ran at Richmond but we wrecked it, broke the throttle and wrecked the car. This will be the first true test of this new car and it's been a pretty good one so far. So hopefully all goes well and we can repeat.”
And make no mistake about it, Menard is looking ahead, not resting on his laurels.
“We enjoyed the moment last year but we have been looking forward to this year, and I got to go home for about a week or two over Christmas and see the family, and we talked about it somewhat but mostly we were just working as a race team trying to get better this year,” Menard said. “What happened last year was great, and I'll always cherish it. I have a lot of memorabilia from it. But the time now is to work on this year.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.