Throughout its relatively brief history as a NASCAR venue, the calling card of Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been its ability to identify greatness. Winning the Brickyard 400 is often a step toward winning the Sprint Cup championship -- hoisting that golden brick in late summer a precursor to possibly lifting a sterling silver trophy in late fall. There are no flukes, no gifts, no excuses at a race track that always been so demanding, so unforgiving, that only the best prevail.
Sunday, that entire concept was turned on its head in a strange Brickyard 400 that was not only won by Paul Menard, but had its endgame set in motion by a crash sparked by Landon Cassill. This kind of thing just isn't supposed to happen in Indianapolis -- the place is too hard, requires a too-perfect combination of engine and handling, has been too dominated too often by teams that will go on to slug it out for the big prize at the end of the season. Regardless of whatever chaos or surprises have erupted elsewhere on the schedule, Indianapolis is the place where order is restored.
Not any more. This Brickyard 400 felt different from the very beginning, with all the focus on the "super weekend" debuting next season, with all the questions about attendance, with the announcement of a forthcoming title sponsor. And it certainly ended unlike any other NASCAR event here, with the unsung and previously winless Menard using an epic fuel run to hold off a charging Jeff Gordon and strike a blow for everyman drivers at the most famous race track in the world.
"It's pretty crazy," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., concisely summing up the afternoon.
And it was, like a movie you had watched for 90 minutes that for the final half-hour suddenly featured a completely different cast. The first two-thirds of the race were the Brickyard as we've always known it, with the obvious power brokers up front taking turns trying to run away from one another. Then on Lap 120, everything changed. Cassill and David Ragan found themselves side-by-side entering Turn 3, and on older tires Cassill's No. 51 car couldn't hold the position. He turned sideways, and vehicles went skidding to the apron or through the grass in his wake. The accident required a lengthy cleanup, and afterward a few drivers ducked on to pit road to fill up, willing to sacrifice their track position for a shot at glory in the end.
"Those guys who made it topped off at the very end of that, and gave up all their track position. But they didn't have any to start, so it didn't matter," said Alan Gustafson, Gordon's crew chief. "I think Paul had to come in and clean the grass off the grille. That just gave him the opportunity to save fuel and make it, because he was able to stop and go. We were running obviously a lot better than that, so we couldn't take that risk to get the fuel and give up the track position."
Neither could the other top contenders at the time, who waited another 10 laps or more to come in for their final pit stops. One by one, they found themselves dumped out into deep traffic -- the worst possible place at Indianapolis, where it's notoriously difficult to pass -- and pinned behind rivals who had decided to either stretch fuel as long as they could, or try and make it to the end. "How did we get all the way back here behind all these people?" Juan Montoya asked on the radio after he gave up a top-five position to pit, and emerged in 32nd. Earnhardt, Jeff Burton, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, David Ragan and others who had comprised the class of the field to that point could relate.
"We cycled around and didn't have the track position at the end, and that is all it was," said Earnhardt, who finished 16th. "Everybody was on a lot of different strategies, too."
Suddenly it was a different race, with completely new contenders, and an outcome about as uncertain as debt-ceiling talks. Richard "Slugger" Labbe, Menard's crew chief, knew his car had successfully made a 22-lap fuel run in practice on Saturday, and wondered about gambling to try and make the final 35 in the race. Last Monday at the team's meeting, they had talked about potentially taking some risks on pit road to try and qualify for the Chase. Here was a gamble right in front of them, ready to be taken. As soon as the jack dropped, Labbe set the plan in motion, telling his driver to save fuel and use long gears.
"Seems to be a trend in the Cup Series, that people take gambles on pit road," Labbe said. "It was our turn to get aggressive. I told Paul he had to support me. He supported me a hundred percent [Sunday]. Three times he had an occasion where he could have said 'No, I don't want to do that,' but he did. Fortunately it worked out."
Others followed suit. After the Cassill accident, Regan Smith said he had to come in and get grass cleaned off the front grille of his No. 78 car. Crew chief Pete Rondeau looked at the fuel strategy taking shape, and decided to top off. Smith estimated that he saved about two laps' worth of fuel from that point on, and wound up third. He wanted to push it and try to go for the victory, but Rondeau -- mindful of a dry tank that had ruined a potential top-10 effort two weeks earlier at New Hampshire -- overrode his driver.
"We knew we had a lot of fuel saved. We saved a lot," Smith said. "A Hail Mary would have been to go for the win. That's what I wanted to do. Sometimes you've got to go for the points. That's tough here, though."
Parked right behind Smith on pit road was the car of defending Brickyard 400 champion Jamie McMurray, who used the same tactic to salvage his first top-five finish of a miserable season. "They told me when the caution came out that we were going to be two laps short," said McMurray, who placed fourth, "and I told them in our team meeting [Sunday] that this was a track where I thought we could save two laps of gas. So it was very ironic that those were the two numbers."
And it was stunning to some that the gambles paid off. "What surprised me really was those guys that were running up front and running hard and making it," said Kyle Busch. "The No. 27 [car of Menard] made it; the No. 78 [car of Smith] made it. Those guys, I expected them to run out. But they must have had just enough."
They did. For Menard, though, there were no guarantees, certainly not with Gordon steadily chewing up the distance between them. Like many of the early-race leaders, Gordon had been buried in traffic by the pit cycle, but his car was good enough that it was able to steadily make up ground between him and others who were going easy on the throttle, trying to make their fuel last. Gustafson estimated that the fuel-saving drivers were about a second a lap slower, allowing Gordon -- and Matt Kenseth, who also charged back through the field -- to get themselves back in the mix at the end.
They simply ran out of laps. It was an electric conclusion, with the No. 24 car flying past one vehicle after another, and closing to within .686 seconds of Menard at the while flag. It seemed to have all the makings of a heartbreaking finish of the kind Indianapolis specializes in, but by that time Labbe had already turned his driver loose. They had saved enough to get to the finish. They knew it, and the No. 27 car was a blur beneath the checkers, even if Menard was so fixated on his fuel pressure gauge he didn't even notice.
"Paul did a great job saving fuel, because when I got there, even Regan and other guys, they were still pretty much checking up when I got there," said Gordon, who came up .725 seconds short of a record-tying fifth Indianapolis victory. "It was easy to get by them. But Paul had saved enough to where he could go back to a full pace. By that time, my car was just too tight behind him."
It was a popular and emotional victory, particularly given how active Menard's family has been in the Indianapolis 500 over the years, but in some corners of the NASCAR garage competitors shook their heads and offered wry smiles that seemed to ask -- what else do we have to do? It was an understandable sentiment, given what it typically takes to win at Indianapolis, and what transpired in Indianapolis on Sunday afternoon. No one questioned Menard's worthiness as champion; in fact, other drivers went out of their way to complement someone who's often received too much attention for his last name and sponsorship, and not enough for his prowess behind the wheel.
But for Indianapolis, of all events, to feature such a surprise winner and be decided in such a topsy-turvy fashion, seemed alien. What's next -- Nationwide cars at the Brickyard? Then again, this has been a topsy-turvy season, one from which evidently the most celebrated venue in motorsports is not immune.
"Us and [Gordon] probably had the two best cars overall for the day. It's a shame one of us couldn't get a win," lamented Kenseth, who rallied to finish fifth. "But we ran pretty good, and hopefully we're keeping ourselves in position like this, and hopefully there will be more races that come down to performance at the end of the race and we can be in the mix of things and have a shot at some wins."