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Race Coverage
First Place

Hometown hero
Lee Montgomery, NASCAR Scene

Here’s the situation: The stadium is packed and fans are cheering wildly. Only a few seconds remain in the game.

            A team is deep in their opponent’s territory, driving for a potential go-ahead score. But they’ve been stopped short of the goal line, and now it’s fourth down.

            It’s time for the kicker to run onto the field to set up for what could be a game-winning field goal. The pressure is immense, as all eyes are suddenly on one of the least-used players on either team.

            Make it, and your team celebrates. Miss it, and all the hard work and effort put in by your teammates goes for nothing. That’s a lot on a kicker, but welcome to the NFL.

            But before the ball is snapped, the other team calls a timeout. Ahhh!

            All the emotion, all the adrenaline, it all seems to stop. Make the kicker think about it, the other team hopes, and maybe he’ll blow it.

            That was the situation facing Paul Menard late in the AT&T 250 at The Milwaukee Mile. An Eau Claire, Wis., native, Menard was trying to win his first NASCAR Busch Series race in front of friends and family, including his dad, John, the founder of the company that bears their last name and has supported Paul’s racing career.

            Menard looked in his rearview mirror and saw J.J. Yeley, a Nextel Cup driver who had his first Busch Series victory snatched away by upstart David Gilliland the weekend before at Kentucky Speedway. And behind Yeley – for a few laps, anyway – was points leader Kevin Harvick.

            Both Harvick and Yeley would try every legal trick – and perhaps an illegal move or two – to pass Menard.

            Then came the timeout. And another. And another. And another. And another. And another.

            “The last few laps, I was very nervous and wanting to get going,” Menard said later. “[I] felt like I was getting iced like an NFL kicker does. Really nerve-racking going through all those restarts.”

            But Menard isn’t one to get rattled easily. If this had been an NFL game, the kick would have gone right through the center of the uprights. Menard didn’t jump up and down and go crazy like some NFL kickers – that’s just not his style – but the smile on his face and the slight octave rise in his usually quiet voice told the story.

            “I’ve been anticipating it for a long time,” Menard said of getting his first victory after 84 previous Busch Series starts. “I had a lot of ups and downs throughout the year. To have the win come as it did, holding off Harvick and Yeley at Milwaukee – home state, all my friends and family – I couldn’t have asked for a better place.”

            Or perhaps a better finish. After the first 200 laps were pretty much a yawner, the final 50 – plus eight more to ensure a green-white-checker finish – were intense.

            Late in the race, Jason Leffler had taken over in his Braun Racing No. 38 Dodge, catching and passing Nextel Cup driver Denny Hamlin. Aric Almirola qualified Hamlin’s No. 20 on the pole while Hamlin was flying in from Sonoma, Calif., but Hamlin had to start at the rear of the field for the driver change.

            Hamlin was strong, getting to the top 10 from his 41st starting position in only 46 laps. He led four times for 64 laps, but Leffler ran him down and got the lead on lap 167.

That was in the middle of a long green-flag run, and Hamlin was one of the first cars to pit for fuel and tires on lap 204.

A lap later, Leffler headed to pit road for the service that could take him to his first Busch Series victory in more than two years. But a not-so-funny thing happened en route to victory lane.

            Leffler’s rear brakes locked up, and he did a snap spin at the entrance to pit road.

            “We run so much rear brake on the short tracks,” Leffler said. “And then when the fuel burns off, you have a lot of rear brake. I wasn’t ready for it. I just let my guys down. I feel bad.”

            Menard should have been ecstatic about getting the lead – he was a couple of seconds behind Leffler – but didn’t realize Leffler had spun.

            “The caution came out, and I didn’t know we were the leader, so I kept trying to follow the lapped cars in front of me,” Menard said. “I guess I was getting yelled at by NASCAR for not slowing down. I didn’t know I was the leader.”

            He was, but caution-flag pit stops were coming up, so keeping the lead was anything but assured – especially on this night. Menard’s team had trouble on earlier pit stops, once when Menard lost five positions when he was trapped in his pit stall behind Johnny Sauter’s car.

            But when it counted, Menard’s team was quick.

            “Pit road’s so tight,” said crew chief Dan Stillman, a Wisconsin native like Menard. “The first two stops weren’t real good. We got blocked in.

            “When [Leffler] spun, that was good for us. We got to come in leading. We had the first pit in and out. Our guys did a real good job. It was a real good job.”

            The race restarted with 40 laps to go. Forty laps were all that separated Menard from his first victory.

            But then came the cautions. There were six yellows in the final 46 laps, meaning Menard and his crew had plenty of time to think about it, plenty of time to be iced.

            “We built a good-enough lead to be comfortable there, and the caution would come out,” Stillman said. “Then we had to re-do it again. It was pretty nerve-racking. It felt like 300 laps under caution there.”

            With 23 laps to go, and after two cautions, Menard’s lead was up to 1.4 seconds. Of course, another yellow came out. After a restart on lap 233, Harvick dispatched Yeley for second place and came after Menard.

            Five laps later, the caution came out for the ninth time. With less than 10 laps to go, the field would restart single-file, meaning Menard had lost the protection of lapped cars.

            Harvick stayed on Menard’s bumper, but the yellow waved for the 10th time on lap 244. Menard’s crew could hardly believe it, shaking their heads.

            “If I was on TV, I would’ve been doing the same thing, I’m sure,” Menard said.

            The green waved again on lap 247, and Harvick made his most aggressive move of the night, ducking to the low side of the track on the frontstretch. When Menard moved over to block, Harvick didn’t back off.

            The two raced as one through Turn 1, with Harvick making contact with Menard’s rear number at least twice. Menard’s car would kick sideways, but Harvick couldn’t dart inside. Somehow, Menard kept his car straight through Turn 2 despite the pressure from Harvick.

            But Harvick was getting pressure from Yeley, and when Harvick backed off to catch his car, Yeley drilled him. Harvick spun, Menard got away, and suddenly cars were crashing all over the place.

            “I got a good restart, just got underneath him and he did what he had to do to protect the bottom,” Harvick said. “I got in the back of him, somebody got in the back of me, and we all just wrecked. One of those deals.”

            Yeley was probably hoping the top two would take each other out.

            “Kevin was very fast,” Yeley said. “He was faster than [Menard] and got a good restart. It looked like they got together getting into 1, and coming off Turn 2, they got into each other again and got sideways. He checked up, and I was right there. I couldn’t avoid them.”

            Menard said he spun the tires on his car on the restart, allowing Harvick to move right in.

            “I spun the tires a little bit, and I saw he had a run, so I pulled down,” Menard said. “If he wanted the outside, I was going to give him all the room in the world out there. But I wasn’t going to give him the bottom.

            “Before we got to Turn 1, he was pushing me. Normally, you pull out to pass someone. You don’t try pushing them. Got into Turn 1, and he kept pushing me and got me loose a couple times. I just held on.”

            Harvick’s race was essentially over, as he fell back to 20th. After the seven-car wreck was cleaned up, Menard had one more restart to survive. He spun the tires again, but second-place Yeley had nothing left.

            “I didn’t have much of a shot at Paul,” Yeley said. “I got a really good restart and got underneath him – almost. I guess I could have sent him up the race track, but I didn’t want to win my first race or have a shot to win my first race by crashing somebody.”

            “I would have done it,” Hamlin said with a laugh.

            Hamlin never got the chance, though he did pass Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Yeley for second coming to the white flag.

            All that was left for Menard was to celebrate – that and avoid Harvick on pit road. Menard said Harvick cut across the front of his car after the race, and Harvick was summoned to the NASCAR hauler.

            “I’m not really sure what that was about,” Menard said. “He tried driving me down to the wall, so I stopped and waited for him to think about what he was doing, and he took off. No harm, no foul.”

            And no penalty for Harvick, Busch Series Director Joe Balash said.

            “We just wanted to talk to Kevin about the end of the race and make sure everything was OK,” Balash said.

            Everything seemed to be, Balash said.

            Everything sure was right for Menard.

            “To have Leffler spin – he was checked out – to win it the way we did was kind of frustrating because it would’ve been fun to race with Leffler,” Menard said.

            “But to hold off Harvick and Yeley and Hamlin and all those boys at the end made up for it.”
            There’s nothing like winning your first race.

            Or kicking that game-winning field goal.