A long Indy 500 journey reaches Victory Circle for John Menard

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INDIANAPOLIS – After celebrating in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Victory Circle with his winning driver, the billionaire industrialist naturally jetted off to Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch another of his race cars.

Roger Penske?

No, “The Captain” monitored Team Penske’s performance in the Coca-Cola 600 from afar and stayed in Indianapolis to celebrate Simon Pagenaud’s victory, the 18th in the Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske.

FULL INDIANAPOLIS 500 COVERAGE: All of NBCSports.com’s 2019 stories over two weeks in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

The traveling man was John Menard, the namesake founder of the home improvement chain that sponsors Pagenaud’s car and his son Paul’s Ford in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Sunday marked John Menard’s second win as a sponsor at the Brickyard (where Paul won in 2011) but his first in the series where he first planted his company’s flag 40 years ago.

“You ever watch that movie called ‘The Candidate’ when that guy works and works and works and finally gets elected, after the election, he won, and he gazed into the mirror and says, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ That’s the way I feel,” Menard said. “We’ll go try to win another one.”

The Eau Claire, Wisconsin, native recalled dragging a sponsor sign to his first Indy 500 in 1979 and begging an Indianapolis Motor Speedway worker to let Menard through the garage gate without a credential.

“He goes, ‘Where are you going with that sign and I said, ‘I want to get in the garage area,’” Menard said. “So he unlocked the gate and let me in. I didn’t have a credential. I didn’t know where I was going. I said which was is the garage area? I think he thought I was crazy, but we had a good time.”

Over the past four decades, Menard has sponsored cars for IndyCar contenders such as Tony Stewart, Greg Ray and Robby Gordon, and he also owned part-time NASCAR efforts in the Cup (with Gordon) and truck series.

In 2018, he moved his NASCAR sponsorship from Richard Childress Racing to Team Penske and its alliance team, Wood Brothers Racing, after sponsoring Penske’s IndyCar teams for a few years.

“John and I have been around here a long time,” said Penske, who was celebrating his 50th year at Indy in 2019. “I’ve watched him and he watched me and a couple years ago, we said, ‘Look, maybe we’d do better together. Finally it took a couple years, but John, to see the Menards logo and certainly your excitement and commitment to the sport for so many years is terrific, and we could bring home a winner with you and you with our guys. Just tremendous.

“You’ve got a great brand. You’re a great person, your family, and obviously Paul is a key guy on our team down in the south, so we can’t say enough.”

INDYCAR Photo by John CoteSaid Pagenaud, whose No. 22 Dallara-Chevrolet has sported the day-glo colors of Menards since 2017: “John Menard, he’s been trying so hard. I felt so bad that we didn’t get one for him already, so finally getting one for him is very special.

“Having that livery is very cool because people notice the car so easily. It’s so great for all that he’s done for the sport. He’s done so much. He deserves to get a Borg-Warner, so I’m very proud to be the driver.”
Drinking the winner’s milk with Pagenaud, whom he called “just one wonderful human being,” was special for Menard.

But it still might rank behind kissing the bricks at Indy with his son.

“That’s family,” Menard said. “That was probably the highlight of my personal racing career just because it was my son that won. But this ranks right in there. I’ll tell you what, this is a good deal, and I can’t thank Team Penske, I can’t thank the Indianapolis Motor Speedway enough for all the great memories and times and over the years that we’ve had here. It’s amazing.”

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500