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Monkey on the back

Menard thinks first win at Brickyards will come someday

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Posted: Thursday May 25, 2000 09:24 PM

  John Menard Not for lack of trying: John Menard's team has won the pole three times. David Taylor/Allsport

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- John Menard is absolutely sure his team is going to win the Indianapolis 500 -- someday.

He's been saying that for a while, though. His team has fielded some of the fastest cars at Indy over the last two decades, but it has never been able to take the checkered flag.

Once again, Team Menard looked strong in qualifying. And once again, the car owner hopes it carries over to Sunday.

Greg Ray, Team Menard's full-time driver and the defending Indy Racing League champion, will start from the pole.

Robby Gordon, a regular in NASCAR's Winston Cup series, will go from the fourth position in what is expected to be his only IRL appearance this season.

"We're going to win the race sooner or later," Menard said Thursday. "It just has to be the right time, the right situation, the right group of guys. And there's a lot of luck involved in racing."

His team has had little luck during the 21 years Menard has been racing, particularly at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's won the pole three times and led hundreds of laps with such drivers as Al Unser, Nelson Piquet and Tony Stewart.

Last year's race might have been the biggest disappointment.

Ray led 32 laps last May, but left the race after a pit road collision with Mark Dismore. Gordon was leading with less than two laps remaining on the 2 1/2-mile oval when he ran out of fuel.

Menard, standing amid the swirl of activity in his team's Gasoline Alley garage, grimaced while talking about it.

"I keep going back to last year because we were so close," he said. "That was the first time in, I think, 12 years, that they didn't have a yellow [flag] in the last 30 laps of the race.

"If they would have had the yellow in the last 30 laps, we would have won the race easily."

Ray would love to give Menard his first Indy win.

"I really thought in my heart of hearts that I could deliver him that first win last year," he said.

"All you can do is do a little soul-searching and say, `We worked hard. We put ourselves in a position to win, but the stars didn't line up.'"

As difficult as Indianapolis has been for Menard, it has been even tougher on Ray.

In his rookie year in 1997, he started 30th and a broken water pump left him 25th. The last two years he has started second and been among the favorites, but a gearbox failure in 1998 gave him 18th place and last year's pit road collision placed him 21st.

Ray, who insists he'd trade all of his previous racing accomplishments for a win at Indy, remains optimistic. A lot of that optimism is generated by Menard.

"As a driver, you couldn't pick a better team owner to drive for because there's no ulterior motive here," Ray said. "He just wants to win. That's quite gratifying."

Menard, owner of a chain of home improvement stores, was part owner of Gordon's team in the rival CART series last season and is co-owner of Gordon's NASCAR team.

Gordon could be the driver who finally gives Menard his coveted Indy win.

In five previous starts in the 33-car field, Gordon has three top-five finishes. He ran fifth in 1994 and 1995 and wound up fourth last year.

Both Menard drivers shook down their Dallara-Aurora race cars during Thursday's two-hour "Carburetion Day" session, the only practice in the week between the end of qualifying and the race.

Gordon turned a fast lap of 216.471 mph -- the sixth best -- and Ray was ninth overall at 215.560 mph. Juan Montoya, the defending CART champion and an Indy rookie, had the fastest lap of the day, 218.257 mph.

After practice, Gordon flew back to Concord, N.C., to qualify his stock car later Thursday for the Coca-Cola 600. He will start 42nd in the 43-car field Sunday at Lowe's Motor Speedway and will be the third driver to race in both events on the same day.

Winning either race would be meaningful for Gordon, but giving Menard the Indy win would probably mean a little more to him.

"John Menard is a businessman first. But he's also my friend," Gordon said. "I'd love to win this race for both of us."

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