By RICH FOLEY
The NASCAR Cup Series found itself with a bit of a dilemma entering 2011. With no one planning to run for rookie of the year at that point, we could easily have gone the whole year without a new face in victory lane. That worry only lasted until Daytona, when Trevor Bayne took home the “500” trophy.
After that, some veteran drivers who have struggled for years without a sniff of victory suddenly started driving like they were Kyle Busch, or maybe Kevin Harvick. First, Regan Smith put the Colorado-based Furniture Row team’s car in the winners circle at Darlington’s Southern 500.
Then David Ragan, on the verge of losing his spot at Roush Racing, probably bought himself a little time by winning the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona in July. Most recently, Paul Menard silenced many of his critics by driving to victory at Indianapolis’s Brickyard 400. Hired by Richard Childress Racing to drive a fourth car with sponsorship by the family-owned home improvement chain, Menard and Kevin Harvick are the only winners at RCR this season.
Is there anyone left to win their initial race this season? With the addition of Bayne, Smith, Ragan and Menard to the ranks of the winners, there are usually 30 to 32 drivers with at least one previous Cup win in each race’s starting lineup. This number can be even higher if Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine or Steve Park are making one of their sporadic starts. And yet going into this month, a few drivers with a legitimate chance of winning their first Cup event are still out there.
David Gilliland almost joined the ranks of the winners at Daytona, finishing in third place behind Bayne and Carl Edwards. His Front Row Motorsports Ford isn’t always that competitive, but Gilliland has a history of getting the most out of his cars and given another chance, a win for him isn’t that far-fetched.
Then there’s the Tasmanian Devil himself, Marcos Ambrose. The driver from Down Under has a reputation as a road course ace, but scored two third-place finishes on ovals in May, first at the Dover 400, then in Charlotte’s Sprint All-Star Race, a non-point event. He now has to be considered a possibility on any type of track.
Ambrose’s teammate, A. J. Allmendinger, also has a third-place finish, scored at the 2009 Daytona 500. With the Richard Petty team finally on a solid financial footing, A. J. stands a good chance of eventually putting the #43 back in Victory Lane.
Finally, there’s 48-year-old Dave Blaney. A champion in sprint cars, he’s struggled with mid to low level Cup teams for over a decade, with two career third places his best showings to date. But in Talladega in April, he almost pulled off a win.
Blaney ran near the front all day, leading a total of 21 laps, including laps 180 to 184 of the 188-lap event. Then Kurt Busch became the evil stepmother who ended Blaney’s Cinderella story. After losing the lead momentarily, drafting partner Busch ran into Blaney, turning his car around and off the track, dropping him all the way to 27th place. Dave has to be looking forward to returning to Talladega in October for another chance.
One or more of these four could end up in Victory Lane yet this year. Or someone even more unlikely could come along and win. But if you’re a fan of Michael McDowell or T. J. Bell, I wouldn’t hold my breath.