Old faces in familiar places? It’s a common saying, and all you have to do to apply it is check out Victory Lane at the end of any NASCAR Nextel Cup race.
Despite the excitement brought on by a group of young rookies, despite the thrills given from a group of resurging veterans"¦the 2006 version of NASCAR isn’t all that different from last year when it comes to who’s taking the checkered flag every Sunday. Seven races into the year, every driver who’s won this season was a Nextel Cup winner in 2005. Sure, other car owners may have closed the gap on the Roush-Hendrick juggernaut, as those two organizations combined to win only 3 of the year’s first 7 events (a far cry from the 6 of 7 they won last year). Even so, the drivers crossing the finish line first from organizations like Evernham, Gibbs, and Penske are those who have visited Victory Lane in the recent past, such as Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, and Kurt Busch.
With that said, there have been signs that several drivers shut out of the Winners’ Circle for years are getting close to breaking through, shedding the disappointments of seasons past. As we head towards a swing of race tracks like Talladega, Richmond, and Darlington, where the races are about as predictable as the lottery, these four drivers stand out as most likely to crash the country club known as Victory Lane, break their winless streaks, and punch themselves a ticket to the Nextel All-Star Challenge this May:
#31 Cingular Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
Winless Streak: 155 Races (Phoenix, 2001).
It’s hard to believe that the trendy pick to become the next Nextel Cup champion back at the start of this decade has gone winless now for over four years. Burton’s fall from championship contender to also-ran at Roush Racing has been well-documented, and it’s taken a long time for the veteran to establish himself over at RCR, his Nextel Cup team since mid-2004 after jumping ship from a sponsorless car at Roush.
Still, it seems that the risk Burton took in switching teams is finally getting ready to pay off. All 3 teams at RCR have spent time in the Top 10 in points, and the organization has shown strength at every track. Burton has already led 19 laps this season, the most he’s led at this point in the year since 2002. More importantly, Burton’s halfway towards his 2005 total of 6 Top 10s, scoring 3 in 7 starts; 2 more near-certain Top 10s were taken away due to poor racing luck late in the going. With Phoenix and Darlington on the horizon, tracks where Burton has performed well through the years, it may be high time for RCR’s 31 car to take the checkered flag for the first time since 2003 with Robby Gordon.
#43 Cheerios Dodge, Petty Enterprises
Winless Streak: 79 Races (Homestead, 2003).
When Labonte moved over to Petty Enterprises at the end of 2005, everyone thought the move would pay dividends"¦in the long run. Apparently, Labonte didn’t get the memo, as he’s threatening to be a contender up front right off the bat. While the 43 team is 29th in the points, that’s deceiving"¦they led at Atlanta before bowing out with engine failure, and luck threw away strong runs at Daytona and Martinsville.
Labonte has won in the past at both Talladega and Darlington, as has crew chief Todd Parrott, and with a little luck, they’ve shown already they have a car capable of sitting in Victory Lane. History, of course, is not on the 43 team’s side: a Petty Enterprises car has not received an automatic invitation to the Nextel All-Star Challenge since 2000. Worse yet, no Petty car has visited Victory Lane since John Andretti in Martinsville in 1999. That said, those are streaks Labonte would like to put an end to, pronto.
#38 M&Ms Ford, Robert Yates Racing
Winless Streak: 54 Races (California, 2004).
Quietly, Sadler is putting together another solid season that should have him in contention for the Chase. The 38 team got off to a strong start at Daytona with a 4th place finish, and while Sadler hasn’t lit the world on fire since, he does have 4 Top 15 runs over the course of 7 starts. If not for a late-race engine failure at Texas, in fact, Sadler would be sitting pretty in the Top 10 in Nextel Cup points.
However, with only 2 wins so far to show for his four year tenure with Robert Yates (both of those coming in 2004), Sadler is anxious to quiet the critics that claim his tenure there has been a disappointment. This stretch would be the perfect time for Sadler to take things to the next level and get himself solidly in the Top 10, with Talladega more than any other a track that favors Sadler in his quest to get back in Victory Lane. A Yates car is the defending champion (Dale Jarrett) and Sadler won the pole for that same race in the Fall of 2005.
#42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge, Chip Ganassi Racing
Winless Streak: 115 Races (Never Won).
By the end of 2005, Mears had joined the group you never want to be a part of"¦Nextel Cup veterans with at least 100 starts who have never won a race. The "Michael Waltrip" of his era seems to be in the best shape ever to finally crack the win column, though. Aligned with Ganassi’s #1 team for 2006, Mears got off to a hot start, with three straight Top 10 finishes putting him near the top of the point standings.
The 42 team has cooled off a bit since then, but Mears still finds himself in the Top 10 in points. Already snagging a 2nd place at Daytona, he’ll be a threat to win at Talladega this April, and his always-improving performances at 1.5 mile tracks make him a darkhorse at Darlington.
With Nextel Cup more competitive than ever before, there’s no doubt these drivers will have to overcome some long odds to break their streaks of futility. For any of these drivers to snag a win would be an upset, for sure"¦but sometimes when you have old faces in familiar places, it’s never a bad thing to see some new blood buck the trend every now and again.
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