In the 1930s an epic drought, caused in part by primitive farming techniques, triggered a unique weather phenomenon called the Dust Bowl. It was a period of severe dust storms that blackened the sky, wreaked havoc on the land, and reduced visibility to only meters in some instances. These storms reached as far as New York and Washington, D.C. on the Eastern seaboard but centered on a five-state, 400,000 square kilometer area in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas. The travails of the migrant workers, who foraged from farm to farm in a desperate search for jobs, were later immortalized in John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.
Over the last couple of years Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered his own version of an epic drought, as NASCAR’s most famous son hadn’t won a race for more than two whole seasons. While Earnhardt finally got his win — a fuel-mileage triumph at Michigan on June 15th — the streak lasted for a stretch of some 76 races, or 404 days for those so mathematically inclined. It’s fair to say the “Dale Jr. Drought” did not have the financial and societal effects of the Dust Bowl, but for those caught up in both — the workers so graphically depicted in Steinbeck’s tome and Junior Nation — it must have felt, for a while at least, as if it was never going to end. But end both did; and surprisingly enough, in each case the world continued to revolve safely on its axis.
But with Junior’s streak in the rearview mirror, that doesn’t mean other racers have stopped their own personal suffering; so, I decided to take a look at a few other drivers still with lengthy win droughts all their own. By way of criteria, I’m considering active drivers only with five or more Sprint Cup wins. Also, I’m calculating the length of the respective droughts based on races attempted, not total number of races per season. A good example is Bill Elliott, who’s participated in 55 Cup races since 2003 — it’s not fair to lump him in the same vein as others who’ve been driving full-time during that stretch. One final note: keep in mind that the driver’s current winless streak is in parentheses in the paragraphs below.
Ready to be surprised? I certainly was when I finished compiling the list… so, let’s begin.
I’ll start by dispensing with the wheelmen that have won Sprint Cup races in 2008 up front. This accounts for five of the drivers on my original list. The drivers, in reverse order, are Earnhardt Jr. (a big fat one race), Jimmie Johnson (eight races), Carl Edwards (nine), gentleman Jeff Burton (11) and Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman (15). For the last name on the list, the win in the biggest race of them all looks suspiciously like the high point of his season; since then, the Alltel Dodge hasn’t so much as sniffed a win while Newman’s led just 52 laps. One other name I’ll get out of the way immediately, too, is Matt Kenseth (16 races); he won the final race of the 2007 season, sending off retiring crew chief Robbie Reiser in grand style at Homestead.
Next on the list is Jeff Gordon. Since winning back-to-back Chase races at Talladega and Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2007, Gordon has gone 21 races without a trip to Victory Lane. For a prolific winner like the pilot of the No. 24, that’s a long stretch, but given that he has multiple victories every year since 1994 and the quality of his Hendrick Motorsports equipment, you’d expect this streak to end sooner rather than later.
Greg Biffle (22 races) is not far behind Gordon and the No. 24. The Biff last won in the near-darkness at Kansas Speedway in the Chase last year — just before Gordon’s pair of checkered flags — to snap a 29-race drought since his win at Homestead on the last day of the 2006 campaign.
Kurt Busch, who really hasn’t looked like troubling the checkered-flag waver all season, follows the Biff; his spell without a victory currently stands at 29 races. The 2004 champion, who has been disappointing for much of this season, really needs a victory because unless he goes on a miraculous run, he isn’t going to make the Chase — he’s currently 288 out of 12th with 10 races remaining. Busch’s last win came at the second Michigan race of 2007.
Tony Stewart is one ahead of Busch, his drought now up to 30 races without a win. Stewart’s last sojourn to Victory Lane came, appropriately, at his beloved Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s about time we had another Smoke fence climb — enough with the Kyle Busch bow. And with summer always tending to be Stewart’s time of year, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that happen sometime in the next few weeks.
Now, we start getting into some higher numbers. Kevin Harvick has not won a points-paying race since the 2007 Daytona 500, tallying a grand total of 51 races. Elliott is a couple of ticks behind Happy Harvick, with his number at 55 races and counting. Awesome Bill from Dawsonville last took the checkers in the penultimate race under the Winston sponsorship in 2003 at Rockingham. But in the races since — most of them running a part-time schedule — his highest finish has been a ninth-place effort at Indianapolis in 2004. Can the winner of 44 career races — good enough for 14th on the all-time list — make it back to Victory Lane before he retires at the end of the season? Reluctantly, you’d have to say it’s highly unlikely. Of the 13 drivers listed thus far, it’s fair to say that the 1987 champion — currently paired up with the struggling single-car effort at the Wood Brothers — is the first for whom another win would be a major surprise.
From one former Gillett Evernham driver to another: Jeremy Mayfield‘s 60-race winless streak dates back to the August race date at Michigan in 2005. Like Elliott, Mayfield is extremely unlikely to nab another win after leaving GEM. And no matter what happens, this much is for certain: he certainly can’t get one while out of a ride.
In fifth place on the winless streak list is the man every true NASCAR fan would like to see win one more time at the Cup Level. Mark Anthony Martin of Batesville, Ark., is now at 0 for 79 since winning the Kansas race in 2005. He’s predicted, in very un-Martin-like fashion, that he’ll win the Brickyard this season: let’s hope his dream comes true, no matter what his future holds.
After Martin is Terry Labonte, who squeaks back onto this list since he’s currently assuming driving duties in Kyle Petty’s No. 45 Dodge. The 1984 champ has run just six races since “retiring” at Texas in 2006, but he’s started 83 since his last victory, which came at Darlington in the last ever (for now) Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend.
Next up in third is Bobby Labonte. The Texas native’s winless streak stands at 160 races, with his last win coming a week after Elliott’s. Labonte won the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November of 2003 while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now that he’s re-upped with Petty Enterprises, it remains to be seen if a new investment partner, Boston Ventures, injects the necessary resources to make Labonte a challenger once again. One also wonders if the fourth car at Richard Childress Racing might not have been the better bet. Of course, only time will tell — but as popular as a Martin win would be, it’s fair to say the No. 43 making a return trip to Victory Lane is a sight no true fan would be disappointed to see.
Sterling Marlin, who has not run a full season since 2006 — he has 25 total starts over the last two years — is second on this infamous list at 0 for 192 and counting. Like Terry Labonte, Marlin’s final win also came at Darlington; however, he won the March edition at the track Too Tough To Tame in 2002. Currently driving a limited schedule for James Finch in the No. 09, Marlin has no plans to return to full-time driving and will likely see his winless streak ride off into the sunset with him.
Last but not least, we have Mr. Kyle Petty coming in atop the active winless list. With his 36th-place finish in the Coke 600 at Charlotte — which was his 824th race in NASCAR’s highest echelon — Petty’s winless era stands at an eye-opening 400. Currently found behind a microphone in the TNT broadcast booth, there can be little doubt that a win for the popular veteran, once he resumes driving duties, would be one of the most celebrated and unexpected events in NASCAR. But while for the time being it doesn’t look promising for Petty, the injection of capital from Boston Ventures could cause things to turn around.
After all, stranger things have happened…