Race Weekend Central

Who Will Be Sprint Cup’s Next First-Time Winner?

In the simplest terms and the most convenient of definitions, it is extremely hard to win a Sprint Cup race. For many, it’s just about impossible. This fact alone makes the heartwarming story of Regan Smith’s first victory at the Lady in Black, an underdog miracle this past weekend just that little bit more special. “Oh, man, this is too cool,” said Smith after he took the checkered flag. “I can’t believe this. This is awesome. This is the Southern 500. We’re not supposed to win this thing.”

But win it he did, snapping a 103-race winless streak – a streak, of course, that includes the infamous fall Talladega race in 2008 where he beat the field to the line and the checkers but was relegated to a tail-end-of-the-lead lap finish for “breaking” the yellow-line rule. Saturday night, then, was vindication of sorts for a driver who is clearly popular amongst his peers: witness the enthusiastic congratulations he received from second-place finisher Carl Edwards, as well as Brad Keselowski and Greg Biffle in Victory Lane.

Even dating back to his days in the Yates camp, David Gilliland has long been a factor on the plate tracks.

Now, with Smith’s long-awaited triumph squared away and the luster of Trevor Bayne’s Daytona 500 win starting to fade some — not in a bad way, things just move on, ’tis life as they say — the focus shifts to those full-time drivers still looking for a maiden Cup victory. Looking at the top 35 in the current points standings, there are 27 drivers with at least one win and another eight still looking for their first — so I’ll start with the lowest in the current standings and work my way up. With no disrespect intended, I’m going to rule out Andy Lally (34th place currently) and Tony Raines (35th — three top 10s in 158 career starts) right off the bat for this season and, well, forever really.

Next up is the veteran Dave Blaney, who has amassed 372 starts in 14 seasons but has spent most of the last couple years starting and parking. That said, Blaney was well in contention for the win at Talladega, where he led 21 laps and was a factor all day until getting caught up in a wreck that was none of his own making. Such are the vagaries of racing when a big old four-holed plate is slapped onto the engine, snatching a win away the second you feel it’s within your reach. Outside of the plate races, though, Blaney isn’t likely to be challenging for a victory anytime soon – barring a freak set of circumstances involving extreme weather or the other 42 cars having their engines simultaneously expire.

Same too for David Gilliland, who has just three top 5s and six top 10s in 160 race starts over six years. Like Blaney on the high banks a few weeks back, Gilliland is another who runs well at restrictor plate tracks (he finished fourth in the 2007 spring race at Talladega and an impressive third in this season’s Daytona 500.) But where he might just go out and get it done is at Sonoma, where in 2008 Gilliland secured his highest ever finish, a hard-charging second place behind Kyle Busch.

Next up, and segueing nicely with the road course point, is everybody’s favorite Australian, Marcos Ambrose (22nd in points). Of course, Ambrose shouldn’t actually be on the list after what can best be described as a brain fart of monumental proportions at Sonoma last year. Leading the race, under caution, with six laps to go, Ambrose shut his engine off (while traveling uphill) and couldn’t get restarted before being passed (under pit road speed) by seven other drivers. The class of the field for much of the afternoon ended up ninth, proving yet again there are about a million different ways to blow a win the second it’s within your grasp. Fair play to the Man From Down Under, though who stood up and answered the post-race questions with grace, aplomb and skill, a lesson Kyle Busch would do well to learn (not that he will.) Ambrose remains a bona fide threat at both Sonoma (where he has to feel he’s owed one) and also Watkins Glen, where he’s won the Nationwide race in each of the past three years.

Then there’s David Ragan (19th) who has just nine top 5s in 156 races. Four of these have come at Daytona (twice) and Talladega (twice) so again, like others above, Ragan’s a threat at plate races. Even though he’s still just 25, the simple truth is Ragan has underperformed in great equipment. Each year you wait for him to make the breakthrough and be a regular in the top 10 week in, week out, but so far the signs aren’t good. Yes, he might win one of the two remaining plate races this year but I can’t see it happening elsewhere, despite the fact that it probably should given Ford’s relative strength in 2011.

The penultimate driver to consider is Paul Menard – he of the sideburns and the 912-strong Paul Menard Empire Facebook Group. Long considered lucky to be in a seat (thanks to the sponsorship he brings from his father’s company) Menard has stepped it up some this year. In the first 147 races he picked up just two top 5s and eight top 10s, leading just 57 laps. This year, through 10 races, he has two top 5s, three top 10s and has led 53 laps. More tellingly, he ran strongly at Texas, finishing fifth, and with the preponderance of cookie-cutters still to come he might just get it done before the season is out.

And finally, there’s the man himself, Anthony James Allmendinger (or A.J. as he’s better known). Now I’ll admit, media coverage aside I’ve always had a soft spot for the former Champ Car driver and I’m definitely rooting for him to get a victory. Imagine the enthusiasm we’d hear over the radio: that would be worth the admission price alone. With three top 5s and 18 top 10s in 126 races, it’s fair to say A.J. has not exactly set the Cup world alight with his talent, but there is no question he does have the ability to win one. And maybe, just maybe, it might come this weekend at the Monster Mile, where he led 143 laps in the 2010 Chase race last fall and looked the class of the field before a tire issue took him out of contention.

So, if I was a betting man, I’d put my money on A.J. to be the next first-time winner, but I wouldn’t rule out Ragan (on restrictor plate tracks) or Menard (on the cookie cutters). Then again, as Regan Smith showed at the “Track Too Tough to Tame” this past weekend, anything can (and probably will) happen, meaning anyone on this list can break through on any given week: the type of parity that makes NASCAR the best racing series in America.

“Contact Danny Peters”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14362/

Tuesday on the Frontstretch:
“Five Points to Ponder: Smaller Crowds, Bigger Fights, Ugly Words Left For NASCAR To Chew On”:https://frontstretch.com/bkeith/33902/
“Fact Or Fiction: Calming Down Montoya, Vickers’ Free Pass, And Kyle Busch’s Mistake”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/33901/
“Who’s Hot / Who’s Not in NASCAR: Darlington-Dover Edition”:https://frontstretch.com/sdreyer/33903/
“Talking NASCAR TV: Did Darrell Waltrip Go Biased Towards Busch At Darlington?”:https://frontstretch.com/pallaway/33905/

“Southern-Fried Thriller”:http://www.athlonsports.com/columns/nascar-monday-recap/southern-fried-thriller

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