Part of what has made this season great so far has been the unexpected victories from underdogs Trevor Bayne and Regan Smith. In a time when multi-car organizations and having the most money translate into success, some of the flavor of stock car racing actually being stock has been taken away. Bayne and Smith’s recent triumphs have helped to bring some of the past back, making us realize that the underequipped teams can still win while bringing up memories of past feel good stories. Here are the five greatest upsets from the past 20 years of NASCAR racing:
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*#5. Trevor Bayne – 2011 Daytona 500*
Believe it or not, I was actually going to leave Bayne off this list for a couple of reasons. First of all, with this new style of racing at Daytona and Talladega, it is nothing more than a crapshoot. Secondly, it was easily comparable with Brad Keselowski’s win at Talladega two years ago, and his win is left off the list for the first reason. The more I thought about it, however, Bayne did win NASCAR’s biggest race of the year in his first attempt, and just his second career start. The kid just turned 20 the day before and had modest success in his brief Nationwide career; no one expected this to happen. Even if the new style of restrictor plate racing produces every car leading at least one lap, Bayne drove a flawless race, never getting overly excited and knowing who to work with. There is a lot of luck involved sure, but by winning, Bayne became an instant superstar.
*#4. Michael Waltrip – 2001 Daytona 500*
Trust me, this is the last restrictor plate race in here. The storyline is completely opposite of Bayne’s as far as the number of starts each driver had. Waltrip had been winless in his previous 462 starts, but was in his first race driving for team owner Dale Earnhardt. It was going to be his best, and last, opportunity at winning. Not only was it Waltrip’s first race at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, but the team he was driving for was a start-up group as well. His first win marked the beginning of a DEI dynasty at the restrictor plate tracks for years to come. At the time, however, DEI was still a young organization. The tragedy of that day obviously marred Waltrip’s post race celebration, but he was finally able to rejoice that July when teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Pepsi 400.
*#3. Regan Smith – 2011 Southern 500*
You heard him say it in his post-race interview, “I’ve never even had a top 5, I’m not supposed to win this.” Well, Regan, now you have a top 5, and it was a win in one of the most prestigious races of the year. Not only was Smith victorious driving for a single car operation, but the team is based out of Colorado. (Let’s start calling Furniture Row Cool Runnings. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch the movie.) Smith and Furniture Row have been surprising everyone with excellent starting spots this year, but his stunning victory at Darlington easily takes the cake. It’s not like this team just walked into a win either; they had been running in the top 15 for a good portion of the event, even challenging for a top 10 spot late in the going before they opted to stay out on the last caution. Smith was able to hold off Carl Edwards for eight laps and two restarts at Darlington on worn tires, something that used to be impossible on the track’s old pavement, but was impressive nonetheless.
*#2. Elliott Sadler – 2001 Food City 500 (spring Bristol race)*
Sadler’s win at Bristol was in a lot of ways similar to Smith’s last Saturday. Both were driving for single car operations, neither had ever had a top 5 finish before, both teams were operated outside of North Carolina (the Wood Brothers moved to the Carolinas after the 2003 season) and the way they won was similar. Heck, both of their victories were unfortunately overshadowed by post race altercations on pit road (on this day, it was Tony Stewart spinning out Jeff Gordon on pit road). Sadler choose two tires on his final pit stop, although he stayed out much longer than Smith, leading the final 70 laps at one of the more popular race tracks. It was the Wood Brothers’ first win in eight years and would be their last for almost another decade, until Bayne crossed the line first at Daytona this year. For Sadler, it would turn out to be his first of just three victories in his 10-plus seasons in Sprint Cup competition.
*#1. Alan Kulwicki wins 1992 championship*
How can this not be the greatest upset in the last 20 years? In fact, it may be the greatest in NASCAR history. While the surprise victories listed above were certainly feel good stories, what Kulwicki accomplished was over the course of an entire season, not just one race. This was in a time where a driver such as Kulwicki stood out. He didn’t meet the stereotypical image, as he came from Wisconsin and was a dying breed of a car owner and driver. He also had a college degree in Mechanical Engineering, something to this day we rarely see.
The 1992 season, which is considered by many to be the greatest of all time, saw Kulwicki trailing points leader Bill Elliott by a whooping 278 points with just six races left. Making his eventual triumph even greater was that he had to leapfrog two other drivers as well, Davey Allison and Harry Gant. Kulwicki didn’t take the point lead until after the most important race, the final one. It would turn out to be the only time in his tragically shortened career that he led the point standings.
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Keep in mind, there are plenty of other upsets that have happened in the sport over the last 20 years, it is just impossible to condense all of them to this list. Does that make Ricky Craven’s victory at Martinsville 10 years ago or Jamie McMurray winning in his second start any less important than any of these? Of course not. These are the most memorable, which perhaps explains why two of them have occurred this year. Any time the unexpected happens, like Smith winning this past weekend, it is a race most fans will remember more than the average one.
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