Welcome to the Frontstretch Five! Each week, Amy Henderson takes a look at the racing, the drivers and the storylines that drive NASCAR and produces a list of five people, places, things and ideas that define the current state of our sport. This week, Amy brings back that first-time feeling with some memorable first wins by the current Cup crop.
I honestly wish I could put every driver’s first win here. I’m a sucker for the feel-good story of someone experiencing that feeling for the very first time. But this is the Frontstretch Five, so I had to choose just a few. For the most part, I went with a few that were unexpected, though really, isn’t everyone an underdog until that first win? One was made all the more special because of the weekend when it happened. And I included one for a legend, because in a few short months, his chapter in history will be written for good.
1. Kevin Harvick; Atlanta, spring 2001
Perhaps the ultimate feel-good story. With NASCAR Nation reeling from the death of Dale Earnhardt just a couple of weeks before, Harvick was still an unknown, sitting in Earnhardt’s seat. Not only did Harvick win that day in the repainted and renumbered No. 29, he held off the best driver of his era, Jeff Gordon, to do it in thrilling fashion, beating Gordon to the line by inches. Harvick, who wasn’t even supposed to race full time in the Cup Series until 2002, galvanized fans and gave a grieving team comfort.
2. Jamie McMurray; Charlotte, fall 2002
McMurray had yet to win a race in any of NASCAR’s national touring series before he took the checkers in just his second Cup start. Filling in for the injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray took Marlin’s Silver Bullet (and his own bowl cut) to Victory Lane. Two weeks later, McMurray broke through again, winning his fist Busch Series race at Atlanta.
3. Casey Mears; Charlotte, spring 2007
A Mears. Memorial Day weekend. Enough said.
4. Regan Smith; Darlington, spring 2011
Regan who? At the time, Smith was not a household name in NASCAR. The No. 78 is off to a hot start this year, and Kurt Busch took the car into the Chase in 2013. But it was Smith who took Furniture Row Racing to Victory Lane for the first time, holding off Carl Edwards on a green-white-checkered to take the win. Like McMurray, Smith had not won in a national touring division in NASCAR at the time.
5. Jeff Gordon; Charlotte, spring 1994
The young Gordon was fast, but he also went through car parts at a rather alarming rate in 1993, his first season in the Cup ranks. He came around, though. In 1994, Gordon found Victory Lane for the first time in the Coca-Cola 600 and went on to win 91 more races, the most for any driver whose entire career falls within the sport’s modern era and third all time. Gordon’s reaction to that win was unexpected and a change from what fans expected from drivers… just a hint at how Gordon would turn expectations of the sport sideways in the coming years.