First-time Cup Series winners are becoming a common sight in 2022. After Austin Cindric’s victory in the Daytona 500 last month, Chase Briscoe became the second driver to earn his first victory just four races into the season. Briscoe had to hold off challenges from Ross Chastain and Tyler Reddick over the final 20 laps, two other drivers who may earn their first wins before the season ends.
What’s far less common is seeing a driver get their first Cup Series win at Phoenix Raceway. Prior to Briscoe’s triumph on Sunday, it has only happened twice since NASCAR began visiting the one-mile, dog-legged oval in the desert. The first time was in the first ever Cup Series race at Phoenix in 1988 when Alan Kulwicki captured the checkered flag. In 1996, it was Bobby Hamilton’s turn to visit victory lane at Phoenix. Kulwicki’s and Hamilton’s wins are memorable for how they exemplify both drivers’ NASCAR careers. The wins also serve as reminders of what heights both drivers could have climbed had their lives and careers unfolded differently.
Longtime fans may remember Kulwicki’s victory, and newer fans have likely heard the story. Moving from his native Wisconsin to the Carolinas, Kulwicki clawed out a place in the Cup Series while competing as an owner/driver. Fiercely independent, Kulwicki’s decision to come to NASCAR without a major team and significant sponsorship was an enormous gamble on his own abilities as a racer and engineer. After unexpectedly winning Rookie of the Year in 1986, Kulwicki was able to pick up additional sponsorship but continued to race with a smaller budget than many of his competitors.
During the end of the 1988 season, Kulwicki and the No. 7 team were battling through a string of difficult races. But in that inaugural race at Pheonix, Kulwicki was fast all day. When leader Ricky Rudd’s engine expired with 16 laps to go, Kulwicki took over the top spot and never looked back. After taking the checkered flag, Kulwicki famously celebrated the win with what he later called a Polish victory lap – a clockwise lap around the race track so he and the fans in the grandstands could see each other.
One year after Kulwicki’s victory, Hamilton raced at Phoenix in his first Cup Series start. Though technically in a Hendrick Motorsports entry, he was actually driving one of the camera cars set up to record racing footage for the upcoming film Days of Thunder. Few people would have expected him to be competitive, yet Hamilton was surprisingly fast in a vehicle that was more of a movie prop than a racecar. His work on the film led to a full-time opportunity in the Cup Series, and Hamilton won Rookie of the Year in 1991. However, he was already 34 years old at the time, and the chance to race with a well-funded team did not come his way.
Hamilton joined Petty Enterprises in 1995, becoming the next driver of Richard Petty’s famous No. 43 car. While it was Hamilton’s best opportunity yet, Petty Enterprises was well past its competitive prime. The team had not won a race since Petty’s controversial 1983 victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Hamilton gave the team a boost, especially on the short tracks, but the King’s crew had to endure a few near misses together before the big day at Phoenix in 1996. Taking the lead for the final time with 30 laps to go, Hamilton scored his long-awaited first Cup Series win in his 167th start. A joyful Petty joined Hamilton in victory lane, a winner again for the first time in 13 years.
It might seem like Briscoe’s path to victory in the Cup Series is fundamentally different from Kulwicki’s and Hamilton’s. Briscoe’s nine-win Xfinity Series campaign in 2020 turned him into one of the top prospects in the sport. That is a distinction neither Kulwicki nor Hamilton ever enjoyed. Additionally, once Briscoe’s Cup Series career began, he stepped into Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 14 car, a team with an established history of recent success and good financial backing. For good measure, Briscoe did follow the Kulwicki/Hamilton path of winning Rookie of the Year.
But when Briscoe climbed out of his car and stood on the frontstretch at Phoenix as a Cup Series winner, he said something that Kulwicki and Hamilton would have appreciated.
“I’ve got to thank everybody that’s got me to this point,” Briscoe said. “Seven years ago, I was sleeping on couches, volunteering at race shops, and was literally driving home to give up (racing). Then Briggs Cunningham and Kerry Scherer and Beth Cunningham gave me an opportunity, and it’s led to this.”
Kulwicki’s and Hamilton’s careers could be defined by the opportunities they didn’t receive (or turned down in the case of Kulwicki and Junior Johnson). But whatever opportunities Kulwicki and Hamilton did receive, they never failed to make the most of them. There are certainly drivers who have posted loftier stats than the two of them, but you would be hard-pressed to find two drivers who overcame longer odds to achieve success in NASCAR than Kulwicki and Hamilton.
Briscoe’s climb up the NASCAR ladder is reminiscent of how Kulwicki and Hamilton came to the Cup Series. In an era where passageway to NASCAR’s top level is dominated by connections, family money and major sponsorship, Briscoe’s NASCAR journey is defined by capitalizing on every opportunity that came his way. Even Briscoe’s support from SHR and Ford was with the stipulation that he needed to win races. Briscoe made it happen in the Xfinity Series in 2020, and he did it again on Sunday by becoming the 200th different winner in the history of the Cup Series.
So, what does the future hold for the newest first-time winner at Phoenix? Kulwicki went on to win four more races and the Cup Series championship in 1992. Tragically, he lost his life in a plane crash the following season and never had the opportunity to defend his title. Hamilton won three more Cup Series races and a championship in the Truck Series as an owner/driver. But his career and life ended too soon when he passed away from cancer in Jan. 2007. Kulwicki and Hamilton accomplished quite a lot in their careers, but it’s worth wondering if we ever got to see the full scale of their abilities as racers and team owners.
Hopefully, Briscoe will have the opportunity to realize his full potential as a NASCAR racer.
About the author
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.
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