Last year, one of the biggest stories surrounding the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was the prevalence of first-time winners. From the start of the season, when Trevor Bayne surprised everyone in the Daytona 500 to David Ragan’s July triumph five months later, new faces in unfamiliar places were popping up virtually everywhere. By the end of the season, the series witnessed five first-time winners — Bayne, Ragan, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard and Regan Smith — and the parity within the sport was on in full force.
But for every new wheelman to make a breakthrough, someone else is watching his time away from Victory Lane increase significantly. Now, in 2012, with a dearth of new drivers entering the sport the story has shifted from “who hasn’t won?” to “when is Driver X going to win again?” In some cases, veterans who once dominated have gone several seasons without adding to their win total while watching others rise to the top, claiming a slice of the fame and fortune that was once theirs.
Some are obvious, like the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., yet others have quietly built with little fanfare. Let’s take a closer look at the longest droughts, brought into tighter focus after point leader Greg Biffle snapped his own 49-race winless streak Saturday night. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the agony these triple-digit winless sufferers have been through. Note: Only the top 25 drivers in Sprint Cup points were considered (i.e., teams that actually have a chance of finishing first every Sunday).
Winless Streak: 295 races
Last Victory: November 2003, Ford 400 (Homestead-Miami Speedway)
Synopsis: At 25th in the standings and driving for a single-car team, it’s easy to forget Labonte still exists in the series, let alone that he’s nursing a drought week-to-week that’s lasted well over eight years. No one would have predicted this sorry ending to a promising career that includes the 2000 Cup Series title — certainly not the last time Labonte used luck to speed by Bill Elliott’s flat tire on the final lap at Homestead to claim victory in ’03. But two years later, after a serious slump at Joe Gibbs Racing, he left to join a floundering Petty Enterprises to be “the savior” of a legendary franchise … that just kept floundering. It was a career-killer of a decision, one that led to disastrous finishes, a release after financial problems gripped the team and the sorry decision to start-and-park before JTG Daugherty Racing picked him up.
Now in his second year driving the No. 47, Labonte remains stuck in mediocrity with this single-car team, unable to recreate the magic that once had him contending for victories each week, while the team “rebuilds” after splitting off from being the satellite team for Michael Waltrip Racing (how about the bad timing on that). In fact, since the start of the 2004 season, Labonte’s led just 218 laps and has yet to lead one — or collect a top-10 finish, for that matter — this season.
Best Chance: If there’s ever to be one last miracle for Labonte, Daytona or Talladega would be the place. In February 2011, his push of Trevor Bayne was responsible for the No. 21 heading to Victory Lane, and a fourth-place finish for Labonte, his only top 5 of the season. I guess a guy can dream…
Martin Truex, Jr.
Winless Streak: 174 races
Last Victory: June 2007, Autism Speaks 400 (Dover International Speedway)
Synopsis: Truex’s last Sprint Cup victory is also his only one, taken during a time when he was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s right-hand man at the company once founded by Dale Sr. Months later, that popular son was off to Hendrick Motorsports, leaving Truex in the awkward position of assuming a leadership role never meant for him. After a merger and subsequent pairing with Chip Ganassi, the once-cozy confines of his friend’s former organization had been shattered; faced with executives that favored Juan Pablo Montoya, Truex chose to pick another opportunity and spearhead the driver effort at the growing Michael Waltrip Racing.
The first two seasons were filled with underachievement: zero Chase appearances, just four top-5 finishes and the firing of championship-level crew chief Pat Tryson. But just when it looked as though Truex, a two-time Busch Series champ, would be listed a permanent flop, new head wrench Chad Johnston found some innovative setups that appear to have salvaged a career. Fourth in points, Truex is on pace to lead more laps (525) than any season since 2007, the year that also produced his only Chase appearance. At this point, anything less than breaking the streak this season would be considered a huge disappointment.
Best Chance: Dover. It’s where Truex broke into the win column the first time, and in four starts with the No. 56 team, he’s already captured two poles there. One of a group of drivers who attended a Goodyear tire test at Dover this week, all the pieces are in place for him to break through in that track’s June event.