The First Time Is A Charm

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As someone once said, “Variety is the spice of life.”

With that in mind, the NASCAR Winston Cup Series has certainly been full of flavor in 2001.

The first six races of the year have produced three first-time Winston Cup winners – Michael Waltrip, Kevin Harvick and Elliott Sadler. Could there be a fourth first-time winner of the season on Sunday in the Harrah’s 500 at Texas Motor Speedway?

There were four first-time winners – Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Steve Park and Jerry Nadeau – during the entire 2000 season.

Kenseth’s initial Winston Cup victory last year came in the series’ longest race – the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

“It was exciting,” Kenseth said. “It’s something you aim for your entire life if you’re a driver. To win at the top level of professional racing, Winston Cup, it’s what you work for.”

Kenseth has yet to take a checkered flag again, a span of 28 races. It took Earnhardt Jr. only four races after his first Winston Cup victory at Texas to get his second one at Richmond. Nadeau won the season finale at Atlanta last year and has yet to return to victory lane.

Kenseth’s Roush Racing teammate, Mark Martin, looks back on his first Winston Cup victory, at North Carolina Speedway in October of 1989, with fond memories.

“At the time it seemed like the biggest win of my life,” Martin said. “I was happier for (team owner) Jack (Roush) and the team than I was for myself. It felt good to think that I proved to Jack he made the right decision to hire me in 1988. I’ve had a lot of big wins throughout my Winston Cup career (32 overall), but that one was special.”

While Park, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett have also been to victory lane this season, it hasn’t been the same old parade of winners from the past week-in and week-out.

Tony Stewart posted six victories last year, while Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Bobby Labonte won four races. Jeff Burton was a four-time winner a year ago, while Gordon celebrated three times.

But the unexpected has come to be expected this season.

Waltrip’s victory in the Daytona 500 is perhaps the most celebrated among the first-timers. It was Waltrip’s first Winston Cup triumph in 463 starts.

“It’s been such a long, hard road to get here,” Waltrip said after his win. “It’s been such a tremendous struggle, but to finally win, and win here at Daytona is just unbelievable, just unbelievable.”

Waltrip’s Winston Cup career began in 1985, and he has spent most of it in the shadow of his older brother, the now-retired three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip.

Harvick’s first Winston Cup victory – in the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway – was undoubtedly the most thrilling of all. Driving in only his third race after taking over for the late Dale Earnhardt in the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, Harvick made a bold move late in the race and held off Gordon my mere inches in one of the closest finishes in Winston Cup history.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Kevin as a driver, and that’s not the last time you’re going to see him win a race,” Gordon said. “He’s going to be around for a long time and he’ll be in victory lane a few more times, you can count on that.”

The fact that Sadler won a race isn’t so much of a surprise. He learned how to win at NASCAR’s highest level when he posted five victories in the late 1990s in the NASCAR Busch Series.

The shock of it all was that his first Winston Cup triumph came at one of the toughest places on the circuit to win – Bristol Motor Speedway – in last Sunday’s Food City 500. His victory put the Wood Brothers Racing team in the spotlight with its first triumph since 1993.

“It’s hard to put into words what this means to me,” said Sadler, in his third year in the Winston Cup Series. “Bristol has been my favorite track since I used to go there when it was just cement on both sides of the track. I got my first Busch Series win there a couple of years ago and thought it was just the most amazing thing in the world, but nothing takes precedence over the feeling I have now. I didn’t know whether to cry or shake (when he took the checkered flag).

“Honestly, I never thought about having a chance at winning. I’m a very pessimistic person. Being a realist is what I call it, but they say pessimistic. Maybe now I’ll start thinking we can win every week. Maybe we’ve got some confidence on our side.”

Park’s victory at Rockingham in the Dura-Lube/Kmart 400, although not his first, was refreshing. The protégé of Dale Earnhardt held off defending Winston Cup champion Bobby Labonte in typical Earnhardt fashion, blocking the No. 18 Pontiac from passing entering the final lap.

It took Park only 16 races to get victory No. 2 after his first one at Watkins Glen International last August.

Who’ll be the next first-timer to win at the Winston Cup level? Will it come this Sunday in the Harrah’s 500 at Texas Motor Speedway? Speculation abounds.

Some say it will be Johnny Benson, who currently sits in fourth place in the Winston Cup points standings. The driver of the No. 10 Valvoline Pontiac has four top-10 finishes this season and has come close to winning on several occasions.

Some say it could be Mike Skinner, still searching for that breakthrough victory after four-plus full seasons with Richard Childress Racing. Still others look at Dave Blaney, the second-year driver of the No. 93 Amoco Dodge, as the next driver in line, or maybe even rookie Casey Atwood.

No matter who it might be, it certainly won’t be unexpected in a season full of surprises.

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