Sunday, November 13, 2011

A season of many first-time winners

MENARD
Paul Menard's win at the Brickyard was one of the many memorable first this year.
Credit: Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR

The 2011 season is approaching its own checkered flag. Looking back on the season that was, there were a lot of first-time winners. From Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 to Regan Smith winning at Darlington, to this weekend’s win by Sam Hornish Jr.

Starting off the season, we had the biggest Cinderella story of all time. Trevor Bayne, just 20 years old, was a Sprint Cup Series rookie at the time of his win. The victory set Bayne up for a media firestorm and what was set to be a magical season. Bayne was sidelined just a few short months later due to an unknown illness, forcing him to sit out several weeks of races. Now back on track, Bayne claimed his first Nationwide Series win last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Regan Smith and Furniture Row Racing win the awards for most improved and underrated driver in my opinion. After winning at Darlington, Smith has pulled off two top 5s and five top 10s, having some standout finishes along time way. Notably, Smith finished 3rd at the Brickyard 500 and 7th at the Daytona 500.

Next up in the season of first-time winners came Ricky Stenhouse Jr., currently leading the points in the Nationwide Series and a lock to win the championship next week at Homestead. Stenhouse has two wins this season, both coming at Iowa Speedway. Stenhouse has had an incredible rebound from his 2010 season, where his driving abilities were called into question. Stenhouse and team owner Jack Roush kept at it, proving that with time and experience his talent would prevail.

Paul Menard stunned NASCAR fans with his win at the Brickyard 400 and claiming one of the most coveted wins for any NASCAR driver. Winning at the Brickyard is as prestigious as winning at Daytona; kissing the bricks was a tradition started by NASCAR’s own Dale Jarrett and crew chief Todd Parrett.

Menard has been in NASCAR for eight years, full-time since 2007, but struggled in the past before joining Richard Childress Racing this year. “The Empire,” as the Menard fans are known, is rejoicing in the success of its driver. In addition to his win, Menard has four top 5s and seven top 10s so far this season.


Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR
Marcos Ambrose has won previously in the Nationwide Series, but victory at the Cup level has always eluded him - until Watkins Glen. Ambrose is often thought of as a “road course ringer” though he has now learned to perform just as well on ovals, but his first Cup victory did come at a road course. Actually, of note, all Ambrose’s wins have come on road courses. Other top finishes for the Tasmanian-born Ambrose include 4th at Las Vegas and 3rd at the spring Dover race. With five top 5s and 11 top 10s, Ambrose has a lot to look forward to next season.

This weekend, Sam Hornish Jr. became the newest member of the club, the "winning" club, to steal a line made famous this year. Starting his career in IndyCar, Hornish made his first NASCAR appearance in 2006. Hornish was a winning driver in IndyCar, but the transition to NASCAR has been trying. After his victory this weekend, Hornish said, “I won so much over at Indy that I didn't know how much to appreciate it at the time." Something tells me that Hornish will be savoring this victory for many weeks to come, as it has been a long, hard road to get here.

With the first-time race winners, we are also going to see first-time champions in at least two of the top three NASCAR series. Austin Dillon needs to finish 16th or better to clench the Camping World Truck Series title to become the youngest champion in series history. While Ricky Stenhouse Jr. needs to finish 37th or better to clench his first Nationwide Series championship next weekend at Homestead, it's pretty much a sure thing when you count the start-and-park drivers. Yet undecided is the Sprint Cup championship: the contenders are Carl Edwards (another first-timer in the series) versus the veteran Tony Stewart. Whoever wins, it is going to be a wild finish to the season.

Fasten your seat belts, fans!

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