Cinderella can be found in any sport, but the notion becomes more prevalent this time of year with the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. With that in mind, who are among the biggest Cinderella winners in NASCAR’s history?
When I posted the question Friday on social media, the responses varied, ranging from Chris Buescher‘s win last year at Pocono to races that dated back to the 1960s.
Well, you’re not going to get everyone to agree but here are five that stand out to me.
The 1981 spring Dover race saw a driver, once seven laps behind the leaders, go on to win. Truly a Cinderella moment, but there’s more. It would be Jody Ridley’s only Cup win in 140 career starts. Also, it was car owner Junie Donlavey’s only victory in a NASCAR career that featured 863 starts over 45 years.
So how did it happen? Neil Bonnett dominated in the Wood Brothers’ car until his engine blew while he had a two-lap lead on the field with less than 50 laps left. Cale Yarborough inherited the lead and had a five-lap lead on Ridley but had an engine failure with less than 25 laps left. Ridley assumed the lead and went on to score the victory.
It was about to finally happen. After years of trying, Dale Earnhardt was set to win his first Daytona 500 in 1990. He took the lead after a restart with five laps to go and led going into Turn 3 on the final lap. That’s when everything changed. Earnhardt ran over debris and cut a tire. Derrike Cope, running second, took the lead and went on to win. Not only was it shocking how Cope won but that he was in that position to win. He had never scored a top-five finish in 71 previous Cup starts.
Cope went on to win at Dover later that season. That and the Daytona 500 are the only Cup wins he’s scored in 411 career series starts.
Tiny Lund arrived at Daytona in 1963 without a ride. Not a surprise for a driver who had not scored a top-five finish in the 28 Cup races he ran from 1960-62. That changed when Marvin Panch crashed his Maserati on the Daytona road course. The car flipped and burst into flames. Tiny Lund was among those who went to the crash scene and helped pull Panch out of the car. With Panch unable to run in the Daytona 500, the Wood Brothers selected Lund to drive the car. With one less pit stop than others – and running on the same set of tires for 500 miles – Lund scored his first career win in that Daytona 500, shocking the field.
Yes, Trevor Bayne led on the final restart of the 2011 Daytona 500 but he had Tony Stewart beside him, Bobby Labonte behind him in the second row and Mark Martin on the outside of the second row. With all that Cup experience surrounding Bayne, who really thought a kid who had turned 20 years old the day before could hold off those drivers and win the Daytona 500? Also, Bayne was making just his second career Cup start and was with the Wood Brothers, who were a part-time team and had last won a Cup race in 2001. All that didn’t matter. He won.
Furniture Row Racing was a single-car team. Unlike the majority of Cup teams, it wasn’t based around Charlotte, North Carolina, but in Colorado. Regan Smith was winless in 104 Cup starts before that night, yet he found himself out front after not pitting on Lap 360 of the 367-lap race. Smith held off Carl Edwards to win. It would be four more years until Furniture Row scored its next win.
So, those are five I picked. There were many others to choose from. Some suggested Pete Hamilton’s 1970 win in the Daytona 500. Others noted Lake Speed’s 1988 win at Darlington. There were votes for Brad Keselowki’s win at Talladega in 2009, his first career series win, and for Ron Bouchard (1981), Bobby Hillin Jr. (1986), Phil Parsons (1988) at Talladega. A few people also suggested Casey Mears‘ Coca-Cola win in 2007.
Go ahead and make your case for the biggest Cinderella win in NASCAR’s history.