Joe Nemechek

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Leader of the pack: These Cup drivers raced to history

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Today brings the inaugural Cup race on the Daytona International Speedway road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin will start on the front row. But given the chaos that can be expected on the first lap for a road course race when there wasn’t practice or qualifying, who will be able to claim they led the first lap?

Leading the first lap of inaugural Cup races at a new track is a big deal.

For the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, Dale Earnhardt pressed the issue so much that he caused his No. 3 Chevrolet to slap the outside wall exiting Turn 4.

He still didn’t lead the first lap. That honor went to pole-sitter Rick Mast.

Among the information available for the 24 active Cup tracks (excluding Richmond Raceway), only four times has the driver who led the first lap of an inaugural race not started in first place. Those occurred in 1950 at Darlington, 1961 at Bristol Motor Speedway, 1969 at Michigan International Speedway and 2011 at Kentucky Speedway.

Three drivers have led the first lap more than once: Dale Jarrett (Texas Motor Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway), Kurt Busch (the last two inaugural races at Kentucky and the Charlotte Roval) and Fireball Roberts (Atlanta and Charlotte).

Here’s a look back at all the inaugural Cup races at each active track and the drivers who led the first lap in each event.

 

Charlotte Roval, 2018: Kurt Busch (started first)

Kentucky Speedway, 2011: Kurt Busch (started third)

Kansas Speedway, 2001: Jason Leffler (started first)

Chicagoland Speedway, 2001: Todd Bodine (started first)

Homestead-Miami Speedway, 1999: David Green (started first)

Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 1998: Dale Jarrett (started first)

Auto Club Speedway, 1997: Joe Nemechek (started first)

Texas Motor Speedway, 1997: Dale Jarrett (started first)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 1994: Rick Mast (started first)

New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 1993: Mark Martin (started first)

Sonoma Raceway, 1989: Rusty Wallace (started first)

Phoenix Raceway, 1988: Geoffrey Bodine (started first)

Pocono Raceway, 1974: Buddy Baker (started first)

Dover International Speedway, 1969: David Pearson (started first)

Michigan International Speedway, 1969: LeeRoy Yarbrough (started second)

Talladega Superspeedway, 1969: Bobby Isaac (started first)

Bristol Motor Speedway, 1961: Junior Johnson (started second)

Charlotte Motor Speedway, 1960: Fireball Roberts (started first)

Atlanta Motor Speedway, 1960: Fireball Roberts (started first)

Daytona International Speedway, 1959: Bob Welborn (started first)

Watkins Glen International, 1957: Buck Baker (started first, led every lap)

Richmond Raceway, 1953: Due to poor record keeping, the info isn’t available.

Darlington Raceway, 1950: Gober Sosebee (started third)

Martinsville Speedway, 1949: Curtis Turner (started first)

NASCAR’s top 5 moments from Talladega Superspeedway

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Talladega.

You either love or hate the track in Alabama.

As we’ve done with with Miami, Texas, Bristol, former NASCAR tracks and Richmond, we’re taking a look at the top five NASCAR moments from the track.

You’ll either love them or hate them.

Here they are.

 1. 18th to first (2000)

With four laps left in the 2000 Winston 500, Dale Earnhardt was nowhere near the front.

He was 18th.

Over the last four circuits of the 2.66-mile superspeedway, the seven-time Cup champion would put on one last show at the track he’d won nine previous times.

Earnhardt deftly navigated the draft and the field, rubbing fenders when he needed to, and eventually picked up help from Kenny Wallace with three laps to go. That allowed him to move into third on the backstretch behind his teammate, Mike Skinner, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

As they took the white flag, the elder Earnhardt narrowly led Skinner and Earnhardt Jr. across the finish line.

By the time they reached Turn 3, Earnhardt led Wallace and Joe Nemechek as they broke away from the chaos of the pack behind them.

Earnhardt kept the lead and crossed the finish line for his 76th and final Cup Series win.

 2. Gordon win angers Dale Jr. fans (2004)

From fall 2001 to spring 2003, Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed four straight wins on NASCAR’s biggest oval. After his teammate Michael Waltrip won the fall 2003 race, he aimed for win No. 5 in April 2004.

He came very close.

Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were battling for the lead with five laps to go when a Brian Vickers incident in Turn 3 brought out the caution and froze the field.

When the field raced through the tri-oval back to the finish line, Earnhardt led Gordon.

Cue controversy.

As the field crept around the track with four laps to go, NASCAR ruled Gordon had been the leader when the caution was issued.

The race never resumed and Gordon took the win.

As the checkered and yellow flags flew, so did cups and cans of beer, as angry fans pelted the track and a celebrating Gordon to show their disapproval in the race not resuming and the outcome.

The creation of the green-white-checkered finish wasn’t far behind.

 3. Brad Keselowski gets first win in a part-time role (2009)

In 2009, Brad Keselowski was driving part-time for James Finch. The spring race at Talladega was his fifth Cup Series start and his third of 15 starts that season.

Entering the race, Keselowski had yet to lead a lap. Exiting the race, he had one lap led on his record. How he led that lap is notable.

The tandem racing era on superspeedways was just getting underway and it was on display during a four-lap shootout to the finish.

When the white flag was displayed, Carl Edwards, with Keselowski hooked to his bumper, sped by Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead and second place.

As they raced through the tri-oval for the final time, Keselowski went to Edwards’ inside. They made contact and Edwards went into a spin, the momentum of which caused him to collide with Newman and get airborne into the catch fence. He was unharmed.

By the end of the season Keselowski would be driving for Team Penske. He’d go full-time in 2010 and two years later would win his first Cup title. In the spring 2010 Atlanta race, Edwards would get payback when he intentionally spun Keselowski, causing him to flip onto his roof.

 4. Dawn of the restrictor plates (1987)

Every era of auto racing has to start somewhere.

NASCAR’s restrictor-plate era began in 1988 and lasted through the 2019 Daytona 500.

But its origins are in the May 1987 Winston 500 and a scary Bobby Allison wreck, days after Bill Elliott established the track’s qualifying record at 212.809 mph.

Twenty-one laps into the event, Allison was racing through the tri-oval when his engine blew. Debris from it cut a tire, causing Allison to lose control. He lifted up into the catch fence, where his car ripped a large section of it down right before the flag stand.

Allison was unharmed in the crash.

After a lengthy red flag to repair the fence, the race resumed. It ended with Davey Allison, Bobby’s son, earning his first Cup Series win.

That year was the last year of unrestricted racing on superspeedways.

 5. ‘Sorry we couldn’t crash more cars today’ (2012)

While Daytona and Talladega provide plenty of spectacle, they also provide really big crashes.

In the May 2012 Cup race, one of those wrecks unfolded on a restart with four laps to go.

Among those involved in the nine-car wreck was Tony Stewart.

Afterward, an unhappy Stewart showed his displeasure in a sarcastic interview.

“Sorry we couldn’t crash more cars today. We didn’t fill the quota for today for Talladega and NASCAR,” Stewart deadpanned. “If we haven’t crashed at least 50% of the field by the end of the race we need to extend the race until we crash at least 50% of the cars. ‘Cause it’s not fair to these fans for them to not see any more wrecks than that and more tore up cars.”

Xfinity set to reach new track winner mark for first time in 22 years

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Unless Joe Nemechek, who hasn’t won a NASCAR Xfinity race since 2004, wins Saturday’s Xfinity event at Atlanta Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on FS1), the series will accomplish something that hasn’t been done since Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s first championship season in the series

A non-Nemechek winner will become the fifth driver to earn their first victory at a track in the opening five races of the season.

They’ll have Brandon Jones to thank.

When Jones passed Kyle Busch with 20 laps to go on his way to a win at Phoenix Raceway last weekend, he kept Busch from claiming his 12th series victory on the 1-mile track.

While it was Jones’ second career Xfinity win, it was his first at Phoenix.

Jones followed Noah Gragson‘s first career win to open the year at Daytona, Chase Briscoe‘s first win at Las Vegas and Harrison Burton‘s first career victory at Auto Club Speedway.

Now here’s where we make you feel old.

The Xfinity Series has not seen a new track winner in each of the first five races of a season since 1998. That year, the first 10 races of the year featured new track winners, including the first career wins of Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth.

The streak is primarily a sign of the times. The trio of Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell, who won 34 of 99 Xfinity races over the previous three seasons, have moved to the Cup Series.

It’s also a result of NASCAR limiting drivers who earn points in the Cup Series to five Xfinity starts a year.

Busch isn’t scheduled to make another Xfinity start until May 23 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with six races between starts. Brad Keselowski also competed in Phoenix, but a Team Penske spokesperson said the team hasn’t solidified the remaining schedule for its No. 12 car.

The streak could continue next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

None of the current full-time Xfinity drivers have won there. Even though Earnhardt is slated to compete in the March 21 race, he hasn’t won there in five career starts.

What’s the next track the Xfinity Series will visit where one of its full-time drivers has already won?

The May 2 race at Dover International Speedway. Justin Allgaier won the spring 2018 race there.

Brandon Jones passes Kyle Busch to take Xfinity win at Phoenix

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Brandon Jones passed Kyle Busch with 20 laps to go and held on to win Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Phoenix Raceway.

It was Jones’ second career win in 141 Xfinity starts. His previous win came last October at Kansas.

Busch started from the pole and sought his 12th career Xfinity win at Phoenix. It appeared that he was headed toward that goal, leading a race-high 78 laps, but trailed off in the final 20 laps.

Not only did Jones pass him for the lead, last week’s winner at Fontana, Harrison Burton, also got past Busch and finished runner-up Saturday.

Still, it was some consolation that each of the top three drivers were Toyota drivers for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Brad Keselowski finished fourth, followed by Justin Haley, Chase Briscoe, Noah Gragson, Austin Cindric, Ross Chastain and Riley Herbst.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Noah Gragson

RESULTS

DRIVER STANDINGS

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Harrison Burton is on a roll. After winning last week at Fontana, he roared back for a runner-up finish in Saturday’s race. He has scored a top-five finish in each of the season’s first four races. Burton also is atop the Xfinity driver standings after Saturday’s race.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Joe Nemechek had a scary moment with 72 laps to go when his brakes went out, causing Nemechek to hit the wall and sustain moderate damage to the right side of his car. Nemechek finished 32nd. … NASCAR met with Dillon Bassett, Brandon Brown and their crew chiefs for an altercation on pit road after the race. Bassett went to Brown’s car and reached into the car on pit road. The two had made contact on Lap 137 of the 200-lap race.

NOTABLE: This was the 500th win on the NASCAR national level for Toyota.

WHAT’S NEXT: EchoPark 250, Saturday March 14 at 4 p.m. ET, at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Practice holds for Cup, Xfinity teams at Las Vegas

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UPDATED with inspection issues in Cup Friday …

Six Cup and 12 Xfinity teams will miss practice Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for inspection issues last week at Daytona.

NASCAR announced Friday that the Cup teams of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones and Christopher Bell will each have 15-minute holds in practice because those teams used bondo to change the manufacturer’s shape of the fender.

Earlier, t he Cup, the teams of Hamlin and Brennan Poole each will miss 15 minutes of opening practice for failing inspection twice at Daytona.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes four Truck teams for inspection issues at Las Vegas

In Xfinity, the teams of Daytona winner Noah Gragson, Matt Mills, David Starr, Robby Lyons II, Joe Nemechek, Vinnie Miller, Josh Williams, Mason Massey and the No. 74 car of Mike Harmon Racing each will miss 15 minutes of practice for being late to inspection at Daytona.

The Xfinity cars of Justin Haley and Joey Gase each will miss 15 minutes of practice for failing inspection twice.

The Xfinity car of Stephen Leicht will miss 30 minutes of practice for being late and failing inspection twice.

Xfinity practice is from 2:35 – 3:55 p.m. ET Friday. Opening Cup practice is from 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. ET Friday.