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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)

May 4 in NASCAR: A ghost that could not be caught at Talladega

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It is among NASCAR’s most famous cars and added to its legacy on this day in 1980.

As Buddy Baker and Dale Earnhardt ran at the front at Talladega Superspeedway, they pitted together. Earnhardt’s team took two tires. Baker’s team took four tires. The difference left Baker nearly 20 seconds behind Earnhardt.

But Baker, the 1980 Daytona 500 winner, was driving the “Gray Ghost” at Talladega.

The car was nicknamed the “Gray Ghost’’ because its colors allowed it to blend in with the track, as the story goes. Driver complaints led NASCAR to have Baker’s team put reflective decals on the car so it was easier to see after that Daytona 500 win

“Silver and black. Chrome numbers. It doesn’t get any cooler than that,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said in 2016 on his Dale Jr. Download.

Baker’s charge at Talladega 40 years ago also was memorable for catching and then passing Earnhardt for the lead with three laps to go. Baker withstood Eanhardt’s final charge at the line to win by 3 feet.

Baker told Motor Racing Network in Victory Lane: “We had to earn this one.”

Also on this date:

1957: Fireball Roberts won at Shelby, North Carolina, for his fifth win in his first 13 starts of the season. Roberts went on to score eight victories that season.

1969: Bobby Isaac started from the pole and led 283 of 300 laps to win at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway. No other car finished on the lead lap. The victory was one of a career-high 17 wins he had that season.

1997: Mark Martin won at Sonoma Raceway, holding off Jeff Gordon on the final lap. Martin snapped a 42-race winless streak.

2002: Tony Stewart came from the rear after an engine change to win at Richmond Raceway.

April 10 in NASCAR: Bill Elliott gets spun late, wins at Bristol

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One thing stands out among the 44 Cup Series wins that Bill Elliott earned in his career.

The 1988 champion made a name for himself dominating on superspeedways and other tracks 1 mile and longer, but he only won twice on short tracks.

The first came in dramatic fashion early in his championship season in the Valleydale Meats 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

After starting 13th, Elliott took the lead on Lap 379. He led the next 113 laps and along the way picked up a tail in the form of Geoffrey Bodine.

With nine laps to go, Bodine moved to Elliott’s inside as they entered Turn 3. Bodine’s No. 5 Chevrolet then nosed up into Elliott’s left-rear quarter panel, sending Elliott into a smokey spin.

The incident brought out the caution as Bodine took the lead.

During the caution, Elliott and the third-place car of Mark Martin took four new tires in the pits. Luckily for them, there were only three cars on the lead lap.

Elliott beat Martin off pit road and they lined up behind Bodine in the outside lane with as the race resumed with four laps to go.

Bodine’s lead would last just a lap-and-a-half. On his four new tires, Elliott eased his way underneath Bodine in Turns 1 and 2 with three laps to go. Bodine edged Elliott down the backstretch, but in Turn 3 and 4 Elliott bounced lightly off him, causing Bodine to get out of shape as Elliott took the lead and then the win.

“I didn’t have any doubt at all, I was going to get by him one way or the other,” Elliott told ESPN.

Elliott’s only other short-track win would come in 1992 at Richmond.

Also on this date:

1960: In his third career start at the track, Richard Petty won his first of 15 career Cup races at Martinsville Speedway, winning over Jimmy Massey and Glen Wood. It was his second of 200 career wins.

1971: Bobby Isaac led 181 of 200 laps to win in his fourth straight start at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina. Isaac did it in front of roughly 8,500 fans in attendance and an audience watching on ABC, which aired it live flag-to-flag, eight years before the 1979 Daytona 500.

1980 – Kasey Kahne, future 18-time Cup winner, was born

2010Ryan Newman ended a 77-race winless streak with a victory at Phoenix Raceway over Jeff Gordon. It was his first victory with Stewart-Haas Racing and his first victory since the 2008 Daytona 500.

April 9 in NASCAR: Mark Martin gives Xfinity win to David Green

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The 1994 Goody’s 250 was in the bag for Mark Martin.

A caution had come out for an incident with five laps left in the April 9 Xfinity (Busch) Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, a result of an incident between Hermie Sadler and Robert Pressley.

Martin, trying to win from the pole, was the leader over series regular David Green, driver for Bobby Labonte Racing.

“I kept telling myself the last 20 laps, ‘Please Lord, let there not be a caution,'” Green told ESPN later. “Dang caution flew and I said, ‘Dang, we’re going to finish second.'”

Four laps later, Martin led the field across the start-finish line.

That’s when problems began for Martin.

“I don’t look at the flagman that often,” Green said in the following week’s issue of Winston Cup Scene. “But I happened to look at him this time.”

What Green saw was the white and yellow flag waving. There was one lap left.

But Martin, who had just led his 195th lap in the 250-lap event, thought the race was over.

His confusion was aided when third-place driver Tommy Houston pulled up beside his car to congratulate him.

As the field went through Turns 3-4, Martin pulled his No. 60 Winn-Dixie Ford onto the apron and drove to the garage and an intended destination of Victory Lane.

“I can’t believe anybody else would be that stupid,” Martin joked to ESPN afterward. “Stupidest thing I’ve ever done, there’s nothing else I can say. I thought the race was over.”

The rest of the field, with Green leading it, stayed on the track and took the checkered flag.

To be on the safe side, Green stayed on the track for one more lap to ensure he’d won his second career Xfinity race. Martin finished 11th.

“I hate it for (Martin),” Green said according to Winston Cup Scene. “But we’ve had a real good car the last three races and have been there with a chance to win a race, only to have cautions kill us. I guess it was just our day today.”

While it was his only win of the year, Green went on to claim the 1994 Xfinity championship.

Also on this date:

1961: Fred Lorenzen earned his first of 26 career Cup Series wins in a rain-shortened race at Martinsville Speedway, with only 149 of 500 laps completed. He won twice in his first five starts for Holman-Moody Racing.

1972: Bobby Allison led 445 of 500 laps and won at Bristol, beating Bobby Isaac by four laps.

1978: With a backup engine under the hood and after a spin on Lap 170, Benny Parsons went to victory lane over Darrell Waltrip at Darlington.

1989: Battling the flu, Rusty Wallace passed Greg Sacks with 63 laps to go and then beat Darrell Waltrip by .26 seconds to win at Bristol. Wallace made it to the end of a race that saw a track-record 20 cautions that slowed it for 98 of 500 laps.

1995: Dale Earnhardt led 227 of 400 laps and beat Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin for his fifth and final Cup victory at North Wilkesboro.

April 3 in NASCAR: Darrell Waltrip let it ‘all hang out’ for Darlington win

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There once was a time in NASCAR when no matter how bad the crash, drivers raced back to the finish line to take the caution flag.

It was during this time, on April 3, 1977, that Darrell Waltrip won in a crazy finish at Darlington Raceway.

There were seven laps left in the Dixie 500 on this day and Waltrip was in fourth behind David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Richard Petty.

Allison was driving in relief of his brother Donnie and had managed to bring his No. 1 car back from being a lap down. And with seven laps to go, Allison passed Pearson for the lead on the backstretch.

That’s when chaos broke out exiting Turn 4 as J.D. McDuffie and Dick Brooks wrecked.

Debris from the wreck cut both ride-side tires on Allison’s car as Pearson backed off to avoid the carnage and Petty slowly navigated the mayhem.

Waltrip took the opposite approach and hammered the gas.

“I saw the wreck and knew it would take a long time to clean it up,” Waltrip said afterward according to “Forty Years of Stock Car Racing: The Modern Era.” “I let it all hang out running back to the caution. I knew it was my only chance to win.”

Waltrip’s No. 88 car went from fourth to first in half a straightaway as he narrowly beat Allison to the line to take the caution flag first and assume the lead.

Waltrip’s car narrowly beat Allison’s to the start-finish line. (YouTube)

The race never resumed and Waltrip took the checkered flag.

In victory lane, Waltrip was told by ABC that NASCAR was withholding its winner declaration until it could look at pictures of the finish.

“I got one right here and I know I’m right,” Waltrip told ABC as he pointed to his head. “I beat him to the line (by) well over a car length. I know I did.”

It wound up being Waltrip’s fourth Cup win and his first on a speedway.

Also on this date:

1960: The Cup Series held its last of four races, held over nine years, at the Arizona State Fairgrounds. John Rostek won in what was his second of six career starts. The race also featured Ron Hornaday Sr. in one of his 17 Cup Series starts. NASCAR’s premier series wouldn’t return to Arizona until the inaugural event held at Phoenix Raceway in 1988.

1966: David Pearson won a Cup race at Hickory (N.C.) Motor Speedway. It was the first of four races – including events at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway, Greenville-Pickens (S.C) Speedway and Bowman Gray (N.C) Stadium – that were held over eight days that Pearson swept.

1969: Bobby Isaac won at Columbia (S.C) Speedway, the first of three races held over six days he swept.

2011: Kevin Harvick passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with four laps to go to win at Martinsville.