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Inside NASCAR: Indelible images of this year's Cup winners

July 20, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Essay: Indelible images of this year's Cup winners and stories of how they won

It's one of the most exclusive clubs in the world. There's no initiation fee, but you have to pay your dues. Millions dream of it. Tens of thousands have it as their lifelong goal. But fewer than 3,000 have been given the opportunity to join, and fewer still have earned their way in.

"I keep thinking I'm dreaming!"

--TREVOR BAYNE

Winning a Sprint Cup race. Only one of the 43 who take the green every weekend will get to the checkers first. It really is the thrill of victory, the ultimate prize. Those who have gotten there are sometimes at a loss for words to describe the achievement.

To the casual observer, every post-race celebration may look the same. Light up the tires. Climb from the car. Raise the arms. Hug the crew. Kiss the girl. Take a sip from the bottle. Thank the sponsors. But even though the destination remains the same each race, the story of each journey is unique as the drivers themselves.

So far this season, 13 drivers have won at least one race. Here's how each has had an opportunity to share in the exclusive club that is the roll call of Cup winners, both first-timers and repeat performers.

In just his second Cup start, Trevor Bayne held off the field to become the youngest Daytona 500 winner in history.

Trevor Bayne

"I keep thinking I'm dreaming!" It was the stuff of fairy tales, an upset for the ages. A relative unknown, a kid who had turned 20 just the day before, driving for a legendary team that had been around since the sport's beginning but had recently fallen on hard times. In just his second Cup race, Trevor Bayne wins the Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers. It was more unlikely than any Hollywood movie script, more unexpected than the plot twist in a murder mystery and left everyone who watched the final laps unfold stunned and amazed, not the least of which was Bayne himself.

Daytona: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Jeff Gordon passed Kyle Busch with eight to go for the win at Phoenix, snapping his career-long 66-race winless skid.

Jeff Gordon

There was a time when Jeff Gordon visited it so often, it seemed he owned the deed to Victory Lane. But the Wonder Boy is closing in on 40, and coming into Phoenix, Gordon had gone 66 races without a win. Things looked bad early on when he bounced off Carl Edwards and then the wall. But to everyone's amazement, including Gordon, the car was not only just slightly damaged, but got better as race went on. And when he chased down and passed Kyle Busch, it was as if the clock had been turned back. Things were even better at Pocono, when Gordon got to celebrate with daughter Ella. There's a little more gray in the sideburns but Gordon's proving that the competitive fire burns just as brightly.

Phoenix: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Using a compositive of images, Carl Edwards celebrates with a flip from his car after winning at LVMS in March.

Carl Edwards

Sometimes a sure thing gets taken away. Sometimes it's handed to you. Carl Edwards knows the feeling well. One week earlier at Phoenix, Edwards was frustrated and disappointed at wrecking a car perfectly capable of dominating. At Las Vegas, he was there to pounce when Tony Stewart "gave it away" with a pit road penalty that forced him into a situation where Edwards had fresher rubber when it counted. And while Stewart was fussing and fuming, Edwards was doing backflips for the third time in five races.

Las Vegas: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Kyle Busch's victory at Bristol in March was his 20th in the Cup Series, his first of the season, his second consecutive at Thunder Valley and his fourth in the past five races at the track.

Kyle Busch

Boo who? Boo-sch. Kyle Busch doesn't care, as long as he gets to smoke the field -- and the fans -- with a post-race burnout, grab the checkered flag and bow to the crowd. For some, Busch does it with annoying frequency, as evidenced by the serenades he received at Bristol in March, Richmond in April and Kentucky in July. He's a lightning rod in a sport that sometimes suffers from too many sunny dispositions. Love him or hate him, he's as entertaining as they come, whether that's when he's winning or when he's not. And it seems this season as if he's doing more than his share of the former.

Bristol: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Kevin Harvick, who grew up about 150 miles from Auto Club Speedway -- needed a last-lap pass of Jimmie Johnson to win for the first time at the 2-mile track in his 18th attempt.

Kevin Harvick

"The 29 is coming hard!" While fans focused their attention on the stirring battle between Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson for the lead in the closing laps at Fontana, the real story was Kevin Harvick. Johnson finally worked his way to the inside of Busch for what appeared to be the winning pass, only to have Harvick come screaming up against the outside wall. On the final lap, Harvick appeared to bump Johnson just enough to disrupt his line into the final corner, then blasted by to take the checkers. The following week, he ran down Dale Earnhardt Jr. with four laps to go to win at Martinsville, and then added a third trip to Victory Lane at Charlotte when Junior ran out of gas just yards from the stripe.

Fontana: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Matt Kenseth led 169 of 334 laps at Texas in April and cruised to his first Cup victory since Fontana in 2009.

Matt Kenseth

"I haven't had something like this for a long, long time!" Matt Kenseth snapped a 76-race winless streak in a big way at Texas in April, dominating the race, surviving a couple of fuel-mileage gambles by the competition and once he took the checkered flag, sliding backwards through the infield grass to kick off his post-race celebration. One month later at Dover, Kenseth might not have had the quickest car all day, but he used a two-tire stop call by crew chief Jimmy Fennig to grab track position when the rest of the top contenders took four. Then on the final restart, he clawed his way past Mark Martin -- who was on older tires -- and pulled away for his second victory of the year.

Texas: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Jimmie Johnson edged Clint Bowyer by .002 seconds at Talladega to win one of the closest races in NASCAR history.

Jimmie Johnson

Kevin Harvick referred to it as Jimmie Johnson's "golden horseshoe" but you don't win 54 races over a 10-year span because of luck alone. Still, when 2011 started, it was somewhat surprising that Johnson couldn't seem to close the deal. He finished third at Phoenix and Bristol, led 65 laps at Martinsville and lost in the final corner to Harvick at Fontana. So when the series came to Talladega for the second tandem drafting race of the season, some were wondering when Johnson would break through. They didn't have to wait long. With a huge push from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson steered to the bottom to beat Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon across the line in a three-by-two photo finish. Jimmie kept the trophy and the purse money but gave Junior the checkered flag.

Talladega: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Nearly three years after a NASCAR ruling denied him his first Cup Series trip to Victory Lane, Regan Smith finally got the elusive win in May at Darlington.

Regan Smith

Regan Smith had been looking for vindication ever since NASCAR officials ruled he went below the line to pass Tony Stewart on the final lap at Talladega in 2008. And he got it in an improbable fashion on Mother's Day weekend, having to hold off hard-charging Carl Edwards twice on restarts at Darlington, one of the toughest tracks on the circuit. A gutsy call to stay out on older tires gave Smith the lead with 11 laps to go, but it seemed only a formality that cars with fresher tires would get by. Instead, Smith drove his car to the edge and beyond -- smacking the wall on the final lap -- to stay in front of Edwards at the stripe. Even the post-race hijinks between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick couldn't dampen the celebration for Smith's Colorado-based independent team.

Darlington: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Stretching his fuel mileage to the maximum, Brad Keselowski coasted across the finish line to win at Kansas.

Brad Keselowski

"Nobody told me we were leading. ... I'm glad that they didn't tell me." Even with 10 laps to go at Kansas, most observers felt like the finish was going to come down to a fuel-strategy battle between Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin. Brad Keselowski? He was leading by nearly 20 seconds but was almost an afterthought, since he was trying to stretch an additional five laps out of his last tank of fuel, something that few people thought was possible. That seemed even less likely after teammate Kurt Busch -- who had dominated all day -- was forced onto pit road for a splash of gas. But Keselowski not only had enough fumes left in the tank to win by almost three seconds, but carry the American flag past the frontstretch crowd, complete a burnout and get the car to Victory Lane.

Kansas: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Denny Hamlin held off a charging Matt Kenseth to claim his first victory of 2011 in the Heluva Good! 400 at Michigan.

Denny Hamlin

After having a tire come off and get wedged under his car while in contention for the win at Pocono, a place where he's been almost unstoppable at times, Denny Hamlin felt like somebody owed him one. He didn't have long to wait. The following weekend at Michigan, Hamlin seemed to be in catch-up mode right from the time the team rolled the car off the hauler. First, NASCAR made the crew swap out oilpans. Then Hamlin was "just kind of average" for most of the race before crew chief Mike Ford hit on the right setup. Even so, it wasn't until Dale Earnhardt Jr. brought out the final caution with less than 10 laps to go, giving Hamlin a chance to pit for two tires and much-needed track position, that the No. 11 finally made it to the front to stay.

Michigan: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Sonoma County is famous for wineries, not woodsheds, but Kurt Busch found the latter in June at Infineon, administering a good old-fashioned whipping to the competition for his first win of 2011.

Kurt Busch

You would think starting on the pole would eventually pay off. But it wasn't until Kurt Busch got off the front row that his luck finally changed. Busch won the pole and led 152 laps at Kansas only to run short of fuel in the closing laps. He won the pole and led 37 laps at Pocono only to finish second to Jeff Gordon. And he won the pole at Michigan but the handling went away, as did his chances for victory. But everything came together on the road course at Infineon, where Kurt avoided most of the trouble that plagued his competition, mainly because he kept building a huge lead after every restart. He eventually beat Gordon by almost three seconds.

Sonoma: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Five months after losing the Daytona 500, David Ragan grabbed his first Cup Series victory at the same track.

David Ragan

David Ragan always felt he could compete at the Sprint Cup level. But after five full-time seasons without a victory, there were those who wondered if he'd ever reach the potential that had earned him the opportunity to replace Mark Martin beginning in 2007. The glare of the spotlight only got more harsh after Ragan, sitting in prime position to win the Daytona 500 with two laps to go, switched lanes before the start/finish line in an effort to team up with his drafting partner. That resulted in a penalty which cost him any chance at victory. But when the series returned to Daytona earlier this month, Ragan proved to be more than equal to the task. Faced with almost the same situation, this time he earned sweet redemption, using a push from Matt Kenseth to pull away for a long-awaited and much-deserved victory.

Daytona: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap

Pole-sitter Ryan Newman and teammate Tony Stewart finished right where they started: 1-2 at New Hampshire.

Ryan Newman

"It puts us in a lot better position, that's for sure." Ryan Newman has never had an issue in qualifying well. His pole at New Hampshire was the 47th of his career, and makes 11 consecutive years that he's won at least one. However, it had been nearly eight seasons since he won the pole and the race in the same weekend, that coming at Pocono in 2003. But he had two things in favor this time around: a fast car and just enough fuel to go the distance. Newman led 119 laps, including the final 72, as he pulled away from the field on the final restart and was rarely challenged the rest of the way. It turned out to be the perfect weekend for both Newman and his boss, Tony Stewart, who started 1-2 and finished the same way.

Loudon: Victory Lane ceremony | Race Recap | Photo Gallery | Race Highlights | Lap-by-Lap