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Retro: 2011 very reminiscent of record-setting 2001 season

July 29, 2011, Mark Aumann, NASCAR.com

Thirteen different winners in 19 races has Cup record in danger of falling

Ryan Newman's win two weeks ago at New Hampshire made 13 different drivers in Victory Lane in just 19 races so far this season. Not only does that reverse a recent trend since the introduction of the Chase, but it puts the series on a pace that could eclipse the single-season record of 19, first set in 1956 and most recently accomplished in 2001.

The parallels are striking. While 2011 has had more than its share of surprises in first wins for the likes of Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and David Ragan, 2001 was one of those seasons when it seemed anyone was capable of winning on any given weekend -- and more often than not, that's exactly what happened.

Even though Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett combined for 10 wins, there were five first-time winners in 2001, as many drivers who won races in the entire 1974 season. The final nine races of the year featured nine different winners.

Triumph and tragedy were weaved alternately throughout the year, right from the season opener. Michael Waltrip snapped his 462-race winless streak in a Daytona 500 remembered more for the tragic death of Dale Earnhardt. Following the 9/11 attacks at New York and Washington, D.C., the September race at New Hampshire was postponed until the day after Thanksgiving.

And yet, there seemed to be an overriding theme of redemption. The week after Daytona, Steve Park won in Dale Earnhardt Inc. equipment at Rockingham, and two weeks later, Kevin Harvick -- driving in just his third Cup race as Earnhardt's replacement -- edged Jeff Gordon at the line at Atlanta.

But the real storybook victory was saved for July, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip finished 1-2 in the Pepsi 400 in the series' return to Daytona.

It was a year in which it didn't matter where you lined up for the green flag. Elliott Sadler started 38th and scored his first Cup victory at Bristol. Bobby Hamilton started 14th and won at Talladega. Rusty Wallace started 19th and won at Fontana. Jeff Burton started 18th and won the 600-miler at Charlotte.

And from his 37th starting position, Ward Burton became the first driver since inaugural winner Johnny Mantz to win the Southern 500 at Darlington after starting worse than 23rd.

Bobby Labonte became the 13th different winner in 2001 when he won at Pocono in the season's 20th race. Sterling Marlin added his name to the list at Michigan in August, Burton in September and Ricky Craven in October.

But it was a final flurry in November that put 2001 over the top, starting with Joe Nemechek's win at Rockingham. The following weekend, Bill Elliott went flag-to-flag at Homestead. And on what turned out to be an extraordinarily pleasant late November Friday afternoon in the Northeast, Robby Gordon put the bumper to Jeff Gordon -- who had already clinched the season championship -- to record his first Cup victory.

There were 18 different winners in 2002 and 17 in 2003, but that figure plunged to 13 in the first year of the Chase and reached a low of 12 in 2008.

So two years later, what are the reasons for this season's huge leap in race winners? It appears to be a combination of factors, such as more familiarity with the new chassis, leading to less disparity throughout the field; tires that don't lose grip as quickly, leading to more late-race pit road gambles; and a reliance on tandem drafting at restrictor-plate tracks, leading to some unusual strategy.

What are the odds that 2011 will see 20 or more different winners? There are definitely a number of drivers out there with strong credentials. If all the drivers who won at least once in 2010 -- Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, David Reutimann, Juan Montoya and Jamie McMurray -- return to Victory Lane this season, that would tie the record.

Certainly Stewart and McMurray already have the credentials necessary to win at Indianapolis, and Montoya -- who has led 202 laps in four Brickyard 400 starts -- has an Indianapolis 500 victory on his resume.

Counting other former winners and any lurking first-timers, there's a real possibility that we could see a year in which nearly half the field could go home with at least one winner's trophy by the time the checkered flag flies at Homestead.

2011 season

Race winners
DriverVictoriesCareer wins
Jeff GordonPhoenix, Pocono84
Carl EdwardsLas Vegas19
Kyle BuschBristol, Richmond, Kentucky22
Kevin HarvickFontana, Martinsville, Charlotte17
Matt KensethTexas, Dover20
Jimmie JohnsonTalladega54
Regan SmithDarlington1
Brad KeselowskiKansas2
Denny HamlinMichigan17
Kurt BuschSonoma23
David RaganDaytona (July)1
Ryan NewmanNew Hampshire15

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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