Top 10 debuts with new teams
January 14, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
There is something about change that can be reinvigorating, that by its very nature can shake off the cobwebs of routine. With a new position, new surroundings or a new vantage point, anything suddenly seems possible.
That's certainly been the case in NASCAR, as time and time again we've seen drivers step into new rides and enjoy renewed careers in the process.
That was certainly the case last year, as Kurt Busch returned to an elite level in his lone full season at Furniture Row Racing, Joey Logano broke through as a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contender in his first season at what was then-known as Penske Racing, and Matt Kenseth nearly won the title in a seamless debut at Joe Gibbs Racing. While not every driver thrives in a new environment, the 2013 campaign offered plenty of evidence as to the power of change.
And at NASCAR's top level, the change is only beginning. This coming season brings with it a flurry of ride swapping, and a number of drivers who hope to feel as rejuvenated with their new teams as so many of their fellow competitors were a year ago. Busch and Kevin Harvick move to Stewart-Haas Racing, Martin Truex Jr. moves to Furniture Row, Ryan Newman moves to Richard Childress Racing and AJ Allmendinger goes full-time at JTG Daugherty Racing. (For a complete look at the changes, visit the Driver Tracker.)
Given some of the breakthroughs enjoyed last season, the bar is set rather high. In his opening campaign at JGR, Kenseth led the series with seven victories, and fell 19 points shy of becoming the first driver in 32 years to win the title in his debut with a new team. Given all the firepower changing hands for 2014, somebody might well rival that. Until then, here are the 10 best seasons enjoyed by drivers in their maiden voyages with new teams.
An analysis of how drivers have fared in the first year with a new team over the past three seasons (2011-13): Must have finished in the top 20 in owners points to be eligible. Rookies were not counted.
Average wins per season: 2.0
Average top-fives: 9.1
Average top-10s: 16.5
Average finish (race): 14.6
Average finish (season): 9.5
Percentage making Chase: 62.5
10. Harry Gant, 1981
Gant's career seemed over before it started, given that he had driven for 11 different car owners over a span of eight seasons, never really enjoying much success. That all changed in the spring of 1981 when Gant, then 41, made his first start for the Skoal Bandit team owned by Hollywood director and stuntman Hal Needham. Gant placed second in his debut at Darlington, and then went on to record five more runner-up finishes, win three poles, and wind up third in final points. It was a breakthrough season for Handsome Harry that would lay the groundwork for several more great ones, first with Needham and later owner Leo Jackson, still to come.
9. Fred Lorenzen, 1961
Lorenzen had always been a successful driver, first on the short tracks around his native Chicago and then in the U.S. Auto Club ranks, where he won a pair of titles. But he made the transition to great one early in his third NASCAR season, when he got the offer of a lifetime from powerhouse team Holman-Moody. Driving some of the best equipment of his day, Fast Freddie blossomed into a star in 1961, when he won three times on the sport's premier circuit. The victories, all of them with Holman-Moody, would pile up over the next seven years, as Lorenzen won 26 times in a career that would earn him nomination for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
8. Cale Yarborough, 1973
The son of a tobacco farmer who once famously subsisted solely on discounted cans of black-eyed peas found at a grocery store, Yarborough was no stranger to hard times. His NASCAR career certainly seemed on the rocks in the early 1970s, due to shifting dynamics in sponsorship and factory support. At one point, the future Hall of Famer even left to race open-wheel cars. But he made a huge comeback in 1973 with the Richard Howard-funded Junior Johnson team, winning four times and finishing second to Benny Parsons in the final standings. Yarborough's run was just beginning -- as he would post 55 wins and three titles from 1973 to 1980.
7. David Pearson, 1972
He was 37 years old, and some wondered if the career of the Silver Fox was fading. By 1971, Pearson had won his three championships, but his glory days with Cotton Owens were behind him, and he had signed with a new team owned by Chris Vallo and Ray Nichels that would dissolve due to poor performance in just seven races. Ten events into the 1972 season, Pearson had made just two starts. But that April, the eventual Hall of Famer hooked up with the Wood Brothers, and beat Richard Petty by a lap at Darlington. Pearson went on to win six times that season, and over the next seven years not only returned to dominance, but made himself nearly synonymous with the brothers from Stuart, Va., and their No. 21.
6. Kyle Busch, 2008
Busch seemed like the odd man out in late 2007 when Hendrick Motorsports added Dale Earnhardt Jr. to its stable of drivers and Rowdy's subsequent move to Joe Gibbs Racing for the following season seemed to many like a consolation prize. That turned out to hardly be the case, as Busch went on to enjoy his best season to date, an eight-win campaign that cemented him as the No. 1 seed entering the Chase. Mechanical breakdowns in each of the opening three playoff races scuttled his title hopes, and Busch plummeted to a final 10th-place ranking that was hardly indicative of the whole season. But for one 14-week summer stretch where he won seven times and swept both road courses, nobody was better.
5. Mark Martin, 2009
While he wasn't retired -- use that word around the man at your own peril -- Martin certainly appeared to be scaling back in the late 2000s, after his long and successful run with Jack Roush's team had finally come to an end. He raced partial seasons in 2007 and '08, nearly taking the Daytona 500 in the process. Then came the year Martin still refers to as "a gift" -- 2009, when Rick Hendrick put him in the No. 5 car, and the Arkansan enjoyed perhaps the most gratifying season of his career. Martin won five times, finished second yet again in the championship race, and helped Hendrick to an unprecedented sweep of the top three positions in final points. The magic faded after that, but the memories of that special season continue to endure.
4. Matt Kenseth, 2013
The 2003 champion of NASCAR's premier series was 95 percent certain he'd never have another title shot, not in his final years with a Roush Fenway program whose cars seemed to lack the week-to-week speed necessary for a serious run at the crown. That all changed when Kenseth landed at JGR last year, in a move that allowed Roush to promote Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Kenseth clicked with his new crew chief, he felt comfortable in his new cars, and suddenly he was winning races at a rate he hadn't seen in years. Kenseth's debut at JGR netted a personal best seven victories, best in Sprint Cup in 2013, and established him as a title favorite from the beginning. He may have fallen 19 points shy of Jimmie Johnson, but he'll also be back again this year.
3. Ned Jarrett, 1964
By the end of the 1963 season, Jarrett had solidly established himself as one of NASCAR's top drivers, with a championship and 22 race wins already to his name. But the next year Jarrett truly took the step into greatness with the help of Bondy Long, a car enthusiast who became a team owner while still in his 20s. Long approached Ford Motor Co. for factory support, and the manufacturer suggested Jarrett as a driver, and the results were incredible. In Long's No. 11 Ford, the future Hall of Famer won 14 times in 1964 for Long, finishing as runner-up in the standings to Richard Petty. (He even added a 15th win driving for Charles Robinson.) The next year Jarrett finished the job, winning 13 more times and adding his second championship, and cementing his legacy in the process.
2. Darrell Waltrip, 1981
They were the fiercest of rivals, Waltrip and Yarborough, both tenacious on the race track yet different in so many other ways. It was Yarborough, after all, who had christened Waltrip "that talky Jaws" following a crash at Darlington. So it was a surprise to Waltrip when Yarborough approached him late in the 1980 season, with the news that he was stepping out of Junior Johnson's powerhouse ride -- and that he wanted D.W. to succeed him. And succeed D.W. did, motoring to a career-best 12 wins in 1981 (he would win 12 races again in 1982), and winning his first championship in his first season in Johnson's famous No. 11 car. Two more titles followed for the future Hall of Famer, and to this day Waltrip in 1981 remains the most recent driver to win a championship in his debut season with a new team.
1. Tim Flock, 1955
As it so often the case when it came to one of NASCAR's biggest early stars, the monkey got all the attention. Flock drove a handful of races in the early 1950s with a Rhesus monkey named Jocko Flocko riding shotgun, a promotional stunt that was the brainchild of car owner Ted Chester. Poor Jocko eventually went bananas in the car, overshadowing even a career that saw Flock win a title in 1952 and break through as one of the sport's best drivers. But Chester left the sport, and Flock was disqualified by NASCAR for illegally soldered carburetor screws found on his car after winning the 1954 beach-road race at Daytona. Furious, Flock quit the sport and returned to Atlanta to open a gas station. And that might have been it -- had he not traveled back to Daytona the following season, with no intention to race.
At least, not until he saw the Chrysler 300 fielded by Carl Kiekhaefer, who had made a fortunate selling boat motors and was just entering NASCAR. A friend at a Mercury Outboard dealer set up a meeting with Kiekhaefer, and soon Tim's helmet was on a plane to Daytona. Suddenly Flock was back in the game, driving the best cars of his day, and dominating the 1955 season to the tune of 18 victories, 32 top-fives in 38 starts, and his second championship. The next year Kiekhaefer would work similar magic with Buck Baker, adding another title before his short stint in NASCAR ended in a clash with series officials. But Flock was his breakthrough, the 1955 season providing a fitting second act to one of NASCAR's greatest early careers. And that one was no monkey business at all.
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