Top 10: What long, strange droughts they've been
June 12, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Will Johnson's Michigan drought come to an end on Sunday?
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In a sport where only one competitor each weekend gets to celebrate in Victory Lane, every driver learns to deal with losing streaks. Even the greatest ever behind the wheel lost much more than they won -- Richard Petty, for instance, didn't win 984 of his 1184 premier-series starts -- so they all learn how to cope with stretches devoid of the sport's ultimate goal.
But some losing streaks just don't make sense. Some are just downright cruel. Some of them take drivers who are among the best at certain tracks, or in certain events, or simply of their era, and make them chase an elusive end result for years on end. There's no better example of this than Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500, and the two decades it took a seven-time champion who could famously see the air to finally prevail in his sport's biggest event.
The Intimidator is far from alone in that regard. NASCAR's past and present are full of droughts that would leave anyone scratching their heads, drivers who did everything at one track or in one major event -- except win. At least Earnhardt ended his, famously so in 1998, receiving memorable congratulations from all those crewmen lined up along pit road. Perhaps Jimmie Johnson's strangest skid will end this weekend, when the six-time champion once again takes on a Michigan International Speedway that continues to bedevil him, in an age when not much anything else does.
Like Johnson's, some of these current droughts seem certain to one day end. Of course, many other elite drivers perhaps once thought the same thing, only to see their plights frozen in time. Certainly, new ones will develop as the years march on. But right now, as Johnson makes yet another bid to win in the Irish Hills, these are the top 10.
10. Dale Earnhardt at Riverside
To be fair, Big E was not exactly a road course expert -- he never won at Watkins Glen, and had one career victory at Sonoma. But Riverside, a screamer of a layout in Southern California with long straights and a sweeping turn at one end, was a different animal. Many stock-car drivers thrived there, and indeed that was where Earnhardt earned his first premier-series pole in 1979. He contended there with regularity, at one point finishing outside the top five just once in a decade. But the closest he ever came to winning was a pair of runner-up finishes, the last in 1986, and he was 0-20 at the famous road course when it dropped off the schedule after the 1988 campaign.
9. Richard Petty at Ontario
The King seemingly won everywhere, but not at the big, short-lived California track that was built to be a replica of Indianapolis. Ontario barely lasted a decade before it collapsed under the weight of its own debt, but its lifespan coincided with some of Petty's greatest years behind the wheel. Petty raced at Ontario during five of his seven title campaigns, and in the heyday of the No. 43 car in its STP livery -- and still went winless there. Petty always qualified well at Ontario, never starting worse than eighth. He led laps in all but one event. And yet he suffered five engine failures at the 2.5-mile track, all of them contributing to an 0-9 record at the venue where the King has the most career starts without a victory.
8. Buddy Baker at Rockingham
NASCAR Hall of Famer Buck Baker once operated a driving school at the former North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham, where future luminaries such as Jeff Gordon learned how to wheel stock cars. So it stands as a royal irony that his son Buddy -- also an instructor at his dad's school, and Hall of Fame nominee himself -- went winless on the Sand Hills layout that became closely associated with his family name. The younger Baker led more than 1,000 laps at the Rock, and three times finished as runner-up there, but in 44 career starts could never break through. He was beset with mechanical issues, recording DNFs in 25 starts, perhaps not usual given the equipment of the era and the difficulty of the track. Even so, there's no other facility where Baker has as many career starts without a victory.
7. Jimmie Johnson at Michigan
It's not Johnson's best track, but let's face it -- there are only five active venues where the six-time champ hasn't won, and this one seems to have it out for him. Twice in the last three years, he's blown engines at Michigan. In 2009, he was battling Greg Biffle for an apparent victory on the final lap when both of them ran out of gas. Johnson has had some very good cars at Michigan, and had some races there he's come close to dominating -- like that 2009 event, where he led 146 laps -- but he hasn't yet been able to close the deal. Michigan is the only track that NASCAR visits twice a year where Johnson doesn't have a victory, and his 0-24 record there stands in stark contrast to everything else he's achieved.
6. Kurt Busch at plate tracks
The diver who famously pushed then-teammate Ryan Newman to the checkered flag in the 2008 Daytona 500 is a strong restrictor-plate racer himself, but without a trip to Victory Lane to show for it. It's not just that Busch is winless in the Daytona 500. Or at Daytona. Or at Talladega. But all of the above -- the 2004 champion of NASCAR's top circuit has competed in 54 restrictor-plate events, and stunningly remains winless. Talladega in particular has recently been a house of horrors for Busch, who's failed to finish four of his last six events there. In 2011 Speedweeks, he won what was then the Shootout and a qualifying race, but placed fifth in the main event. Given the somewhat capricious nature of plate racing, you'd think his time would come around eventually.
5. Rusty Wallace at the Brickyard
He may have won the premier-series title in 1989, but Wallace still knew a thing or two about skids -- he went 0-for-45 at Daytona and 0-for-43 at Darlington over the course of his Hall of Fame career. And yet, the one drought that may have frustrated him the most may have been at the Brickyard, where Wallace was as strong as anyone from NASCAR's first race at the hallowed facility. Wallace finished fourth in the inaugural event in 1994, and second the next season, and continued to churn out strong runs at Indy -- without a victory. In 12 Brickyard starts, Wallace had five top-five finishes, but he never broke through. Three times he was runner-up -- including 2000, when he led 110 laps and watched Bobby Labonte slip past with 15 remaining to win.
The younger Busch brother has more starts at Charlotte than at any other active Sprint Cup track, and yet he's still without a victory to show for it. It's not like Busch is terrible at the 1.5-mile layout, either -- he has more top-10s there than anywhere else outside of Richmond, where he's won four times. The closest he's come at Charlotte was finishing second in the fall race in 2010, where he led 217 laps in a car that seemed dominant until Jamie McMurray slid by on a late restart to win. A ninth-place result in last month's Coca-Cola 600 marked his 12th top-10 finish in his last 14 races there. Three times during that span, he's led triple-digit laps. Nine times, he placed in the top five. And yet, his overall record there remains 0-21.
3. Terry Labonte at Daytona
A lot of drivers have suffered through losing streaks at Daytona, from the aforementioned Wallace and Busch to Mark Martin (0-55) and Dave Marcis (0-67, the most starts by any driver without a victory there). Then there's Labonte, so used to being a bridesmaid at NASCAR's most famous track, he should have caught a bouquet after each race. The two-time champ went 0-62 at Daytona, despite three runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500 and a number of other close calls. During his late-90s renaissance with Rick Hendrick, he finished second in three Daytona races in a row, denied in the 1997 summer event by John Andretti by two hundredths of a second. Labonte more recently competed for top-20 finishes at Daytona in lesser-funded cars, an indication of how good he was there -- even if he never won.
2. Bobby Allison at Martinsville
He did everything there but win. The 1983 NASCAR champion recorded six runner-up finished at the half-mile track, including five in a span of six races. He led 218 laps in 1966, led 266 laps in 1984, led 379 laps in 1969, led 432 -- 432! -- of 500 laps in 1972, and somehow, inexplicably, didn't win. Looking at Allison's statistics at Martinsville, you'd be convinced he has enough grandfather clocks to outfit every home in Hueytown, Ala. But no. The NASCAR Hall of Famer is eighth all-time in laps led there with 2,192, flat-out dominated the joint in the 1970s, and yet managed to fall short again and again and again. Allison has more starts at Martinsville (44) than at any other track where he hasn't won. Next on the list is Hickory -- with eight. Give the man a hot dog, at least.
1. Tony Stewart in the Daytona 500
The three-time champion of NASCAR's top series is one of the best restrictor-plate racers of his era, and he has the numbers to back it up. One victory and six runner-up finishes at Talladega, where he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. proved the premier drafting tandem of the early 2000s. Four wins in the summer race at Daytona, and seven in Nationwide Series events, and three more in what's now the Sprint Unlimited exhibition. Three victories and an average finish of 4.6 in Daytona qualifying races. And yet Stewart remains winless in the Daytona 500, compiling an 0-16 mark to date in pursuit of the biggest NASCAR trophy still to elude him.
This year's Daytona 500 was emblematic of the quest -- shortly after the race resumed following the rain delay, Stewart's car started sputtering, victim of a fuel pump issue that would put him 26 laps down. In 2001, his car went airborne and landed on its roof. In 2002, his engine blew in the opening laps. In 2007, he and Kurt Busch crashed while Stewart was leading. In 2012, he was caught up in another crash. The closest he's come was in 2004 when he finished second to Earnhardt Jr., and in 2008 when Newman passed him on the final lap. His quest in the 500 has been compared to that of the elder Earnhardt, which lasted 20 years. Will Stewart have to wait that long? His 17th attempt comes February 22, 2015.