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First-time winners carry new confidence into 2012

February 17, 2012, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Marcos Ambrose still can't believe how one day at Watkins Glen International changed his life.

He received more respect when he went back to the race track. He got a bump in pay. His Richard Petty Motorsports team and the sponsors on his No. 9 car were thrilled. His fan base increased. He went home to Australia during the winter, and all anyone wanted to talk about was how he was a race winner at NASCAR's highest level.

"I think for me, it was more I felt like I belonged."


"It's been great," Ambrose said Thursday at the media day that kicked off Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway. "I can't for one second believe it could make such a difference. But it does, and to win on the main stage is important, but I didn't realize how important it really was."

Now he knows, as do four other drivers who broke through on the Sprint Cup level last season, and carry the memories and lessons of those moments into the 2012 campaign. Trevor Bayne captured the biggest spotlight with his stunning victory in the Daytona 500, a triumph that launched a formerly unheralded driver to stardom. But the benefits were no less meaningful for Ambrose following his win at Watkins Glen, for Paul Menard following his win at Indianapolis, for David Ragan following his win in Daytona's July event, and for Regan Smith in the aftermath of his victory in Darlington's Southern 500.

"I think for me, it was more I felt like I belonged," Smith said. "I felt like if a certain car comes up behind you sometimes, you have to yield position to them at times, and now I don't feel like I have to do that anymore. I feel like I deserve to be here just as much as you do. So if you want the spot, come take it from me. And if you can't get it, then you can get as mad as you want after the race but that's how it's going to be. So I think it just changed maybe my perception of how I belong a little bit differently."

Each of those breakthrough victories left impacts on the drivers who recorded them. No question, the most visible transformation belonged to the 20-year-old Bayne, who one day was a relatively obscure Nationwide Series regular, and the next was a matinee idol with a Daytona 500 championship ring and fans camping outside his hotel.

* Video: Bayne reflects on Daytona 500 win, one year later

But all of the first-time winners felt the gravity of what they had accomplished, in ways both real and intangible. For some, it meant a bigger paycheck or more sponsors or a little different treatment on the race track. For others, it meant a degree of confidence that helped them believe they belonged among the best.

"I think that mentally, you have more self-confidence," Ragan said. "You're probably treated a little different in the community being that you finally got that win. And obviously, [there's] some self-pride that hey, this is my goal and we've been able to do it. This sport is a little bit different -- in most sports you have a 50-50 chance of winning, where here it's a little different situation. But to be a Sprint Cup Series winner at the highest level is certainly special. A lot of people have not been able to do that. But now, you don't rest on that satisfaction. Now it's like, I don't want to be a guy with just one win. I don't want to be a guy with just two wins. I want to try to improve that."

Ragan, who competed last season for Roush Fenway Racing before his No. 6 program was shuttered due to financial issues, believes his status as a Cup winner helped attract some sponsorship to his new ride at Front Row Motorsports. One week after his victory in the Brickyard 400, Menard remembers walking through the garage area at Pocono and receiving congratulations from drivers and crew members from other teams. It was among the sweetest experiences resulting from his win at Indianapolis.

"I will take it to my grave that I'm an Indianapolis Motor Speedway race winner," Menard said. "That is pretty special, something to tell the grandkids."

But nowhere does that first victory help more than between the ears. Martin Truex Jr. won his first Cup race at Dover in 2007, and while he's yet to reach Victory Lane again at NASCAR's highest level, the confidence he gained from that day in Delaware stays with him even five years later.

"To be honest, the confidence thing is probably the biggest thing," Truex said. "From there on, every week you go out and you say, 'I know I can do this.' You don't say, 'I think I can do this.' There's a difference, there's a big difference. Obviously it's been a while since that win, but I still feel like every time I go on the race track that I can win just like I did that day. I can win and lead the most laps and dominate the race. There's a lot of things you have to do properly to be able to do that, but the confidence is the biggest thing. Just have that in the back of your mind all the time and never have that question. Even though it gets harder sometimes to keep that train of thought because it has been a while, you never lose it."

It's not an instantaneous transition. The euphoria from that first victory carried Smith for a few weeks after his win in the Southern 500, but over time he began to feel more and more as if he truly belonged. And it all went back to that night at Darlington, where he stayed out on old tires and beat eventual champion contender Carl Edwards to the finish.

"From a mental standpoint you understand what it takes to win a race, you know how good it feels to win that race," Smith said. "[When] you are in the lower levels, you win all the time. You get up to these upper levels, and it's tougher to win and you don't win as much. It had been a little while since I'd won something, and you get that feeling back in you and it puts that drive back in your gut again. This is a bad comparison, but it's kind of like someone who is on drugs -- you get that feel of how good it is to win, and you just want it more, and it makes you work harder to keep wanting to get more wins."

Brad Keselowski can relate. The Penske Racing driver won for the first time with James Finch at Talladega in 2009, in a controversial restrictor-plate finish that left Edwards spinning into the catchfence. Looking back, he believes that first victory helped him secure more of a toehold in the Cup Series -- he was driving full time for Penske the next season -- but it was his second victory, at Kansas last year, that truly validated him. And as for respect on the race track, he thinks that comes not necessarily from victories, but overall performance.

"I don't know necessarily if I would associate wins, as I would associate that with performance in general," Keselowski said. "I think that success will breed respect. Performance is a part of success."

Nothing, though, feels like the first time. Each of the first-time winners from 2011 enter this season a little more confident and a little more hopeful, because they know they can reach Victory Lane at NASCAR's highest level. Those initial breakthroughs are sweet moments they will savor even years later.

"Once you win in Cup, there's no feeling like it," Truex said. "It's like you're on top of the world."