Top 10: Ranking the best drought-busters
August 13, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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As skids go, it was a fairly mild one. Jimmie Johnson won at Michigan International Speedway in June to tame one of the few remaining tracks to truly bedevil him, earning his first victory at the Irish Hills facility in his 25th career attempt.
Personally, it was a notable breakthrough for a driver who's now won at all but four active layouts. But in the grand scheme of winless skids in NASCAR, it hardly qualified as one at all.
Not even by the standards set at Michigan, which hosts the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series again this weekend and in the past has been the site of a few major skid-busters both involving a certain NASCAR Most Popular Driver. Perhaps another drought is set to end Sunday on the outskirts of the Motor City -- maybe that of Paul Menard, who won the NASCAR Nationwide Series race there in June and finished a season-best fourth in the main event, and has now gone 110 starts since his lone career victory at Indianapolis in 2011?
It could certainly happen given the history at Michigan, a big, fast track where strong cars can check out on the competition, but where the specter of fuel mileage threatens to bunch them up all over again. Maybe the end of another skid -- hello Greg Biffle, riding a 43-race drought since winning at the same facility last June -- is in the offing. Until then, here are the top 10 instances where drivers at last brought the dam of futility tumbling down.
10. Truex at Sonoma, 2013
When Martin Truex Jr. won at Dover in a rain-postponed Monday race in the spring of 2007, it seemed just the first of many for a two-time Nationwide Series champion driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. But DEI's motorsports wing was absorbed into a Chip Ganassi organization that had its own issues, and Truex wound up at Michael Waltrip Racing as that team was finding its footing. The result -- five full winless seasons for a driver better than that skid might indicate, despite a few close calls. The streak finally came to an end at 218 races, with Truex snapping it at Sonoma Raceway last spring. Then some other circumstances intervened, and he hasn't won since.
9. Jarrett at Talladega, 2005
A Hall of Fame career was winding down for Dale Jarrett, but perhaps not in the manner the 1999 series champion had hoped. His Yates Racing team had gone through changes, and even though DJ was still immensely popular thanks in part to the "drive the truck" campaign that surrounded his sponsorship, he still hadn't won since Rockingham in the second weekend of 2003. The skid had reached 98 races when Jarrett arrived at Talladega Superspeedway in the fall of 2005. The seasoned restrictor-plate ace put his skills to use once again, engineering a surprise victory that saw him pass Tony Stewart on the last lap. The final victory of his career couldn't have been scripted any better.
8. Martin at Phoenix, 2009
True to his nature, Mark Martin was not going to ride off into the sunset. Oh no. Not even at 50 years old, not even riding a winless streak that had reached 97 races by the time he arrived at Phoenix in the spring of 2009. It was there when Martin truly began the campaign that would make people redefine the concept of age in NASCAR's top series, prevailing on the desert mile to become the third-oldest winner in the sport's history. Martin drove away from Ryan Newman on a late restart, and went on to record a five-win season that saw him finish an unexpected second in the championship race. Age -- and winless streaks -- were evidently just numbers after all.
7. Burton at Dover, 2006
Jeff Burton knows something about unexpected late-career revivals as well. Written off by many after departing Jack Roush's team, the veteran driver found a second career at Richard Childress Racing, where he broke a 185-race losing streak at Dover in the fall of 2006. Burton, whose previous victory had been at Phoenix in late 2001, went almost five full seasons without winning. The drought-buster came when he outdueled Matt Kenseth in the final laps at Dover, and when his former Roush teammate ran out of fuel, Burton claimed both a long-awaited victory and the lead in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup at the same time.
6. Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan, 2008
It may not have been a thing of beauty -- he led just 14 laps, and coasted home on fumes under yellow -- but it still counted as a victory all the same. That triumph at Michigan in 2008 was a landmark of sorts for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who scored his first victory with Hendrick Motorsports by snapping a 76-race skid dating back to Richmond in the spring of 2006. Earnhardt took the lead for good with five to go in regulation, cut his engine on and off to save fuel before a green-white-checkered, and was in front when Patrick Carpentier crashed after taking the white flag. No matter the circumstances, the celebration raged on all the same.
5. Harvick at Talladega, 2010
If Kevin Harvick's victory in the 2007 Daytona 500 was the highlight of his long tenure with RCR, the nadir followed almost immediately -- in the form of a winless streak that would stretch on for nearly three years, and severely test the relationship between driver and car owner. The skid took its toll in other ways, too -- Harvick would admit that he forced the issue on occasion, most notably in a loss at Fontana to Johnson. The skid was at 115 races by the time he reached Talladega in the spring of 2010, when he slung his car past Jamie McMurray at the finish to win an event that featured 88 lead changes. For the winner, all that mattered was the last one.
4. Gordon at Phoenix, 2011
It was the longest losing skid of his illustrious career, and it brought with it the whispers of whether the sport had passed Jeff Gordon by. On a spring night at Phoenix in 2011, the four-time champion provided the answer -- not by a long shot. Without a victory since Texas in early 2009 and mired in a 66-race drought, Gordon passed Kyle Busch with eight laps remaining to set off a furious celebration in the No. 24 camp. It was vintage performance by Gordon, who led the most laps, overcame a brush with the wall, and withstood late restarts to win and silence those critics all at the same time.
3. Earnhardt Jr. at Michigan, 2012
Wait, haven't we seen this movie before? Yes, it may have been the same driver at the same track, but the circumstances were markedly different -- the losing skid was much longer, and the way Earnhardt Jr. snapped it was much more impressive. Saddled with a 143-race drought that stretched back to his last victory at Michigan almost exactly four years earlier, Earnhardt unleashed a dominant performance that offered hints of the title contender to come. Earnhardt led 95 laps, including the final 30, and was almost untouchable as he powered to a victory of more than 5 seconds in the Irish Hills. If there was a single day which heralded the arrival of the Earnhardt we see now, this was it.
2. Waltrip at Daytona, 2001
A winless streak of 462 races that encompassed the whole of Michael Waltrip's career at NASCAR's top level. The faith of a team owner who believed in him. The power of the best restrictor-plate cars of the era. They all combined to make for a near-perfect day for the younger Waltrip in early 2001, when he led the final 17 laps of the Daytona 500 and snapped his mammoth skid on the biggest stage imaginable. And yet in the midst of wild celebration, there was that No. 3 car, sitting wrecked inside Turn 4. Triumph would soon give way to tragedy, but Dale Earnhardt's faith in Waltrip would continue to be rewarded in the form of three more race wins over the next two years.
1. Earnhardt at Daytona, 1998
"I'm not supposed to win the damn thing, I don't reckon," Dale Earnhardt said, after one of the many times he had been denied a victory in the Great American Race. He had won everything at Daytona except the 500, but as he approached Speedweeks in 1998, he hadn't been winning much at all. It wasn't just a 20-year quest to win his sport's biggest event -- it was the 59 straight winless weeks that had preceded him. He hadn't won since Atlanta in the fourth week of 1996, and in the garage as well as the grandstand, many wondered if the Intimidator was done.
Oh, were they in for a surprise. Earnhardt had another dominant car at Daytona and this time it lasted until the finish, pacing the final 61 laps and a slow stroll down pit road, where the driver received congratulations from every crew member on every team. The 20-year quest, done. The 59-race skid, over. Questions about whether the man could still compete -- finished. He went out and won three times the next year, chased an eighth title the year after that, saw the air at Talladega. Even on the day he left us, there were no doubts about his ability behind the wheel. That one day in Daytona dismissed them all.