Jimmie Johnson said he’s unfazed by his now 15 race winless drought. For the defending Sprint Cup Series champion not going to victory on any particular Sunday is nothing more than a bad day, which won’t last long. With 53 career wins and five championships, Johnson doesn’t have to think too hard or worry too much about when the next checkered flag is going to be thrown his way.
[media-credit name=”Brad Keppel” align=”alignright” width=”180″][/media-credit]Drivers like Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would love to have Johnson’s attitude. Until recently so would Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Fortunately for their teams they are the two recent drivers who have ended their own personal droughts in a NASCAR season that is quickly becoming one of resurgence.
Trevor Bayne didn’t know how to get to victory lane after winning the Daytona 500 of if he was even supposed to be there. A 20-year-old kid driving for one of the most famous teams in NASCAR and winning the biggest race of the season was just what NASCAR needed to begin a new year.
Bayne didn’t end a winless drought, he had never won a race in any of NASCAR’s series, but he did end a stream of the same faces in victory lane. This became a year of fresh faces and fresh optimism.
The following week it was a four-time champion who couldn’t believe he had won a race. Jeff Gordon, one of the most successful drivers in the sport, was in awe and shouted, “Are you kidding me?” in Phoenix. A 66-race losing streak was over. Never let it be said that even those who know what success tastes and feels like will get used to it and become immune to excitement.
“Pinch me, man. Pinch me,” said Gordon. “God, it feels so amazing … I’m going to savor this one so much.”
NASCAR is a sport where one must become accustomed to losing. In order to survive in this sport one must learn how to lose, not just win. Baseball, basketball, hockey or even football – as hard as the Detroit Lions tried – never will teams go a complete year without winning.
In NASCAR with 43 drivers, 36 races the odds aren’t always going to be in your favor. It’s not hard to favorites to go from heroes to zeros quickly and then go through team changes to try and recapture the magic. It’s all about winning in NASCAR, doing as much of it as you can, and celebrating as long as you can because it’s over in a day or two when prepared for the next week begins.
It’s why much has been made of Kyle Busch and his reactions to let a race slip through his fingers. No matter how many he has won, 91 over NASCAR’s top three series, he knows like any driver that his last win could be any given Sunday.
Another champion, Matt Kenseth, discussed his win on Saturday night in Texas like it was any other day at the office. But it was clear that the weight had been lifted off his shoulders after two years of going winless. After coming up short for 76 races Kenseth said he wondered if he’d ever get to celebrate again and said, “show me where to park this thing” in victory lane.
With Kenseth out of the way drivers like the aforementioned Burton and Earnhardt Jr. who are ready to end their 84 and 100 winless droughts respectively, are ready to be next. It was Charlotte in October of 2008 that Burton last saw victory lane while Earnhardt Jr.’s drought goes back to Michigan in June of that same year.
If 2011 continues to parody in its winners, there have six different winners in the seven races this season, as well as drivers who are ending their slumps Burton and Earnhardt Jr. are running in positions to do the same. Their fans keep waiting, circling races on their calendars and ready to all but tear their house or grandstands down when that driver wins.
While much as been discussed about his move from Richard Petty Motorsports to a one-year stop at Red Bull Racing before continuing on to Hendrick Motorsports, Kasey Kahne hasn’t won in 54 races. He’s another big name with another big streak no one wants.
Once that first win is finally captured the hope is for a Carl Edwards like comeback. Edwards returned to victory lane at Phoenix in November of last season ending a 70-race streak, then won again the following weekend at Homestead-Miami. He won again in the third race of the 2011 season. Going three for his last five races and he’s now the point leader.
Along with Burton, Earnhardt Jr., and Kahne other drivers looking to snap are Bobby Labonte, 259 races, and Martin Truex Jr. at 138 races. Talladega looms where anything can happen and it’s a wide-open for anyone in the field to have a shot. And whether it’s another veteran whose welcomed back to the winner’s circle or a Bayne like day, it will be different.
Winning in 2011 just seems to have a new feeling and meaning than years past. As if they’re doing it for the very first time.