Hurtling around Dover (Del.) International Speedway on May 15, passing one car after the next with startling ease, AJ Allmendinger felt like he was piloting the perfect racing machine, even smiling out the window as he blew by rival drivers on the one-mile concrete oval. "I started to laugh because we were so fast," Allmendinger recalls. "That race was ours."
As Allmendinger moved into third place near the midway point of the 400-mile race, his lap times were three tenths of a second faster than the leader's. On every straightaway, through every turn, Allmendinger drew closer to seizing first. In 126 career starts on the Sprint Cup circuit, the 29-year-old driver had never reached Victory Lane. But now, his right foot heavy on the gas, he believed he was about to accomplish what young drivers, in-their-prime drivers and retired drivers all say is one of the most difficult feats in NASCAR: winning that first Cup race of one's career.
Allmendinger kept grinning, giggling, gaining ground and then ... bang! In a puff of smoke his winless streak grew: The engine on his number 43 Ford blew up. "I'm still not over that race," said Allmendinger, a month after finishing 37th at Dover. "It is so hard to get over the hump and get that first win."
With NASCAR hungry for new stars and new rivalries to galvanize fans, a few new faces in Victory Lane would certainly be welcome. But as Allmendinger discovered, the checkered flag is an elusive prize. Through 16 races in 2011, there have been only two first-time winners: Trevor Bayne in the season-opening Daytona 500 and Regan Smith at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on May 7. Last season a grand total of zero drivers took their first career checkered flag, and in the last four years combined only five drivers have won their first race. "You either luck into your first win or you have to consistently run in the front over a bunch of races to get your first win," says Richard Petty, who has more career Cup victories (200) than any other driver. "My first was definitely my hardest, because it gets easier once you figure out how to do it. And when you get that win, you get more attention, more sponsor dollars. That first victory changes your entire career."
So who will be the next driver to notch that first victory? Here are the three most likely:
1 David Ragan
Of the six full-time Cup drivers yet to get a victory, Ragan, 25, is in the best position to win. He races for an elite team (Roush Fenway Racing), and he has, in fact, taken a checkered flag this season, but it was in the All-Star race at Charlotte on May 21, an exhibition event. Ragan's career winless streak in points-paying races is currently 162.
But many in the garage believe his drought will end soon. If the Daytona 500 hadn't been extended beyond regulation because of a caution flag, Ragan would have won. Instead, on the penultimate restart, NASCAR penalized him for illegally moving from the high lane to the low lane before the start-finish line, relegating him to the rear of the field. "When you're trying so hard to get that first win, sometimes you overdrive and make mistakes," Ragan says. "There are usually only five to eight guys that have a legitimate shot to win each week, and you have to be almost perfect to get into that group."
2 Paul Menard
Menard also is on a top-flight team (Richard Childress Racing), but like many Victory Lane virgins, he has been prone to heat-of-the-moment gaffes, like charging too fast into a turn and scraping the wall. The 30-year-old driver does have three top fives this season, which shows that on any given weekend he can find the raw speed to contend. His best shot to snap his career 163-race winless streak is likely to come on Aug. 27 at Bristol, where he led 35 laps this spring and finished fifth.
3 AJ Allmendinger
Allmendinger already is looking forward to returning to Dover on Oct. 2. His team, Richard Petty Motorsports, doesn't have the resources to field cars capable of winning each week, but everyone at Petty has circled Dover as a track for a potential breakthrough. And if Allmendinger could join the first-timers' club, he knows precisely what it would mean to his long-term prospects in NASCAR: everything.
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NASCAR's most popular driver has yet to finish first in 2011, but, to the relief of many, he is proving that he's far from finished
It was, in a word, odd, the reaction up and down pit road moments after Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s number 88 Chevy ran out of gas less than a mile from the finish line at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 29, robbing Earnhardt of his first victory in nearly three years. From one pit box to the next, crew chiefs and crewmen shook their heads and raised their hands in disappointment, as if their own driver had been thisclose to the checkered flag only to be denied. Even Kevin Harvick, who passed Earnhardt on the last lap to win, expressed sympathy for the driver who for eight straight years has been voted the sport's most popular, despite a winless streak that climbed to 105 races at Charlotte.
"I feel like complete crap," Harvick said. "We want the 88 to win, and they're so close."
Everybody, it seems—fellow drivers, fans and, certainly, NASCAR, which counts on Junior's popularity to boost the sport's profile—shares that sentiment. The good news is that even though Earnhardt, 36, has yet to win in 2011, he's experiencing a career rebirth. He's seventh in the standings and already has as many top 10s (eight) as he had in all of last season. "Dale is back," says Rick Hendrick, the owner of the number 88 team. "He's driving as good as anyone right now."
Teamed with his new crew chief, Steve Letarte, who guided Jeff Gordon into the Chase from 2006 through '10, Earnhardt has avoided late-race fades, a problem that had been his downfall for several seasons. Instead, Earnhardt and Letarte have found a setup that suits Earnhardt's driving style—he prefers the high line around the track—and Letarte has refueled Earnhardt's confidence by being his biggest cheerleader over the radio. Earnhardt has responded by spending much more time in the garage on race weekends.
It's all added up to Earnhardt's being one of the most consistent drivers in NASCAR in 2011. Despite a wreck and broken engine that knocked him out of Sunday's race at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., he leads the series in laps spent on the lead lap—94.05% of his total; the next closest is Kyle Busch, who has been on the lead lap 91.58% of the time—and he is fifth in "quality passes," a statistic that tracks the number of times a driver passes a car that's running in the top 15.
"We are doing some pretty good work here lately," Earnhardt says. "Would like to win a race, and we're trying to, but we don't want to get careless. We want to take the right chances in a smart way...."
Earnhardt is entering dangerous territory. For the last four years he has struggled in July and August, as the series visits some of his worst tracks—Indy on July 31 (career average finish: 22.2), Pocono on Aug. 7 (17.4), and Watkins Glen on Aug. 14 (22.9).
"The summer is very long," says Letarte. It has been in the past for Earnhardt. But for the first time since '04, when he finished fifth in the standings, Earnhardt is a championship contender.
A COMEBACK, BY THE NUMBERS
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2011 rebound has been based largely on his and his team's ability to avoid late-race fades and finish strong. Two key stats* bear out this newfound consistency.
WALTER G ARCE/CAL SPORT MEDIA (EDWARDS)