Earnhardt, Burton, Labonte highlight droughts that never seem to end
Bobby Labonte (ASP, Inc.)
Last year, one of the biggest stories surrounding the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was the prevalence of first-time winners. From the start of the season, when Trevor Bayne surprised everyone in the Daytona 500 to David Ragan’s July triumph five months later, new faces in unfamiliar places were popping up virtually everywhere. By the end of the season, the series witnessed five first-time winners — Bayne, Ragan, Marcos Ambrose, Paul Menard and Regan Smith — and the parity within the sport was on in full force.
But for every new wheelman to make a breakthrough, someone else is watching his time away from Victory Lane increase significantly. Now, in 2012, with a dearth of new drivers entering the sport the story has shifted from “who hasn’t won?” to “when is Driver X going to win again?” In some cases, veterans who once dominated have gone several seasons without adding to their win total while watching others rise to the top, claiming a slice of the fame and fortune that was once theirs.
Some are obvious, like the sport’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., yet others have quietly built with little fanfare. Let’s take a closer look at the longest droughts, brought into tighter focus after point leader Greg Biffle snapped his own 49-race winless streak Saturday night. Of course, that’s nothing compared to the agony these triple-digit winless sufferers have been through. Note: Only the top 25 drivers in Sprint Cup points were considered (i.e., teams that actually have a chance of finishing first every Sunday).
Winless Streak: 295 races Last Victory: November 2003, Ford 400 (Homestead-Miami Speedway) Synopsis: At 25th in the standings and driving for a single-car team, it’s easy to forget Labonte still exists in the series, let alone that he’s nursing a drought week-to-week that’s lasted well over eight years. No one would have predicted this sorry ending to a promising career that includes the 2000 Cup Series title — certainly not the last time Labonte used luck to speed by Bill Elliott’s flat tire on the final lap at Homestead to claim victory in ’03. But two years later, after a serious slump at Joe Gibbs Racing, he left to join a floundering Petty Enterprises to be “the savior” of a legendary franchise … that just kept floundering. It was a career-killer of a decision, one that led to disastrous finishes, a release after financial problems gripped the team and the sorry decision to start-and-park before JTG Daugherty Racing picked him up.
Now in his second year driving the No. 47, Labonte remains stuck in mediocrity with this single-car team, unable to recreate the magic that once had him contending for victories each week, while the team “rebuilds” after splitting off from being the satellite team for Michael Waltrip Racing (how about the bad timing on that). In fact, since the start of the 2004 season, Labonte’s led just 218 laps and has yet to lead one — or collect a top-10 finish, for that matter — this season.
Best Chance: If there’s ever to be one last miracle for Labonte, Daytona or Talladega would be the place. In February 2011, his push of Trevor Bayne was responsible for the No. 21 heading to Victory Lane, and a fourth-place finish for Labonte, his only top 5 of the season. I guess a guy can dream…
Martin Truex, Jr.
Winless Streak: 174 races Last Victory: June 2007, Autism Speaks 400 (Dover International Speedway) Synopsis: Truex’s last Sprint Cup victory is also his only one, taken during a time when he was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s right-hand man at the company once founded by Dale Sr. Months later, that popular son was off to Hendrick Motorsports, leaving Truex in the awkward position of assuming a leadership role never meant for him. After a merger and subsequent pairing with Chip Ganassi, the once-cozy confines of his friend’s former organization had been shattered; faced with executives that favored Juan Pablo Montoya, Truex chose to pick another opportunity and spearhead the driver effort at the growing Michael Waltrip Racing.
The first two seasons were filled with underachievement: zero Chase appearances, just four top-5 finishes and the firing of championship-level crew chief Pat Tryson. But just when it looked as though Truex, a two-time Busch Series champ, would be listed a permanent flop, new head wrench Chad Johnston found some innovative setups that appear to have salvaged a career. Fourth in points, Truex is on pace to lead more laps (525) than any season since 2007, the year that also produced his only Chase appearance. At this point, anything less than breaking the streak this season would be considered a huge disappointment.
Best Chance: Dover. It’s where Truex broke into the win column the first time, and in four starts with the No. 56 team, he’s already captured two poles there. One of a group of drivers who attended a Goodyear tire test at Dover this week, all the pieces are in place for him to break through in that track’s June event.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Winless Streak: 136 races Last Victory: June 2008, Lifelock 400 (Michigan International Speedway)
Synopsis: Yawn. Earnhardt’s Sahara-like drought, considering the top-notch equipment he’s driving at Hendrick Motorsports, has become the most over-hyped story in NASCAR’s sluggish 2012 start. Tied for second in points, he’s off to his best start since switching to the No. 88 in 2008, already eclipsing the number of top-5 performances (three) he had in two of his four previous full seasons with the team. But for Junior, it’s a case of the Boy Who Cried Wolf: so close and yet so far away. His laps-led total this season (75) isn’t exactly breathtaking, and the vast majority of those came in one event — the early laps of Las Vegas where the car enjoyed the extra boost clean air provides.
Half-a-dozen times, he’s finished second during this winless stretch, yet in half those “runner-up” races he’s done so without consistently running up front. Early this season, the “Junior’s ready” bug bit me, yet now I’m skeptical. Can consistency combine with the right adjustment at the right time to launch him into Victory Lane when it’s money time?
Best Chance: Talladega. NASCAR’s new rule changes, bringing pack racing back provides the type of competition through which Earnhardt excels. It’s a track that brings him one of the biggest pockets of fan support, where he’s won more than any other superspeedway on the circuit (five times) and where he wound up second just last year. If not then… when? Junior has to capitalize on a season’s worth of momentum before the yearly frustration of “why hasn’t it happened yet?” sets in.
Winless Streak: 159 races Last Victory: None Synopsis: One of two drivers inside the top 25 without a career victory (Aric Almirola, a virtual newbie is the other), the ’Dinger has been dinged around in his first year with Roger Penske’s No. 22 team. A classic case of trying too hard, frustration has set in as self-inflicted mistakes — a Phoenix wreck, a pit road incident at Daytona — set the stage for early setbacks that Kurt Busch’s former squad has yet to recover from.
On the cusp of victory last season with the No. 43 at Richard Petty Motorsports, no one doubts this former open-wheeler’s ability to get the job done. In fact, just two weeks ago he recorded a runner-up finish at Martinsville — his highest to date after a late-race crash jumbled the field. But to move one position higher, you need to have that confidence combined with patience, and right now it seems the driver is lacking both. Talk about a dream job turned nightmare…
Best Chance: Dover. Like Truex, Allmendinger just completed a tire test there. He’s also posted recent success at the speedway, as his 152 career laps led are the highest for him at any facility. In two of the last three Dover races, he’s qualified second only to be felled by tire and engine problems, respectively. The key, of course, is to not beat himself…
Winless Streak: 120 races Last Victory: October 2008, Bank of America 500 (Charlotte Motor Speedway)
Synopsis: Once upon a time, it looked like Burton, not Kevin Harvick, would be Richard Childress Racing’s best hope to bring home a Cup championship. But after three strong Chases — from 2006 to ’08 — the organization’s veteran driver has qualified only once since. Shuffling through crew chiefs, the consistency that once defined Burton’s career has dissipated, as his patented “putting himself in position to win” philosophy has been replaced with “putting himself in position to stay on the lead lap.”
In mid-2011, a slumping Burton was randomly selected for a “fill-in” crew chief in young Luke Lambert. However, the apparently strong chemistry was cut in half by owner Childress this offseason in favor of a name you won’t even be able to pronounce, Drew Blickensderfer. (Try it: Blickensderfer. Blick. Ens. Derf. Er. I feel bad for all his high school teachers.) Anyway, Burton with “young gun” Luke: two top 5s and four top 10s in the last five events of 2011, combined with a failed fuel mileage gamble that almost ended this streak last November. Burton with Blick, a former Daytona 500 winner who’s been all but a one-hit wonder since: two ho-hum top-10 finishes in seven races to start the year. Need I say more?
Best Chance: Bring Lambert back. Now paired with championship-contender Elliott Sadler in the Nationwide Series, the chances of a reunion are unlikely at best. Instead, it looks increasingly suspect that Burton may simply be filling seat time until Childress’ grandson, Ty Dillon, is ready for Cup racing, circa 2015. Turning 45 this season, Burton may soon join Mark Martin in retirement as the two best drivers of the last two decades to not win a Cup Series title.
Winless Streak: 98 races Last Victory: June 2009, Lenox Industrial Tools 301 (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) Synopsis: Could NASCAR’s hope for the next generation wind up as nothing but a one-hit wonder? It’s hard to believe the sport’s much-hyped youngster, at 21, has now gone nearly three years without a Cup victory. Scored during his rookie season, Logano’s lone triumph was the perfect combination of luck and strategy: after going a lap down at New Hampshire with a damaged racecar, then-crew chief Greg Zipadelli kept him on track while catching a lucky caution once Mother Nature’s downpour caused an early end to the event. Many thought it would be the start of great things for Sliced Bread. Instead, his career has been sliced apart by critics, and he was nearly replaced at the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 by the wandering eye of then-free agent Carl Edwards last year.
This year started strong, with two straight top-10 finishes, but since then it’s been the same old C-plus performances, even with new crew chief Jason Ratcliff and new funding from co-sponsor Dollar General. Now in his fourth season, how much longer can Joe Gibbs be patient before admitting this one isn’t working out?
Best Chance: Kentucky. Logano once won three consecutive Nationwide races at the facility, raising hope he’d dominate once Sprint Cup came to the pristine 1.5-mile oval in 2011. But from the first practice, he struggled to get up to speed, ran a distant 14th and raised questions about just how competitive he’ll be the second time around — the story of his Sprint Cup career to date.