Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Unlikely Underdog Overachievers

Jeremy Clements nabbed the win for his family-owned team in Sunday’s XFINITY Series race from Road America, but he’s not the only underdog with an unlikely finish.

1. Well, he has the name for it.

Let’s keep it at Darlington Raceway since that’s where we’re at this weekend. To coincide with the throwback theme of the late 1980s, the 1988 spring race at Darlington produced what just might be the biggest upset in NASCAR history.

Lake Speed may have been the driver with the coolest racing name ever, but he was hardly a threat during his Cup career. Speed bounced around a couple of rides in the early 1980s before finding himself without a job for most of the 1986 season. Instead of calling it a career, Speed put together his own race team.

Speed Racing (what an awesome name) competed in a handful of races in 1987 and went full time the following year. In the fifth race of that season, at Darlington, the stars aligned and Speed won his first ever Cup race. It wasn’t a lucky, fluke deal; he led 178 of the 367 laps. To get the lead, he made a beautiful block on Rusty Wallace and a three-wide pass on leader Bobby Allison.

It was Speed’s day and he gave one of the most emotional Victory Lane interviews to date. The Jackson, Ms. native never won again, leaving his Darlington win as the most dominant upset of all time. – Michael Massie


2. Donny who?

I’d have to say the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race from Mansfield, Ohio in 2008. It wasn’t just that no one expected Donny Lia to win. No one even knew much about Lia or his Kevin Buckler owned team. In fact, Lia had seven prior starts in the series, and Buckler’s team was in its 10th truck event. They started 28th in the field. The odds were pretty long to say the least. But through attrition and some steady advancement, the modified ace found himself in second on the final restart with seven laps to go. He pounced on David Starr and scored his only national touring series top-five finish, let alone his only win. – Frank Velat

3. What are the odds?

Three drivers who had never won a race (two of whom still haven’t), one driving for an upstart, and one whose last top five had been a decade prior to the race. That was the top five coming to the checkers in the 2007 Coca-Cola 600. Casey Mears broke through to win, and while he was driving for Hendrick motorsports, he certainly wasn’t the HMS driver favored to head to Victory Lane that night.  JJ Yeley finished second, scoring his first career top five. Kyle Petty, whose last top five had been in 1997 was third. Reed Sorenson was fourth, and Brian Vickers rounded out the top five. All five took a huge gamble, running their fuel cells nearly dry, but it paid off, making for one of the unlikeliest top fives ever. – Amy Henderson

4. A rookie and a small team, Indy style

Carlos Huertas was an unheralded rookie in the Verizon IndyCar Series at the time, the latest in a series of pay-drivers to suit up for Dale Coyne Racing. Up to that point in the season, he had two top-10 finishes and was 20th in points.

Huertas started 19th in the race that started in the wet. The conditions were tricky and caught a number of drivers out. Scott Dixon, Luca Filippi, Takuma Sato and others crashed out. However, Huertas was able to keep himself out of trouble and took the lead late when teammate Justin Wilson was forced to pit for fuel.

A late crash for Sebastian Saavedra (and additional contact under yellow) resulted in the race ending under yellow with Huertas taking a surprise victory over Juan Pablo Montoya. He has not raced in the series since the 2015 Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. – Phil Allaway

5. The family ride

Today, David Gilliland is more or less in the background as his son Todd is considered to be the next big thing.  In 2006, he was a rookie with years of experience in what is now the K&N Pro Series West. However, he had very little experience in the XFINITY Series. Entering Kentucky, he’d only started six races in the series. He’d never started better than 11th and never finished better than 29th. Gilliland failed to finish four of those six starts. He’d also failed to qualify for two other races.

As a result, it would have been a complete shock for Gilliland to win at Kentucky, but he ultimately put up a career weekend. He qualified a career-best fourth for the race and was in contention for the win when it counted after an up and down race. A late yellow brought him up to JJ Yeley’s rear bumper. A couple of laps after the restart, Gilliland made the move for the lead.  From there, he held on to take a surprise victory.

A week later, Gilliland was making his Cup debut at Sonoma for the Mullets in their No. 72 Dodge.  Two months after the win, Gilliland replaced Elliott Sadler in the No. 38 M&M’s Ford for Robert Yates Racing in Cup. – Allaway

About the author

The Frontstretch Staff is made up of a group of talented men and women spread out all over the United States and Canada. Residing in 15 states throughout the country, plus Ontario, and widely ranging in age, the staff showcases a wide variety of diverse opinions that will keep you coming back for more week in and week out.

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Missed one, Justin Labonte’s win in the early 2000’s. That one cane from nowhere, especially as it was his only top 10 that year.

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