Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: An Illustrious History of the Inaugural Winner

Since NASCAR decided to put the Charlotte ROVAL in its own statistical category, last week’s winner Ryan Blaney became just the fourth driver this century to score a win in an inaugural race. That’s right, the Charlotte ROVAL was just the fourth new track that NASCAR has introduced to its schedule this century.

Going to a new race track always brings its fair share of unknowns. For stock car drivers, a new track is one of the most challenging things a driver will have to tackle in their career. Not only has the driver never driven the track before, he or she has never competed against dozens of other competitors on it either. Essentially every driver is on the same playing field at a new track, thus the inaugural winner has truly showed their talent against competitors of equal experience of that given track.

There have been 19 drivers who have one the inaugural race on of the 24 tracks that the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series currently uses (including the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval and the Charlotte ROVAL separately).

Out of those 19, 11 drivers have either been nominated for or are enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Another two drivers are currently active and in the middle of hall of fame worthy careers.

Blaney, the third active driver and newest on the list, is just starting his career. Although success is just coming to the young driver, Blaney has joined an elite group of inaugural winners on NASCAR tracks.

Here is a brief story of the inaugural races and winners at each active NASCAR track in chronological order:


Red Byron- Martinsville Speedway (1949)

NASCAR’s oldest track, Martinsville Speedway held its first race on September 25, 1949. NASCAR Hall of Famer Red Byron beat Lee Petty that day by three laps to claim the second and final win of his career en route to the 1949 championship. Byron, who drove for fellow Hall of Famer Raymond Parks, was the first NASCAR champion.

Johnny Mantz- Darlington Raceway (1950)

A massive field of 75 cars took the first ever green flag at Darlington Raceway on September 4, 1950. Johnny Mantz lead 351 out of 400 laps to claim the only victory of his career. Mantz, who beat Fireball Roberts by nine laps, made only 12 starts between 1950 and 1956.

Lee Petty- Richmond Raceway (1953)

The first driver to appear more than once on this list, Lee Petty claimed victory at Richmond Raceway on April 19, 1953. Petty wheeled his No. 42 Dodge to a one lap victory over Dick Rathman. Petty tallied 54 wins and three championships in his illustrious career. Petty was enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2011

Lee Petty- Daytona International Speedway (1959)

In the most iconic race on this list, the first race at Daytona International Speedway was held on February 22, 1959. In a photo finish, Petty beat Johnny Beauchamp by a fender to claim the first ever Daytona 500. Beauchamp was initially declared the victor, but after three day of review, Petty was crowned as the race winner.

Joe Lee Johnson- Charlotte Motor Speedway (1960)

The first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway was held on July 19, 1960. Joe Lee Johnson claimed his second of two victories, beating Beauchamp by four laps. Johnson made 55 starts and scored 20 top 10s.

Fireball Roberts- Atlanta Motor Speedway (1960)

Only 12 days after the first race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, 45 cars took Atlanta Motor Speedway”s first green flag on July 31, 1960. After trading the lead several times with Cotton Owens, Jack Smith, and Bobby Johns; Fireball Roberts wheeled his Pontiac to victory. Roberts would go on to win 33 times in the NASCAR Cup Series and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2014.

Jack Smith- Bristol Motor Speedway (1961)

Jack Smith beat 41 other drivers in NASCAR’s first race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 30, 1961. After Junior Johnson suffered a mechanical failure, Smith capitalized and lead 241 out of 500 laps in route to the victory. Smith recorded 21 victories in his 15-year career.

Cale Yarborough- Michigan International Speedway (1969)

Kicking off the first of three debuting tracks in the 1969 season, Michigan International Speedway hosted it’s first NASCAR race on June 15, 1969. Cale Yarborough beat fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers David Pearson and Richard Petty to score his first victory at the two mile track. Yarborough scored 83 wins and three championships in his illustrious career, and currently sits tied for 5th on NASCAR’s all time win list.

Richard Petty- Dover International Raceway (1969)

Richard Petty joins his father as an inaugural winner. Petty was victorious in Dover International Speedway’s first NASCAR race held on July 6, 1969. After leading 150 laps, Petty beat Sonny Hutchins and James Hylton to claim his first of five wins on the Delaware track. Look for Petty later on down the list.

Richard Brickhouse- Talladega Superspeedway (1969)

Talladega Superspeedway opened its doors for its first race on September 14, 1969. This first race was not without controversy. Many top drivers and teams addressed safety concerns with the huge new 2.66 mile track. Subsequently, many of NASCAR top teams at the time boycotted the race, allowing a virtual unknown driver, Richard Brickhouse, to claim victory. The win was Brickhouse’s only career win.

Richard Petty- Pocono Raceway (1974)

Making his second appearance on the list, Petty won Pocono Raceway’s first race, held on August 4, 1974. Petty beat Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson after leading 152 laps. Petty would go on to be the winningest driver in NASCAR, claiming 200 victories and seven championships. Petty was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s first ever class back in 2010.

Tim Richmond- Watkins Glen International (1986)

Although NASCAR made three trips to Watkins Glen, N.Y. in 1957, 1964 and 1965, August 10, 1986 was NASCAR first race at the modern Watkins Glen International race track that is used today. Tim Richmond, Geoff Bodine, and Darrell Waltip all lead significant portions of the race, but Richmond came out victorious. Richmond scored seven of his 13 career wins in 1986.

Alan Kulwicki- ISM [Phoenix] Raceway (1988)

NASCAR made the trip out west to Phoenix (now ISM) Raceway. On November 6, 1988, 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Alan Kulwicki won his first career race. Kulwicki performed his now iconic “Polish victory lap” in celebration. Kulwicki was victorious five times in the Cup series and won the 1992 NASCAR Cup Series championship. Kulwicki’s driving career was cut short after his untimely death in a plane crash in 1993.

Ricky Rudd- Sonoma Raceway (1989)

Sonoma Raceway hosted its first NASCAR Race on June 11, 1989. Ricky Rudd dominated the race en route to his first of two career victories at the California road course. After a 33-year NASCAR career the spanned from 1975 to 2007, Rudd earned 23 wins and has been a NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee since 2016.

Rusty Wallace- New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1993)

July 11, 1993 saw NASCAR’s first trip to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Sterling Marlin and Rusty Wallace each lead 123 and 106 laps respectively, but ultimately Wallace came out victorious, beating Mark Martin by 1.3 seconds. Wallace would collect 55 wins and the 1989 Cup series championship in his career. Wallace was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2013.

Jeff Gordon- Indianapolis Motor Speedway (1994)

The famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been hosting automobile races since 1909, but it was not until August 6, 1994 that stock cars came to the Brickyard. After a skirmish between brothers Geoff and Brett Bodine, Jeff Gordon claimed his second win of his career. Gordon, an inaugural winner three times, lead 93 laps in his No. 24 Chevrolet. Brett Bodine finished second while Geoff was relegated to 39th spot after not finishing the race.

Jeff Burton- Texas Motor Speedway (1997)

The first of two debuting tracks in 1997, Texas Motor Speedway hosted its first race on April 6, 1997. After a large opening lap crash, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Terry Labonte took turns leading throughout the race. Burton, however, wheeled his Jack Roush Ford to victory lane, finishing 4. 067 seconds ahead of Jarrett. In 695 starts, Burton won 21 times on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit.

Jeff Gordon- Auto Club [California] Speedway (1997)

The two mile Auto Club Speedway opened for business on June 22, 1997. Jeff Gordon and teammate Terry Labonte dueled for most of the race. Gordon eventually came out on top, earning the seventh of ten wins in 1997, en route to his second championship.

Mark Martin- Las Vegas Motor Speedway (1998)

As NASCAR continued to expand rapidly in the late 1990s, Las Vegas came calling in 1998. Las Vegas Motor Speedway held their first race on March 1, 1998, with Mark Martin coming out victorious. After Dale Jarrett blew an engine, Martin lead 82 laps, finishing first over Jeff Burton. Martin was a 40 time winner in the NASCAR Cup Series and was elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017.

Tony Stewart- Homestead Miami Speedway (1999)

On November 11, 1999, NASCAR trekked to south Florida for the first NASCAR Cup race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Joe Gibbs Racing Teammates Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart lead the most laps, but Stewart prevailed to earn his third career victory. Stewart, a star of the open wheel ranks, was still in his rookie season in stock cars. Stewart would go on to win 49 races and 3 championships. Stewart is eligible to be on the NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot next year.

Kevin Harvick- Chicagoland Speedway (2001)

The first active driver on our list, Kevin Harvick won the first race held at Chicagoland Speedway on July 15, 2001. Harvick beat Robert Pressley by .649 to earn his second career victory. In his 18th year of NASCAR Cup Series competition, Harvick has currently amassed 44 wins Harvick is currently competing for his second NASCAR Monster Energy championship title.

Jeff Gordon- Kansas Speedway (2001)

NASCAR went to the Midwest on September 30, 2001 for Kansas Speedway’s inaugural race. Jeff Gordon beat Ryan Newman to claim his third win in an inaugural race. Gordon closed his career with 93 wins, good enough to currently place him in 3rd on NASCAR’s all time win list. Gordon also collected four championship and will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2019.

Kyle Busch- Kentucky Motor Speedway (2011)

Although NASCAR has been racing at Kentucky Motor Speedway since 2000, the NASCAR Cup Series did not make its debut at the 1.5 mile oval until July 9, 2011. Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, and Kyle Busch each combined to lead 245 of 267 laps. Kyle Busch came out victories, crossing the finish line first just .149 seconds ahead of David Reutimann. Currently, Busch has 50 career wins and is competing for his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Ryan Blaney- Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL (2018)

Last weekend’s race at the new Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL was completely new and different. This was the first time that NASCAR fans were treated to a road course race at a traditional oval track. What unfolded during the race didn’t disappoint. Ultimately, the finish was incredible. On the final lap Martin Truex Jr and Jimmie Johnson were fighting for the win until Johnson slid into Truex in the final chicane, taking both drivers out of a winning position. Ryan Blaney ended up crossing the line first.

As NASCAR has once again come to a pivotal crossroads, NASCAR needs to reevaluate their product. As Lee Petty introduced the world to the spectacle that is the Daytona International Speedway and Jeff Gordon showed the stock cars could put on a show at an open wheel track, NASCAR needs to realize that fans need to be rejuvenated. Indianapolis and Daytona excited fans. The ROVAL has certainly excited fans. NASCAR needs to continue to innovate and discover what energize its fans.

NASCAR made a great move to take away one of the many 1 1/2 mile tracks on the schedule and replace it with a road course, which is seldom seen on the NASCAR schedule. NASCAR needs to continue to introduce more variety to the schedule.

About the author

Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

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