Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: Analyzing NASCAR’s First-Time Winner Count in 2020 So Far

Last weekend was quite the weekend for first-timers, as the four NASCAR races at Kentucky Speedway saw two first-time winners in their respective series, while another driver won his first oval race in the sport (followed promptly by his second).

It started Thursday night, when Austin Cindric, after wins on road courses in the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series, broke through on an Xfinity oval in Team Penske’s No. 22, before winning again the next night. Then Sheldon Creed emerged victorious in a rain-shorted Truck race at the track Saturday night for his first national series win, while Cole Custer completed the trifecta of winning in all three national series by scoring his first Cup victory Sunday.

That gives 2020 six different first-time winners in some capacity in the Cup, Xfinity or Truck series. Creed and Custer are joined by Noah Gragson, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley in Xfinity, plus Brandon Jones in Trucks.

A fast pace? Sort of. This weekend’s Texas Motor Speedway racing basically marks the halfway point for the NASCAR season, albeit a little later than normal due to the multi-month break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If we say it’s indeed halfway, then NASCAR’s currently on pace for 12 different first-time winners across its three national series, a mark that would usurp the counts from each of the last two seasons.

In 2019, 11 drivers snagged their first wins in a given series, six of whom were via the Truck Series. Austin Hill, Stewart Friesen, Spencer Boyd, Todd Gilliland and Tyler Ankrum — all of whom still race in the series full time — won their first Truck races, as did Ross Chastain, who’s mostly an Xfinity competitor in 2020. Jones, Cindric and Michael Annett were first-timers in Xfinity, and Alex Bowman and Haley scored their first Cup victories.

And even if 2020’s pace slackens, it’s probably still going to beat 2018’s, which saw seven first-time winners. Chase Elliott and Erik Jones garnered maiden Cup victories, while Chase Briscoe, John Hunter Nemechek, Chastain and Spencer Gallagher did so in Xfinity. Haley was the lone first-timer in the Truck Series.

But barring a major influx of new winners that outpaces the run the sport is on right now, chances are 2017’s mark of 15 won’t be beat. In fact, since NASCAR added the Truck Series to its schedule in 1995, that’s the second-largest crop of first-timers in the sport’s history.

Chances are that year will go down in history years from now as one to look back at and plot the upward trajectories of future NASCAR stars. Not only was 2017 when Ryan Blaney scored his first Cup win, the year also saw breakthrough Xfinity victories from current Cup rookies Custer, Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick, plus fellow now-Cup full-timers Bowman, Ryan Preece and William Byron. The Truck Series also boasted first wins from Briscoe, Gragson and Cindric, all of whom figure to factor into the Cup Series someday.

The largest group of first-time winners in a single season? That’s 2002, when victory lane saw 16 different first wins from 15 different drivers.

This one’s sort of fun, so despite the wordiness explaining wins for 15 different competitors, here’s a blast from the past.

Of that group, seven remain in one of NASCAR’s three national series in some capacity to this day. 2002 was the year Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman won their first Cup races, while Johnny Sauter, who still races today in the Truck Series, visited victory lane in the Xfinity Series for the first time. In Trucks, Kevin Harvick, Brendan Gaughan and David Starr all won for the first time, Harvick doing so after his inaugural Cup and Xfinity victories.

As for the since-retired, 2002 also saw the surprise first Cup win of Jamie McMurray, as well as the only Cup triumph of Johnny Benson. On the Xfinity side, McMurray also reigned for the first time, alongside Scott Wimmer, Scott Riggs, Jack Sprague and Bobby Hamilton Jr. Tony Stewart and Robert Pressley were both first-time winners in the Truck Series.

One of the crazier things about that mark of 16 is that it well exceeds 1995, which inherently was always going to be a season with an influx of first-timers since the Truck Series was brand new then. Even still, NASCAR logged 13 that year — not a number to sneeze at by any means, but nonetheless outpaced by a variety of years without anything markedly special to them. For the curious, 1995 saw first Cup wins for Bobby Labonte and Ward Burton, while the other series’ first-timers were mostly drivers who ended up being synonymous with those respective series, such as Jason Keller and Mike McLaughlin with Xfinity and Ron Hornaday Jr., Mike Bliss and Mike Skinner in Trucks.

I will say this about 2020: if it keeps up its pace, we can definitely say we’re in the midst of a boon for first-time winners in the sport yet again, coupled with 2019’s output. Add 2017 into the mix, and you’re looking at averages that exceed most years in the 2010s and the late 2000s, when new victors could be tougher to come by.

2020, thanks to Custer, also marks the fifth straight season in which we’ve seen at least one driver get their first Cup victory. That’s after blanks in 2015, 2013, 2012 and 2010 in the last decade alone. The last time Cup strung together five years in a row with a new winner? The period from 1999-2003.

During that time, future superstars like Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Stewart, Harvick, Newman, Kyle Busch and seven-time champion Johnson first hoisted a Cup trophy.

I’m not saying we’re in a similar age, but when one looks at the current crop from the last five years — Custer, Bowman, Elliott, Erik Jones and Blaney among them — it does make you wonder.

About the author

Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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