Off To A Fast Start
by Tom Jensen January 13, 2021
Some surprising facts about the hottest starts to the season in the history of NASCAR.
Anxious for the 2021 NASCAR season to get underway?
So are we. With the holidays over and the Daytona 500 still more than a month away, NASCAR fans are itching for racing to resume.
But until it gets here, we all have to be patient. In the meantime, Curators’ Corner will serve up some start-of-the-season trivia, starting with which drivers won the most often early in the year.
Believe it or not, in the 72 years since the premier series began in 1949, there have been only five drivers to win the first two races of the season:
- Marvin Panch, 1957
- Bob Welborn, 1959
- David Pearson, 1976
- Jeff Gordon, 1997
- Matt Kenseth, 2009
A couple of quick footnotes: Panch opened the 1957 season by winning at Lancaster, California, and Concord, North Carolina. The other four drivers each had one of their respective victories come at Daytona International Speedway.
Welborn’s Daytona win was in the 100-mile qualifying race to make the field for the first Daytona 500 in 1959. In those days, the two qualifying races each counted as points races, unlike today, where they simply are used to determine the final Daytona 500 starting lineup.
No driver has ever opened any premier series season with victories in the first three points races of the year. Shocking, right?
Bill’s Awesome Beginning
In 1992, Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (2015) opened the season with a disappointing Daytona 500 run, finishing 27th in his Junior Johnson (2010) owned Ford. But then Elliott went on a tear, winning at North Carolina Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway. Elliott remains the only driver to win four of the first five premier series races in any given year. In his four victories in the first five races of ’92, Elliott led 747 of 1,587 laps, or 47 percent of the laps run. Curiously, Elliott would not win again until the final race of the year, when he famously won the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway but lost the championship to second-place race finisher Alan Kulwicki (2019).
Bill Elliott remains the only driver to win four of the first five premier series races in any given year.
— Tom Jensen
An Intimidating Start
In his third championship season of 1987, Dale Earnhardt (2010) won six of the first eight races of the year. And while Earnhardt certainly was a great superspeedway racer, five of his six early season wins came at tracks 1.017 miles or shorter in length, including North Carolina Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway, North Wilkesboro Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway. Earnhardt would go on to set a single-season career-best with 11 victories in 1987.
In a remarkable start to the season, 10 different drivers won the first 10 races of 2000, the highest number to start any premier series season. The 10:
- Dale Jarrett, Daytona International Speedway
- Bobby Labonte, North Carolina Motor Speedway
- Jeff Burton, Las Vegas Motor Speedway
- Dale Earnhardt, Atlanta Motor Speedway
- Ward Burton, Darlington Raceway
- Rusty Wallace, Bristol Motor Speedway
- Dale Earnhardt Jr., Texas Motor Speedway
- Mark Martin, Martinsville Speedway
- Jeff Gordon, Talladega Superspeedway
- Jeremy Mayfield, Auto Club Speedway
The first repeat winner of 2000 was then-rookie and now Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021), who won the 11th race of the year at Richmond Raceway.
Plan your visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame and purchase tickets by visiting nascarhall.com/tickets.