Top-10 List: First Victories
by Tom Jensen July 15, 2022
For these future Hall of Famers, getting their breakthrough first premier series race win was a hugely emotional experience.
In NASCAR racing, as in life, you never forget your first time.
The first 19 races of this premier series season have produced five first-time winners: Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Tyler Reddick.
With that in mind, it’s a good time to reflect on some of the most emotional first victories by NASCAR Hall of Famers. In some cases, racers toiled for years to score their breakthrough first victories, a good reminder that determination and perseverance are two traits champions possess.
Here are 10 memorable first premier series race victories by drivers who went on to have Hall of Fame careers.
Wendell Scott, 1963
A member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2015, Danville, Virginia, racer Wendell Scott made history on December 1, 1963, when he became the first Black driver to win a premier series race. Scott’s victory came at Speedway Park in Jacksonville, Florida, where he won a 200-lap race. Initially, race officials ruled Buck Baker (2013) won the race, but Scott was later correctly identified as the winner.
Buddy Baker, 1967
It took Buddy Baker (2020) a total of 216 races – the equivalent of six full premier series seasons today – to win his first race, but when it was Baker’s time to shine, he came up huge. Baker’s first victory was in the 1967 National 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he snapped Richard Petty’s (2010) record 10-winning streak. “When I went under the checkered flag, I let out a yell you could have heard in Concord (North Carolina),” said Baker after the race. “This is the greatest day of my life. Maybe it will give me a mental boost. Now I know how to win.”
Richard Childress, 1983
What makes for a Hall of Fame career? Perseverance for one thing. Richard Childress (2017) began racing in the premier series as an owner/driver in 1969 before stepping out of the cockpit in mid-1981 to concentrate on the owner side of the business. It took Childress 14 years and 245 starts before his team won its first race at Riverside International Raceway in 1983 with Ricky Rudd at the wheel. Childress went on to win six premier series championships as a car owner with driver Dale Earnhardt (2010).
Davey Allison, 1987
What better place to win your first race than at your home track? Davey Allison’s (2019) victory in the Winston 500 at Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway) was historic for several reasons. The race weekend began with Bill Elliott (2015) setting an all-time NASCAR speed record by qualifying at 212.809 mph. In the race, Davey’s father, Bobby Allison (2011) had a spectacular airborne crash that directly led to the use of restrictor plates at superspeedways. Later that year, Davey became the first driver since 1949 to win twice as a rookie.
Alan Kulwicki, 1988
For months, Wisconsin native Alan Kulwicki (2019) plotted what he would do when he finally won his first premier series race. The world found out in November 1988, when Kulwicki won the Checker 500 at Phoenix International Raceway (now Phoenix Raceway). For his victory lap. Kulwicki turned his Ford Thunderbird around and drove clockwise around the 1-mile track so he could see the faces of his fans in the grandstands. Kulwicki’s self-proclaimed “Polish Victory Lap” made national headlines.
Mark Martin, 1989
The Hall of Fame combo of driver Mark Martin (2017) and car owner Jack Roush (2019) won 35 premier series races together and were one of the sport’s top teams throughout the 1990s. The duo went winless in 1988, their first season together. A year later, Martin had five runner-up finishes in the first 26 races before scoring a breakthrough victory in the AC Delco 500 at North Carolina Motor Speedway in Rockingham, where Martin led the final 77 laps to win.
Dale Jarrett, 1991
The finish of the 1991 Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan International Speedway featured a thrilling last-lap battle between two Hall of Famers, as Dale Jarrett (2014) out-dragged Davey Allison (2019) to the start-finish line by a mere 8 inches to score his first premier series victory in his 129th start. Jarrett’s triumph was the first for Wood Brothers Racing, the team founded by Glen Wood (2012), since 1987.
Jeff Gordon, 1994
In his rookie season of 1993, Jeff Gordon (2019) flashed tremendous potential, but he had as many DNFs in his No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet as he did top-10 finishes. In his second season, however, Gordon was able to score his first of 93 career victories in one of NASCAR’s majors, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A bold call by crew chief Ray Evernham (2018) to take just two tires during a late-race pit stop allowed Gordon to defeat Rusty Wallace and earn his first victory. “I’m speechless, man,” Gordon said afterwards. “This is the greatest day of my life.”
Bobby Labonte, 1995
To this day, Bobby Labonte (2020) still regards his first race victory in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway as his most cherished accomplishment, even more than his 2000 premier series championship or his triumphs that season in the Brickyard 400 and Southern 500. Labonte’s Coke 600 win was a family affair, as his brother and fellow Hall of Famer Terry Labonte (2016) finished second in the race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., 2000
It took Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021) a whopping 12 races to find Victory Lane for the first time. After running five premier series races in 1999, the third-generation racer won the seventh race of 2000, the DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, At the 1.5-mile Texas track, Earnhardt Jr. passed his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Steve Park with 53 laps to go and held on for the remainder of the race to score the first of his 26 career premier-series race victories.