Ranking the First Time Winners of the Sprint Cup in 2011

       This has been a huge year for NASCAR, probably the most important one for the sport in years in my opinion. Since Jimmie Johnson has won five straight championships, not something to celebrate in my opinion, and Kyle Bush and Carl Edwards don’t want to leave the Nationwide and Truck Series series alone for some reason, the 2011 Sprint Cup season to date has been a god send for a sport that been losing more than gaining in the last few years.

There’s been five first time winner this year in the Sprint Cup, the most since 2002. This comes a year after there weren’t any and comes during a season where there have been 15 different winners. I don’t remember there being a more diverse season for the Sprint Cup. No one has out right dominated, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch both have three wins, but two of Harvick’s wins came on last lap passes the last one being when Dale Earnhardt Jr ran out of gas coming out of turn four at Charlotte.

So here are my thoughts on the five first time winners from this season: Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Regan, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose and how I rank their first trips to victory lane.

5 . David Regan at Coke Zero 400 (can we go back to calling it the Pepsi 400 please?)

Regan was the third first time winner of 2011

The reason I put David Regan at number five is because he was going to win at some point. He’s been racing for a few years now and I think the general NASCAR fan knows who he is. He also races for Roush, so he has a leg up on over half the field.

However, the win was redemption for Regan, who had a bad restart at the end of the Daytona 500 back in February that set up the surprise ending. I really don’t have much to else to say about Regan. He hasn’t done much to get me to like him or hate.  I’ll remain on the fence until Regan can do something to really impress me.

4. Regan Smith at the Southern 500

Nothing could over shadow Regans win...except Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick

If there’s a way to feel happy for someone yet have sympathy for them at the same time, Regan Smith’s victory at Darlington is the prime example. I’d be willing to bet that most people, if asked about this years race at the Lady in Black, wouldn’t say Smith’s name first. I believe their reply would entail the post race confrontation between Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick that ended with Busch pushing Harvick’s empty car into the pit lane wall.

It’s disappointing when someones biggest career accomplishment is over shadowed by a petty feud and short tempers. Regan has had a pretty good year so far, he finished in third place at the Brickyard 400 on July 31st. If anyone of the first timers wins again this season, I’d put my towel in Smiths cockpit.

Also, when Smith wins, he has the easiest job ever. You’re not going to hear a laundry list of sponsors come out of his mouth. All he’ll have to say is Furniture Row and that’s it. Look at his car, it’s completely bare of stickers aside from his main backer. I love it.

3. Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen

Ambrose finally tames the Glen

If you weren’t at least a bit happy to see Marcos Ambrose finally visit victory lane in the Sprint Cup Series Monday at Watkins Glen, than you need to return your NASCAR fan permit to the France family.

It seems like Ambrose has been trying to win not just a Sprint Cup race, but a road course race, for a long time. He’s won all three Races at the Glen he’s participated in with the Nationwide Series, but its taken till now for the racer from down under to finally claim his first win on the biggest stage in NASCAR.

It also doesn’t hurt that he trumped Kyle Busch to get the win, with the still injury plagued Brad Keselowskihot on his heels. Now I can wipe away all the bad memories of Matt Kenseth in the DeWalt car.

I also can’t remember the last time a Petty car won a race, though if I didn’t know better, Ambrose’s car looks like it belongs in the Roush garage.

2. Paul Menard at the Brickyard 400

Menard wins one for the family

You don’t know how hard it is for me to not put this at number one. I was at this race. It was the first Sprint *cough* Winston *cough* Cup race I had been to in 12 years, when I was the 1999 race at Texas.

Halfway through the race, I was ready to resign myself to the fact that Jeff Gordon was going to thrash the field and win his fifth, yes, his FIFTH race at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As the final laps ticked off and the race became a battle of gas mileage over power and talent (there’s a lot of those these day aren’t there?), ever trip around the 2.5 mile track was like a lifetime for me in the stands with my dad and close friend who were with me. I can only imagine what it was like for Menard.

Menard has received a good amount of criticism for being sponsored by his father, owner of the Menard store chain. However, Menard put all of those voices to bed when he crossed the yard of bricks as the fourth first time winner of the season.

My earliest memory of the Indy 500 was when the Menard car, driven by Robby Gordon ran out of gas on the last lap of the race.

Also, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one having flash backs to this years Indy 500, when J.R. Hildebrand, a rookie was leading the race on its final lap then THIS happened:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KySJzJwP8fs

I didn’t even know what Menard looked like prior to that day in Speedway, Indiana if that tells you anything. Menard hasn’t been a slouch this season, as I’ve seen him competing towards the front of the pack off and on all season. He followed up the win with a 10th place finish at Pocono a week later (and a crash at Watkins Glen).

 1. Trevor Bayne at the Daytona 500

Starting 2011 the right way

I’m glad I can tell my future kids and future fans where I was when my faith in NASCAR was restored.

If it wasn’t for this race and Trevor Bayne, I might not have watched a race after it. I’m on record as saying that after Jimmie Johnson had won his fifth straight championship, that I was ready to give up on NASCAR. However, I always make it a point to watch the Daytona 500.

This was do or die for a sport I’ve been watching since I could walk. During the final five laps I was in my dorm room with my close friend Sam, on the phone with my dad and Skyping with another friend Michael, who was stationed in New Jersey.

I cheered loudly when Bayne came out of turn 4 in his Woods Brothers Ford. Not as loud as when the Rangers clinched the AL Championship against the Yankees by striking out Alex Rodriguez, but I was loud and on a high for the rest of the day.

I wrote an  about the race for the school paper and the day after it came out, a man at school I had never met before came up to me and talked about NASCAR. That has never happened to me outside an actual race.

For Bayne, the following races haven’t been as kind. In both the Sprint and Nationwide series, Bayne has had great cars only to wreck or have some mechanical problem ruin his day. Trevor is going to have great races ahead for him, but he might have used up all of his 2011 luck in one moment in the biggest race NASCAR has to offer.

So who will be the next first time winner? Will it happen this year? I can’t wait to find out.

Let me know what you’ve though about the 2011 NASCAR season so far in the comments.

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About Daniel McFadin

Writer for NBCSports.com. Former Sporting News intern. Graduated from IUPUI in Indianapolis with a master in sports journalism in 2014 and from Arkansas State University in 2013 with a degree in Journalism. Originally from Lewisville, Texas, now in Fort Worth. Ask me if I like Star Wars. I dare you.
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