Mark Story: Claiming an inaugural win holds special appeal for NASCAR drivers

Drivers eagerto top track's list of winners

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 9, 2011 

SPARTA — Even if they run Sprint Cup races at Kentucky Speedway for 1,000 years, there is a way for a driver to make sure their name is mentioned in all 1,000 of those years.

Win the first race.

After 11 years of frustration, lawsuits and no Cup race, the day Kentucky Speedway and NASCAR fans in the commonwealth have long coveted is at last at hand.

Before an expected crowd of some 120,000 Saturday night, the green flag will drop on The Quaker State 400. When it does, the biggest stars in NASCAR will at last compete in a Cup race in Sparta.

As electric and exciting as that prospect will be for every NASCAR fan in Kentucky, it is every bit that big a deal to the drivers who will contest the first Cup race ever run here.

In NASCAR, few things carry more cachet than winning an inaugural event at a track.

"When you win that first one, they mention that every time you go back to that track," says Jeff Burton, who knows, having been the victor in the first race at Texas.

Kevin Harvick won the first Cup race at Chicago and, in 2001, the first race at Kentucky Speedway in the series now known as Nationwide.

"There really is no bigger event than the first event you are going to have at a particular race track," Harvick says. "It's a little added bonus you can put next to that particular race and say you won the inaugural one. We've done it a couple of times; it's fun."

Among Tony Stewart's 39 Cup victories was the inaugural race at Homestead in 1999.

"Any time you see a track record book, it'd be nice being the first name (on the list of winners)," he said.

The king of the NASCAR first impression is Jeff Gordon. Three times — Indianapolis, California, Kansas — the No. 24 driver has opened Cup venues with victories.

"You always get recognized as that," Gordon says of being a track's inaugural victor. "It is a standout win because you can only do it once."

It's more than the vanity of lasting fame that makes victory in an initial event at a track relished. There's the satisfaction that comes from being the driver and the race team that figure out the fastest way around a new track before 42 rivals do.

"Everybody is going to be learning as much as you can in this first race," says Carl Edwards, "but somebody is going to figure it out quicker and win the race. There is pride in that."

Adds Burton: "There's a feeling of gratification in going to a track and being the guy, the team, that gets it figured out first. That's a bragging right that lasts forever."

In a sense, the puzzle that is the ever-bumpy racing surface at Kentucky Speedway should be easier for the Quaker State 400 field to solve than other inaugural races have been because so many drivers have competed here before in the truck or Nationwide Series or have tested Cup cars here in the past.

Yet even with all that collective experience over this track, Harvick says there's no way to predict how the Cup cars will react to traffic while racing at Kentucky. "There's a lot of stuff we just can't know till we race these cars here," he says.

Gordon says the race winner will be the team that figures out how to set up its car's springs and shocks to surmount the Kentucky Speedway bumps without sacrificing too much overall speed in the process.

The prize is a form of racing immortality.

Jimmie Johnson has won five Cup Series championships in a row.

He's never been an inaugural winner.

Says Johnson: "Winning an inaugural event, that's something special. I'd love to have that."

Kurt Busch won the 2004 season championship and has 23 career wins.

He's never been an inaugural winner.

Says Busch: "This is huge. You can feel the electricity. When you get those inaugural wins, they stick in your mind more potently than other wins. Getting one would really be special."

Joey Logano has won everything in Kentucky but the state lottery, taking three Nationwide races in Sparta from 2008-10.

Even that is not as singular an accomplishment as being the inaugural Cup winner at Kentucky Speedway.

Says Logano: "It's cool to win any (race), but it seems like the first is special. You want to be that guy that wins the first race."

The guy whose name will be spoken in these parts forever.

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