Ranking The Truex Win
Not long after Martin Truex Jr. won Sunday's Axalta We Paint Winners 400 at Pocono, ESPN's Marty Smith tweeted, "One of the most popular wins in NASCAR history." Almost immediately, he was bombarded with replies saying he was exaggerating the significance of the Truex win. Although I understand why some might feel that way, I believe Smith was completely right.
In this world of what I call the "ESPNing" of sports, media outlets try to constantly tell fans that this game, this play, this player, this here and now are the greatest. Fans are constantly bombarded with the idea that what they are watching NOW is the best a particular sport has ever offered. There is a serious lack of perspective. Because of that, it's easy for fans to tune that attitude out. The downside to that of course, is when the event or outcome actually is one of the best, it brings to mind the old fable about the boy who cried wolf.
Concerning Truex Jr.'s win, Marty Smith was right. It was one of the most popular NASCAR wins. Don't read more into that than what he tweeted. Notice he never said it was the most popular. Nor did he say it was the greatest or most important. He stated that it was popular, "one of the most popular..." How anyone can deny that is beyond me. Quickly, off the top of your head, name three or four victories that were more popular across the board than Sunday's win by Truex.
Although these kind of debates never have a winner, here are what I believe are five of the most popular wins I've witnessed in my years as a NASCAR fan. Please notice I never said they are definitively the top five. Although I consider myself well versed in NASCAR history, I am listing only wins that took place in my lifetime, that I was and am familiar with.
5. Steve Park winning at Rockingham in 2001. This was the first race after Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona. No one, not fans, media or drivers and teams had gotten over Earnhardt's death but as we've seen after other tragic deaths, the season doesn't stop and wait for us to be ready. It literally races on. Junior crashed early and finished last that day and DEI's other driver, Michael Waltrip was a lap down. Somehow it just seemed right that one of Dale's cars would win that day. I don't remember anyone thinking before the race that Steve Park was the man to beat but he was and when it was over we all just knew it had to be that way.
4. Michael Waltrip's 1996 Winston win. Before he was a TV analyst and a car owner, Michael was better known as Darrell's lovable little brother who would probably never win. Although it wasn't a points race, his Winston victory was hugely popular as is still one of the most memorable wins in NASCAR's All-Star race history. It happened back when night racing at the highest level was still something special. He hadn't won in 309 points races before that night. He was the loser you couldn't help but pull for. The fact that he took the Wood Brothers' famous 21 to victory lane that night made it all the more special.
3. Martin Truex, Jr.'s Pocono win. Yes, I'll rank it this high and there are several reasons for doing so. He was victimized by his own team in 2013 at Richmond, like no other driver has ever been. Left with no sponsor and thus no ride through no fault of his own, he landed at a single car team based all the way out in Denver, Colorado. He went from being a Chase participant to being locked on the outside through no fault of his own. He and the Furniture Row team struggled mightily in 2014. Although they showed improvement toward the end of last season, hardly anyone thought they'd make much of a splash in 2015. Compounding his on-track struggles last year, he had to watch as his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex suffered through and fought a serious form of cancer.
Almost from the time they unloaded at Daytona, Truex has been at or near the front all season so far. It was evident early on that his could be the feel good story of the season. That's what made some of his near misses (particularly Charlotte) all the more heartbreaking. What makes a win popular across the board is when not only the media but fans of other drivers not only don't mind seeing another driver win but actually celebrate. That was indeed the case this past Sunday. Even if Truex has a disappointing remainder of the season, this win stands on its own. The fact he's locked into the Chase and is second in points makes it even better. Not only is his fan base growing but something tells me he's quickly becoming the second favorite driver to a lot of fans who follow others.
2. Dale Earnhardt wining the 1998 Daytona 500. A case could be made that numbers two and three in this ranking could be reversed and I won't argue that. I say that because while Truex seems to be universally admired, that wasn't the case with Earnhardt. However, I think the fact that it was Dale and Daytona, I'm placing this one here. He was the winningest driver in Daytona's history. Yet after 18 tries and some heartbreaking misses, he still hadn't won the biggest prize. Although I wasn't a fan of his, I was smart enough to appreciate at that time, his importance to the sport. To have the greatest driver of his generation win the biggest race, just seemed right. On that day there were no seagulls to hit, no tires to go flat on the last lap, just Dale winning Daytona and somehow it seemed for a guy with all those wins and championships, he'd finally accomplished something a driver of his magnitude should accomplish, winning the Daytona 500. Anyone who watched that race still remembers team members from 42 other teams lining pit road to congratulate him. How often does that happen?
1. Richard Petty's 1984 Firecracker 400 victory. Once upon a time, this race was held on the morning of the 4th of July and it was the Firecracker 400, nothing else. What's more all-American than that? Although I come from a family of Petty fans, I wasn't one. Still, that seemed right. Without knowing this would be his final win, everything about it was perfect. This race and this win had it all, the door to door battle with Cale, that nice round number of victory number 200, the President of the United States meeting our King. It wasn't just red, white and blue that day. It was Petty blue and STP red and long before cynicism found its way into the minds of a lot of fans, this truly was a storybook ending.
Honorable Mention: Trevor Bayne winning Daytona in 2001. This makes the list because we got to see the Wood Brothers return to Victory Lane at NASCAR's marquee event. I don't know how anyone could have been disappointed in seeing that.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr winning the July race at Daytona in 2001. The story line was exactly what NASCAR needed, wanted and got. The son returns to and wins at the track where his famous father lost his life five months earlier. Unfortunately, it also seemed a little too convenient for a lot of longtime fans.
Part of being a fan of a sport like NASCAR is being a part of those moments that become cherished memories. Although there were more exciting finishes than some of these, the ones I've mentioned were memorable. They were popular and each one stands on its own. Is this a definitive list? Absolutely not but if nothing else, I hope it helps prove Marty Smith was right Sunday night.