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Hurtling around Dover (Del.) International Speedway on May 15, passing one car after the next with startling ease, AJ Allmendinger felt like he was piloting the perfect racing machine, even smiling out the window as he blew by rival drivers on the one-mile concrete oval. "I started to laugh because we were so fast," Allmendinger recalls. "That race was ours."
As Allmendinger moved into third place near the midway point of the 400-mile race, his lap times were three tenths of a second faster than the leader's. On every straightaway, through every turn, Allmendinger drew closer to seizing first. In 126 career starts on the Sprint Cup circuit, the 29-year-old driver had never reached Victory Lane. But now, his right foot heavy on the gas, he believed he was about to accomplish what young drivers, in-their-prime drivers and retired drivers all say is one of the most difficult feats in NASCAR: winning that first Cup race of one's career.
Allmendinger kept grinning, giggling, gaining ground and then ... bang! In a puff of smoke his winless streak grew: The engine on his number 43 Ford blew up. "I'm still not over that race," said Allmendinger, a month after finishing 37th at Dover. "It is so hard to get over the hump and get that first win."
With NASCAR hungry for new stars and new rivalries to galvanize fans, a few new faces in Victory Lane would certainly be welcome. But as Allmendinger discovered, the checkered flag is an elusive prize. Through 16 races in 2011, there have been only two first-time winners: Trevor Bayne in the season-opening Daytona 500 and Regan Smith at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on May 7. Last season a grand total of zero drivers took their first career checkered flag, and in the last four years combined only five drivers have won their first race. "You either luck into your first win or you have to consistently run in the front over a bunch of races to get your first win," says Richard Petty, who has more career Cup victories (200) than any other driver. "My first was definitely my hardest, because it gets easier once you figure out how to do it. And when you get that win, you get more attention, more sponsor dollars. That first victory changes your entire career."
So who will be the next driver to notch that first victory? Here are the three most likely:
1 David Ragan
Of the six full-time Cup drivers yet to get a victory, Ragan, 25, is in the best position to win. He races for an elite team (Roush Fenway Racing), and he has, in fact, taken a checkered flag this season, but it was in the All-Star race at Charlotte on May 21, an exhibition event. Ragan's career winless streak in points-paying races is currently 162.
But many in the garage believe his drought will end soon. If the Daytona 500 hadn't been extended beyond regulation because of a caution flag, Ragan would have won. Instead, on the penultimate restart, NASCAR penalized him for illegally moving from the high lane to the low lane before the start-finish line, relegating him to the rear of the field. "When you're trying so hard to get that first win, sometimes you overdrive and make mistakes," Ragan says. "There are usually only five to eight guys that have a legitimate shot to win each week, and you have to be almost perfect to get into that group."
2 Paul Menard
Menard also is on a top-flight team (Richard Childress Racing), but like many Victory Lane virgins, he has been prone to heat-of-the-moment gaffes, like charging too fast into a turn and scraping the wall. The 30-year-old driver does have three top fives this season, which shows that on any given weekend he can find the raw speed to contend. His best shot to snap his career 163-race winless streak is likely to come on Aug. 27 at Bristol, where he led 35 laps this spring and finished fifth.