Ranking the 5 Most Unlikely Success Stories in NASCAR Today

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IJuly 11, 2013

Ranking the 5 Most Unlikely Success Stories in NASCAR Today

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    The dictionary defines success as a favorable or desired outcome. In NASCAR, certain teams and drivers have their own idea of what success would be. 

    For some, success is winning races and championships. For others, a successful season is finishing in the top 20 in points. For others still, just qualifying for a given race is considered a success.

    No matter the level of success desired, some achieve their goals with seemingly little effort. For others, reaching the ultimate goal takes years of struggle and determination.

    I am going to count down the five NASCAR stories of success that at one time or another seemed not only unlikely, but even impossible.

5. AJ Allmendinger

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    The career of AJ Allmendinger has been rocky to say the least. After a successful career in the Champ Car World Series, Allmendinger was tabbed to drive in the Sprint Cup Series for the start-up Red Bull team.

    His results were less than favorable. He failed to qualify for 19 of 36 races in his rookie season of 2007, and the races that he did qualify for produced unspectacular results. In the 17 races that he did make, he managed just three finishes of 20th or better, with a best finish of 15th.

    After another marginal season with Red Bull Racing, Allmendinger moved over to Richard Petty Motorsports. His career slowly picked up steam as his results continued to improve every season. 2011 saw Allmendinger post a career best 10 top-10 finishes and end the season ranked 15th in the driver standings.

    Allmendinger's career took a horrible step backwards in 2012 when he was suspended by NASCAR after testing positive for a banned stimulant. He chose to participate in the Road to Recovery program, and was reinstated to the sport two months later.

    Having been released from his contract with his new team, Penske Racing, Allmendinger was hired by Phoenix Racing on a part-time basis.

    The 2013 season has seen Allmendinger begin the resurrection process to his career. He has run in eight Sprint Cup events, six for Phoenix Racing and two for JTG Daugherty Racing.

    He has run in five IndyCar events this season, all for Roger Penske. He scored a seventh-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 after leading 23 laps.

    The highlight of his season and possibly career came at Road America, driving in the Nationwide Series for Penske. Allmendinger scored his first career NASCAR win in his 201st start.

4. Toyota

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    How well do you remember Toyota's first season in the Sprint Cup Series? If you can't remember any of the highlights from that season, you wouldn't be alone. Toyota entered the series in 2007, and to say that it was rough transition would be an understatement.

    Three teams represented by seven drivers made up the original Toyota lineup. They were Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip, David Reutimann, Brian Vickers, AJ Allmendinger, Dave Blaney and Jeremy Mayfield.

    Combined, the seven drivers only amassed two poles, 10 top-10 finishes and just a single top-five finish. Blaney was the only one of them to finish the season inside the top 35 in points.

    As rough of a start as Toyota had, things turned around almost immediately. Beginning in 2008, Joe Gibbs Racing switched from Chevrolet to Toyota.

    That was a big step for the automaker. The three Toyota's driven by Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin all made the Chase and combined for 10 victories, led by Busch's eight.

    Overall, Toyota's transition into the Sprint Cup Series has become quite successful. Since the struggle of the initial season, Toyota cars have registered a total of 56 wins. While no Toyota driver has won the series championship, they have enjoyed plenty of other accomplishments that seemed impossible following the 2007 season.

3. Front Row Motorsports Wins a Race

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    Front Row Motorsports has been in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since 2004. In the first few years of the team's existence, they ran a partial schedule. Using a variety of drivers including Todd Bodine, Randy LaJoie, Kevin Lepage and John Andretti, the team had very little success.

    Prior to 2009, the first full-time season for the team, FRM had failed to record a top-10 finish and had led just one single lap in five seasons of competition.

    2009 saw the team enter into a partnership with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Though they failed to secure a top-10 finish, the team was able to remain inside the top 35 in owner's points, which guaranteed their starting spot for the first five races of 2010.

    The 2010 season went much the same way. FRM continued to race hard and try to do the best they could with very limited funds. David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil were the primary drivers, and they were both able to keep their cars locked into the top 35 in points.

    2011 was a banner year for the team. Gilliland opened the season by scoring a third place finish in the Daytona 500. It marked both the first top-10 and top-five finish in the team's history. He would add a second top-10 finish later in the season.

    The 2012 season saw David Ragan take over in the No. 34 for Kvapil. He provided the team with two top-10 finishes on the season and gave the team their best season-ending points finish, a 28th place effort.

    Then, earlier this season, the seemingly impossible happened. At Talladega, on a green-white-checkered finish, teammates Ragan and Gilliland linked up and drove their way to the front of the field.

    As the checkered flag waved, it was a one-two finish for the teammates, and the first and only win in the history of Front Row Motorsports.

2. Jimmie Johnson

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    This may be a bit misleading. It isn't that Jimmie Johnson's success was ever unlikely, but it is the amount of success that he has achieved in such a short amount of time. 

    In 2008, Johnson became only the second driver in history to win three consecutive series championships. But that wasn't good enough for him. He promptly followed that up by winning the championship in each of the next two seasons as well.

    He is a 64-time race winner, which is good enough for eighth on the all-time list already. It seems highly likely that he will climb that list much higher as well.

    Johnson has posted 260 top-10 finishes in 417 career starts. That means he has scored a top-10 finish in 62.35 percent of the races he has run. That trails only David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt as far as drivers that drove in NASCAR's modern era, which began in 1972.

    Johnson has never finished worse than sixth in the point standings, and has been a top-three finishing driver in nine of his 12 full-time seasons.

    He is the leading winner in Chase races, having amassed 22 in the 90 that have been run. That is twice that of any other competitor.

    The things that Johnson has accomplished seem like stats straight out of a video game. He is clearly the best in the business right now, and while his success is no surprise, the magnitude of it certainly seemed unlikely for any driver.

1. Furniture Row Racing

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    Furniture Row Racing made is debut in the Sprint Cup Series by running two races in 2005. The following season they ran full-time, but had what could only be considered marginal at best.

    The story of Furniture Row is well documented. While most of the teams they compete against are based out of Charlotte, FRR is a single-car team that is headquartered in Denver, Colorado. They have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, but overall, they are still considered a one-car team.

    After barely scraping by for a few seasons, the team started to turn a corner in the 2010 season. While they had still failed to ever score a top-10 finish, Regan Smith piloted the car to a 28th place points standing and set the team in good position for 2011.

    After securing not only his first top-10 finish as driver, but also the teams first, by finishing seventh in the 2011 Daytona 500, Smith and FRR shocked the world later that season in Darlington.

    After playing the pit strategy game, Smith was able to hold off Carl Edwards and score his and FRR's first career win. He finished the season with five top-finishes.

    The 2012 season saw Smith have a few more decent runs with the team before they turned to Kurt Busch for the final six weeks of the year. He would end the season with three consecutive top-10 finishes, a first in Front Row's history.

    The first half of the 2013 season has been nothing short of amazing for FRR. With Busch behind the wheel, they have recorded eight top-10 finishes in the first 18 races. The team won the pole at Darlington and for the season has led 160 laps. In its previous eight seasons of existence, FRR cars had led a total of just 48 laps.

    If not for a poor final pit stop, Busch appeared to be the car to beat in the All-Star Race as well.

    Busch and FRR currently sit ninth in the point standings. For a single-car team that is based across the country from all of its competitors, the 2013 season has seemingly come out of nowhere, and one can only hope that they pull of the upset, and secure one of the Chase positions.