Remembering Every NASCAR Star's Breakout Performance

Joseph SheltonContributor IIIAugust 20, 2013

Remembering Every NASCAR Star's Breakout Performance

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    For a driver to become a certified NASCAR star, they had to have that one breakout performance. They had to have that one day where whether or not they won or lost, things just so happened to go their way. In short, it had to begin somewhere.

    While some of those drivers have already reached their peak and are now starting to decline, we've been fortunate enough to witness the birth of the new generation of NASCAR stardom.

    Here is a list of performances that birthed a new generation of NASCAR legends.

Brad Keselowski (Talladega, 2009)

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    Brad Keselowski has been in the major leagues for less than a decade, yet he's a Natiownide Series champion as well as a Sprint Cup champion. So with that sort of success in such a short amount of time you'd expect him to come by it easily, right?

    Wrong.

    The second-generation racer started out in the Sprint Cup Series splitting time in the lesser equipment from Hendrick Motorsports and Phoenix Racing. While his Nationwide success was moderate, at best, Keselowski was going to have to prove himself in less powerful rides.

    However, Talladega Superspeedway is known as a wild card, and anybody who starts the event has a chance of competing for the win at day's end. Well, at the end of the day at the 2009 Aaron's 499, Keselowski, driving the No. 09 for Phoenix Racing, was knocking on the door to Victory Lane.

    With a move to the inside and an accidental bump to Carl Edwards that sent the No. 99 flying through the air, Keselowski claimed his first career win and the first win for team owner James Finch.

Kasey Kahne (Rockingham, February 2004)

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    Prior to the 2004 NEXTEL Cup season, we had only heard rarely of Washington native Kasey Kahne. We only knew him for driving an Akins Motorsports Fords for a couple of Busch Series seasons, with only one win on his scoresheet. So when Ray Evernham named Kahne as the replacement for NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, many were left hemming and hawing about such a decision.

    The naysayers were vindicated when Kahne dropped out of his NEXTEL Cup debut race, the 2004 Daytona 500, with engine trouble. But it was the next week at Rockingham that left the fans breathless.

    Kahne was a rookie, and Rockingham Speedway was one of the toughest tracks on the circuit besides Darlington. Yet Kahne almost managed to steal the win in just his second Cup start.

    Kahne's Dodge was only rivaled by the No. 17 of defending Cup champion Matt Kenseth and the No. 42 of Jamie McMurray. Yet, after McMurray's progress was hindered by a pit road controversy, the race was on between Kahne and Kenseth. Coming to the checkered, Kahne dropped low on the frontstretch to pass Kenseth, but he lost the ensuing drag race by .01 of a second. 

    Kahne would go on to set the NEXTEL Cup Series on fire, and although he won the 2004 Rookie of the Year award, he wouldn't win his first Cup race until 2005 at Richmond. 

Denny Hamlin (Phoenix, 2005)

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    Denny Hamlin is still in the early stages of his career in NASCAR, yet it has been an absolutely remarkable career. Aside from sweeping Pocono his rookie year, he also won the 2006 Budweiser Shootout, becoming the first rookie to do so. He also managed to finish third in the final points, and he won the 2006 Rookie f the Year award by a landslide.

    But it was during his limited run in 2005 where he first began to raise some eyebrows. A winless Busch Series regular, Hamlin was placed in the No. 11 late in the season.

    In his second and third starts, at Charlotte and Martinsville respectively, he posted back-to-back eighth-place finishes. Two races later he placed seventh at Texas. 

    But it was the week later at Phoenix that people began to realize that this kid was serious. In just his sixth Cup start, Hamlin won his first career pole. Clinching his first pole so early in his career solidified the idea that Hamlin was the next big thing to arrive at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Tony Stewart (Richmond, 1999)

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    Although you could consider the entire 1999 season to be a breakout performance for Tony Stewart, the one performance that seemed to set the pace for the rest of his career. That performance occurred on September 11, 1999 at Richmond International Raceway.

    Although Stewart had posted some very strong showings throughout the 1999 season, including the outside pole at the 1999 Daytona 500 and a season showing of seven top-5s and 14 top-10s, he had yet to win a race. So at the 1999 Exide Batteries 400, Stewart put his Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac on the outside of the front row, next to pole-sitter Mike Skinner.

    Yet that night, Stewart took the rest of the field to the woodshed, as he led 333 of 400 laps and defeated teammate Bobby Labonte at the checkered flag. He would go on to win twice more that season, and finished fourth in the final points. It was safe to say NASCAR had found a new star that year.

Clint Bowyer (Loudon, 2007)

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    Although Clint Bowyer was considered a good driver when he first began driving for Richard Childress, he wasn't exactly "good enough," as he failed to win the 2005 Busch Series championship and the 2006 NEXTEL Cup Rookie of the Year award.

    But when the 2007 season started, it started with a bang for Bowyer. He ended his second Daytona 500 in an overturned, burning Chevy. But while he continued with a motley of strong runs, it wasn't until the 2007 Sylvania 300 when the NASCAR world saw how much Bowyer had matured.

    That day, he won his second pole of the season and of his career, and proceeded to dominate the opening race of the Chase, leading 222 of 300 laps and winning the first race of his Cup career. He came close to winning a couple of times later in the Chase, but no matter what, a third-place finish in the points made for a great sophomore season for the Kansas native.

Greg Biffle (Daytona, 2003)

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    These days, Greg Biffle is considered a veteran contender for the championship, although he hasn't exactly made the strides needed to clinch such a title. 

    But once upon a time, he was just a rookie struggling to survive.

    In 2003, Biffle was considered to be one of two legitimate contenders in the Winston Cup rookie class capable of clinching the RotY award, with the other being Jamie McMurray. But after failing to qualify for the season's third race at Las Vegas, it was looking like curtains for the driver of the No. 16 Ford.

    Yet the team ended up making a few advances as the season wore on, and at Daytona in July, things were looking up for Biffle and his crew. They didn't have the car to beat, but they were looking to possibly capitalize on the attrition of others and maybe take a decent finish.

    Instead, on the merits of superb pit strategy, Biffle inherited the lead late in the going as other pit for fuel. His biggest threat happened to be Bobby Labonte, who hung on Biffle's bumper all the way to the second turn of the last lap, but once he fell off the pace and ran out of gas, Biffle was home free and won his first career Cup race. 

    It was a bright moment in an otherwise troubling rookie season, but it was definitely a morale booster for the team. Two years later Biffle finished second in points to Tony Stewart for the NEXTEL Cup championship.

Kyle Busch (Las Vegas, 2005)

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    We know him now as "Rowdy" Busch, the driver of the No. 18 Toyota in the Sprint Cup Series and one of the most outspoken, enigmatic personalities of the sport. He has won 27 Cup races, plus the 2012 Budweiser Shootout. He isn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, and he makes the highlight reel more often than not.

    But once upon a time, he was the rookie younger brother of former Cup champ Kurt Busch and the driver of the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports. After almost winning the 2004 Busch Series championship, Rick Hendrick put him in the No. 5 Cup car, and right away Busch put the racing world on notice.

    He won his first career pole at Fontana in the second race of the season, and a week later at Las Vegas he managed to hang with Jimmie Johnson as the two battled for the win at Las Vegas. The rookie surprised everyone by finishing second that day, a result he repeated at Dover in June.

    It wasn't until the series came back to Fontana in September that the younger Busch won his first Cup race, and he repeated with a win at Phoenix in November. Although he finished 20th in points, he won the Rookie of the Year award.

Matt Kenseth (Dover, 1998)

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    While we know Kenseth best for his fruitful tenure with Roush Racing in the No. 17, it just so happens that his Cup Series debut was a rather surprising stint in Bill Elliott's No. 94 in June of 1998. 

    The Wisconsin native, who was in the thick of a championship battle with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Busch Series, was tabbed to take over Elliott's ride for a one-race deal after Elliott's father passed away. Kenseth rose up to the occasion, qualifying 16th. 

    However, he managed to make the most of the situation, staying on the lead lap and finishing the day in sixth. The finish was a boon to Kenseth's stock, and it was also a bit of good news in Elliott's direction after such a loss.

Jeff Gordon (Daytona, 1993)

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    For the majority of Jeff Gordon's career in the Sprint Cup Series, he has been setting records and raising eyebrows with his seemingly endless run of success.

    The first taste of success came in preparation for his second Winston Cup start, the 1993 Daytona 500. Nobody had him tabbed as a legitimate threat for the win in anything, and his Winston Cup debut at Atlanta the year before didn't impress anyone.

    Yet in the qualifying race he was in, he managed to shock everyone by winning. Then, in the 500, he proved his qualifying race victory wasn't a fluke by running with the leaders and finishing fifth after starting third and leading two laps.

    Gordon has since won the 500 three times and has won the Winston Cup championship four times. Not a bad list of accomplishments.

Kevin Harvick (Atlanta, 2001)

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    When Dale Earnhardt passed, it was certain that nobody could replace him, no matter how well they did. It just didn't seem like a possibility to even put the car back out on the track. But Richard Childress did exactly that, only he changed the paint scheme and the number from 3 to 29. 

    Kevin Harvick was a relative unknown, with only a moderate amount of success in the Busch Series. But Childress must have seen something in him, something good enough to drop him in the seat for the remainder of the 2001 Winston Cup season.

    The result? One of the most memorable and emotional wins in NASCAR history.

    Call it a fluke if you want, but knowing what we know now, Harvick is an excellent driver. Add to that the common knowledge that Richard Childress Racing is a superb organization, and you'd see that one of the most promising drivers in some of the best equipment in the sport makes for a formidable threat.

    Harvick had a strong car that day at Atlanta in March of 2001, and his daring three-wide pass for the lead left us breathless. The fact that he didn't back down from a championship-winning driver in Jeff Gordon said a lot for the young man's commitment to making the most of his situation.

    He clearly went above and beyond, and the result was one of healing for the sport.

Ryan Newman (Charlotte, 2001)

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    Ryan Newman is a prolific pole winner, more so than he is a race winner. That isn't any disrespect towards Newman, but when you look at the stats, 50 poles certainly surmounts 17 wins.

    It was a pole-winning run of his at the 2001 Coca-Cola 600 that got everyone to taking him seriously. He had won the pole in just his third career start. He proceeded to take charge and lead the first 10 laps that day, and everyone was certain that the kid was going to be a threat for the win.

    But things changed on the 11th lap, when he got loose in Turn 4, and proceeded to demolish his Penske Racing Ford. But he wasn't fazed, as he proceeded to earn two top-5s in the seven starts he made in 2001, including a second-place at the inaugural fall race at Kansas in October. He went on to win the 2002 Rookie of the Year award.

    Newman has gone on to win several races, including the 2002 All-Star race and the 2008 Daytona 500. But without a doubt, it was his limited run in 2001 that solidified him as a NASCAR star.

Jimmie Johnson (Daytona, 2002)

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    It has been 11 years since Jimmie Johnson waged a fierce rookie war with Ryan Newman. But in the years since, it has seemed like Johnson has ultimately won that war. 64 wins, two Daytona 500s, and five consecutive Sprint Cup championships.

    But before all that, before he won three races in his rookie year of 2002 and finished fifth in points, before he was heralded for sweeping Dover that year, he burst onto the scene by winning the pole for the 2002 Daytona 500.

    It was a surprise for many to see Rick Hendrick's and Jeff Gordon's new boy make such a big splash in his first full season in the Winston Cup Series, but with his pole-winning run, he joined a very small list of rookie polesitters for the Daytona 500 that included Mike Skinner and Loy Allen. Johnson became the last rookie polesitter for the Daytona 500 until Danica Patrick in 2013.

    The race didn't go so well for Johnson, as he failed to lead a lap and was involved in a pair of incidents before finishing 15th.

    He finished second in the RotY battle that year, but he has made up for it in the years since.

Mark Martin (Rockingham, 1989)

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    Although he has been racing in the Sprint Cup Series for 31 years, it wasn't until late in the 1989 season that Mark Martin finally nabbed his first career win while driving for Jack Roush. 

    The 1989 season was an awakening for the Arkansas native. He didn't win until the 27th race of the 29-race season, he still posted 14 top-5s and 18 top-10s on his way to a surprising third-place points finish. 

    Alan Kulwicki had started the race on the pole, but it was Rusty Wallace's Pontiac that dominated the day, leading 194 laps. But Martin was able to keep up with Wallace by leading 101 laps. He won over Wallace by 2.98 seconds, and scored his first of 40 wins.

Kurt Busch (Bristol, 2002)

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    The older half of the tempestuous Busch brothers, Kurt Busch has earned a reputation as a fearless individual behind the wheel, but it is his anger issues that has harmed his racing career. Still, he is a capable driver, and his 2004 NEXTEL Cup championship trophy can vouch for that.

    As if foreshadowing the future, Busch's breakout moment came at the 2002 Food City 500. His No. 97 Roush Racing Ford was strong, but late in the race it was Jimmy Spencer's Dodge who was holding him up. 

    Harboring a bit of ill will towards Spencer after tangling with him at Phoenix the year before, Busch repaid the favor by first nudging his Dodge, then slamming it out of the way. By day's end, Busch had led 89 laps on his way to clinching his first of four wins that season before finishing third in points. The win was also the first of 24 career wins for the Las Vegas native.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Texas, 2000)

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. is clearly NASCAR's favorite son, the one that they want to succeed the most. Given what all he has gone through and what all he has contributed to the sport, their longing is understandable. 

    That's not to say he hasn't earned his success, because he has. He is a two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion, the 2004 Daytona 500 champion, and a 19-time Sprint Cup race winner. But the one race that put Junior in the NASCAR spotlight was the 2000 DirecTV 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the site of his first NASCAR Winston Cup win.

    Junior started fourth that day, and easily dominated the race. He led 106 laps and beat Jeff Burton to the line by 5.92 seconds to take win number one of his Cup career. He would go on to win at Richmond the next month, and became the first rookie to win the All-Star the week after.

Carl Edwards (Atlanta, 2004)

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    Carl Edwards's limited run in 2004 produced several strong runs and seemed to set the tone for his first full run in 2005. But it was at Atlanta, the 33rd race of the 36-race season, where Edwards came close to winning his first NEXTEL Cup race.

    Starting fourth, the driver of the No. 99 led 15 laps and was poised to make a charge for the lead before tangling with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sending the No. 8 into the backstretch wall. Edwards would go on to finish third behind Jimmie Johnson and Roush teammate Mark Martin.

    Edwards would go on to take his first career Busch Series win at Atlanta in 2005, and a day later he won his first career NEXTEL Cup race. He swept Atlanta when he won there in the fall of 2005. 

    Although he didn't claim the win on that fall day in 2004, Edwards certainly made his presence known.