Remember when Darrell Waltrip won the Daytona 500?
In victory circle he exclaimed, "I won the Daytona 500!!" You couldn’t help but laugh at him—or with him—but the pure joy of winning NASCAR's most prized trophy oozed through the television.
It’s a memory that is etched into the brains of race fans everywhere. When you think about Daytona 500, often that image of Waltrip dancing in victory lane comes to mind.
Fast forward to 2009 with fans unable to afford to travel to races, and tuning out on TV. The current boxier car style left limitations on teams and the racing hasn’t been what the fans want.
NASCAR needed something to get the fans excited again.
Storylines abound coming into Speedweeks 2009. Big name drivers not winning the year before, one driver dominating the sport in 2008 and the possibility for a record breaking title run.
But as a fan, I was still waiting for something more.
Slowly over time the joy and excitement of winning a race became just a ho-hum experience, everyone doing the same thing like robots—until this season.
All of sudden victory lane became exciting again.
It started with the Daytona 500. It was rain-shortened and while the fans hoped NASCAR would ride out the rain they called the race with Matt Kenseth leading the pack.
Kenseth sat in his car waiting for the call.When the call was made and he climbed out into the soaking rain his face told the story.
Tears filling his eyes, all he could say was, "It's going to be really wet out here because I'm crying like a baby."
"I've had a lot of great opportunities in my life—from my family getting me in racing and all the sponsors that we have that have stuck by us and made this happen in an up-and-down economy. Winning the Daytona 500 is definitely a dream moment. It's just an unbelievable feeling."
With tears flowing and emotions raw, Kenseth couldn’t help but cry in what was the biggest win of his career.
Only a few weeks later Kyle Busch, who dominated in 2008, came to his home track in Las Vegas, a track he had not won at in the Sprint Cup Series. He drove from the back of the field to win the race.
"I tell you what, this is pretty cool," Busch said in the victory circle. "I didn't know exactly what it would mean, but coming to the checkered flag, there were knots in my stomach. It's bigger than winning the Daytona 500. I said it wasn't going to be, but it is."
That's big for a guy who doesn’t like to settle for second at any track.
One week later Busch’s older brother Kurt, who struggled in 2008, started 2009 off strong when he dominated at Atlanta.
When he got out of the car you could see the smile on his face and the tremendous amount of relief he was feeling. Busch and his team were ecstatic, after all the struggles and digging in and looking for ways to improve on the track after a dismal 2008.
Winning at Atlanta validated all the offseason work and changes.
A few weeks later, another winless streak ended, one that had talks of retirement and a driver losing his edge. Jeff Gordon came into Texas, a track that was a demon for Gordon, never winning at the mile and a half track.
Gordon beat Carl Edwards off of pit road on the final stop and held off teammate Jimmie Johnson to pull off a victory even he didn’t expect to happen.
Gordon hadn’t won in 47 races but for the first time in a long time Gordon looked like a kid again, the excitement of winning at the track that had taunted him for so long. "It was the coolest. It was like winning for the very first time," Gordon said.
"Things have changed since I won a race ... That's the first time I've ever carried a checkered flag in NASCAR. I used to do that in quarter-midgets when I was eight."
The very next week Mark Martin rebounded from a rough start to the season. His team was just looking for good finishes but instead Martin walked away with the trophy at Phoenix, his first win since 2005.
Martin couldn’t wipe the smile off his face and he couldn’t have been giddier about winning. He continually praised his car owner, Rick Hendrick, for giving him a chance to run full-time again.
At Talladega, Nationwide driver Brad Keselowski pulled off a win that nobody expected. Starting from the rear, Keselowski worked his way through the field and avoided the "big one".
A late race pass on leader Edwards, had Edwards going airborne in a spectacular finish that sent him running across the finish line, and sent Keselowski into victory circle.
Keselowski was so excited he forgot to thank his sponsors, but that was okay because Keselowski will never forget his first victory and how improbable it was.
Finally at the Coca-Cola 600 in May, rain delayed over 24 hours of racing and brought on multiple red flags for rain showers. The final red flag found David Reutimann in the lead when he chose not to pit and the rest of the leaders did.
He sat in the rain, waiting by his car until the race was called. As Reutimann waited he had cameras on him, his expression never changed as he waited to hear from NASCAR his fate.
As the race was called you could sense joy of finally winning. Years of hard work and disapointment came to a head. It was not only his first win in Sprint Cup, but the first race win for his owner and driver Michael Waltrip.
You couldn’t help but root for the guy, wanting him to pull out a victory that nobody thought could be.
Fans have been complaining about poor racing in recent years and often freight train-style runs. But if you are tuning out before the checkered flag you are missing some great moments in victory lane.
So far in 2009, winning is fun again. Grown men are jumping up and down with excitement. Winning in this series is not easy so when you win one it means a lot.
To see drivers who have won 82 times or one time act as if they have not won before, it’s exciting. It makes watching those long green runs all worth it when the winner looks like he is having fun.
I love to see true emotion, whether it be on the track or in victory lane. For so long we saw the bows and the back flips and the burnouts but that’s where it ended.
In victory lane it been about thanking sponsors and teams which is great and there’s nothing wrong with it.
But for some reason victory lane had lost it magic up until this year
Now don't get me wrong. It hasn't been plain vanilla all the time but you get tired of watching every driver say and do the same thing.
Remember when Jeff Gordon won his first Daytona 500? He took a lot of slack for his outpouring of emotion. But it was honest and genuine, and true. It was a moment of pure joy.
It’s moments like these that stand out, moments that we don’t forget.
So often we get clouded with talk of points and the championship that it seems like the crossing the finish line is all about the number in the record book and not about the achievement of beating the best in your business.
Quotes: espn.com; sportsillustrated.com