There's something exciting happening in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this season. We're 20 points races into the 2011 campaign, and there have been 14 different winners who have made their way to victory lane.
When Paul Menard took the unlikely checkered flag at Indianapolis, he became the fourth driver this season to post his first career victory at one of NASCAR'S marquis events. Trevor Bayne won at the Daytona 500 to start the season, David Ragan won the July Daytona race, and Regan Smith picked up his first career win at storied Darlington in the Southern 500.
All of these wins have been labeled "stunning upsets," with young or little-known drivers stealing the spotlight at some of NASCAR's most esteemed tracks, not to mention taking home some of the biggest cash prizes of the year. That fact, coupled with the large number of different winners so far this season, may point to a level of parity in the sport we have not seen since the Champion Chase began in 2004. That year, there were only 13 different winners in the entire season.
With Jimmy Johnson having won five straight championships, "parity" has not been a commonly-used term in NASCAR circles. The playoff format was designed to create excitement by giving more teams a shot at the championship down the stretch; but only Johnson's 48-team seems to have found the perfect formula for success, creating an incredible dynasty over the last half-decade.
Johnson is still the one to beat, currently in second place in the standings behind often-near-the-top Carl Edwards, who has one win and 13 top-10 finishes this season. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are the only drivers with three wins so far this year, while Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon boast two victories apiece.
With NASCAR tweaking the playoff format for 2011, team wins factor into the Chase for the Championship more heavily this year, so the fact that so many different drivers have taken the checkered flag must be encouraging for NASCAR officials and fans.
Perhaps more than any other sport, NASCAR has suffered in these tough economic times, as businesses move money away from sponsorships, and fans cut back on the number of expensive racing events they will attend.
With more drivers finding their way to victory lane, more interest could be returning to the sport, just in time for a six-race mad-dash toward the Chase for the Championship, and that is beneficial to all involved in Sprint Cup Racing, from drivers and teams, to tracks and sponsors.
NASCAR heads to Pennsylvania this weekend for the second and final Pocono race of 2011, and it promises to be another exciting event. One thing we've learned so far this year, there's no telling who might end up in Victory Lane - there or anywhere.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.