NASCAR is unlike any other professional sport in that it's the only one where upsets are really unexpected. There's an old saying in Major League Baseball that says even the worst teams managed to win 60 games. And even the worst NFL teams can win 2 or 3 games every year. (Well, most of the time. Here's to you, Buccaneers, Lions, and Browns.) NASCAR's upsets are few and far between. Let's take a look at the greatest upsets in NASCAR history.
5. Jamie McMurray, 2002 UAW-GM 500
The story of Jamie Mac that night in Charlotte begins with another driver: Sterling Marlin. Marlin was having a career year in 2002. In fact, with only ten races left in the season, Marlin led future Hall of Famers Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, and Bill Elliott in the point standings. His season would end prematurely following a neck injury during a wreck at Kansas later that season. In comes the 26 year old Jamie McMurray to replace him. Following a 26th place finish at Talladega, McMurray shocked the NASCAR world by leading 96 laps at Charlotte and getting the win in only his second start. Jamie Mac would go on to win six more Cup races in his career, including a Daytona 500. Today, he's a NASCAR analyst on Fox.
4. Trevor Bayne, 2011 Daytona 500
Bayne flashed a little potential before running a majority of his Cup races. In his 2010 Nationwide Series season, he won three poles, recorded six Top 5s and 11 Top 10s with a highest finish of third, which he did twice. Wood Brothers Racing tapped him to drive the legendary #21 car in the Great American Race, and the rest, as they say, is history. Bayne would become the youngest Daytona 500 winner at only 20 years old.
That would be it for a long time.
While he was solid in Nationwide races, Cup success past that win eluded him. He couldn't finish higher than 8th until the 2016. He would be released from Wood Brothers, and he'd end up with Roush. He'd post 13 top 10s and four top 5s in his three full seasons in the 6. He'd be demoted then released in 2018, and today he is no longer in the sport.
3. Justin Haley, 2019 Coke Zero Sugar 400
The most recent one on this list, Haley's career is just getting started. He's only 20, and he's been racing in NASCAR since he was only 15. When he was 16, he posted 13 top 5s, 14 top 10s, and he also won two races in the K&N Pro Series West. That same year he'd run part-time in Trucks, and when he turned 19, he'd put up 18 top 10s, nine top 5s, and three wins, at Gateway, Canadian Tire, and the fall race at Texas. This season he's competing full-time in the Xfinity Series, posting 12 top 10s and two top 5s so far. However, his upset came in Cup. He's only made three Cup starts so far, running part time in the Spire Motorsports #77 car, finishing outside the top 30 at both Talladega and Sonoma. Of course, he closed the book on a part of NASCAR history: winning the final 4th of July weekend race at Daytona. How did he do this? He was just able to avoid The Big One that took out 18 cars with only 40 laps to go. That put him in third as the yellow flag waved. Kurt Busch and Landon Cassill, both believing the race would go back to green, pitted to hand the lead to Haley. He'd lead one lap, the only lap led off his Cup Series career, before the race was red flagged due to lightning. After over two hours, NASCAR called the race, giving Haley the win.
2. David Gilliland, 2006 Meijer 300 Presented By Oreo
The only non-Cup Series race on this list, it was such a big upset it had to be included. Gilliland was a late bloomer in NASCAR. He didn't make his NASCAR debut until he was 21, in the K&N Pro Series West. That's not too out of the ordinary, but he wouldn't run a full season in that series until he was 28. While most drivers were well into their national series career, Gilliland's regional career was just starting. He'd make his Trucks debut the next year, and in 2005, he'd begin running part-time in the Busch Series with Clay Andrews Racing. In 2006, he attempted to qualify for nine races, missing two. His equipment just wasn't up to par, only finishing top 30 once in his first four races that season. Then he shocked everyone. The Busch Series back then was dominated by Cup drivers, even worse than today. Gilliland became the first Busch Series regular to win in the 2006 season with his win at Kentucky. He couldn't back it up, being unable to finish higher than 26th the rest of the season. Clay Andrews would close its doors before the end of the season, and Gilliland would move up to Cup in 2007, where he would race until 2018. Today, he owns a Truck Series team named DGR-Crosley, where he still races on a part-time basis.
1. Alan Kulwicki, 1992 Cup Series Championship
Imagine you and a few of your buddies decide to start your own football team. You're athletic enough and you understand the intricacies of the sport, so why not, right? You pay for a lot of it out of pocket and then, somehow, you manage to beat Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the Super Bowl. This actually happened in NASCAR, and it was done by Alan Kulwicki. Kulwicki was a genius. I'm not just saying that, he legitimately was. He had an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee under his belt. He used this to build the fastest racecars he could at the cheapest cost he could. And he had talent. He won the Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 1986. Four years later, he'd be offered a top tier Cup ride by the best owner in the garage, Junior Johnson. Kulwicki turned him down. So Johnson replaced him with one of the best drivers available: Awesome Bill From Dawsonville, Bill Elliott. Heading into the last race of the season, it was a three man contest for the Championship. Both Kulwicki and Elliott entered this race at Atlanta Motor Speedway trailing Davey Allison in points.
What happened next was the greatest race in the history of NASCAR.
It was Richard Petty's last race. It was Jeff Gordon's first. All Kulwicki had to do to clinch the Championship was go stride for stride with two Hall of Famers.
Davey Allison had a bad wreck on lap 254. It effectively eliminated him from Championship contention. Kulwicki needed to finish with the most laps led for bonus points, and he had to finish at least third. On lap 310, he clinched the most laps led with 103. Bill Elliott led every lap from there on out, finishing with 102 laps led. Elliott ended up winning the race. Kulwicki ran second, the Cup Series Champion.
Unfortunately, not even six months after his Championship, Kulwicki would lose his life in a plane crash. He was 38. He left behind a legacy beyond his years. Five wins, a Championship, the iconic Polish Victory Lap, and, of course, the greatest upset in NASCAR history.