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When they were younger: Drivers reflect on first Cup start

Denny Hamlin holds off Kyle Larson down the stretch to win the NASCAR Cup Series playoff opener at Darlington Raceway to advance to the Round of 12.

The pressure, Alex Bowman says, is present in the playoffs, but that’s nothing compared to what he felt trying to make his first Cup start.

Bowman noted the anxiety with “being a broke race car driver ... trying to make your first start at the Daytona 500.”

He made it through that experience to become a playoff driver for Hendrick Motorsports.

Where current drivers once fretted about making their first Cup start, they are now series veterans, and in some cases, champions. But the memories remain from the early days of their career.

NBC Sports asked drivers about their their first Cup start. Here is what they had to say:


First Cup race: 2014 Daytona 500 in the No. 23 for BK Racing

Started: 29th

Finished: 23rd

Daytona 500 - Practice

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 15: Alex Bowman, driver of the #23 Dr. Pepper Toyota, looks on during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 15, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

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“We were like the slowest car in qualifying (he ranked 47th of 49 cars and was 1.5 seconds off the fastest lap). Our superspeedway cars were so slow and we weren’t locked in.

“Talk about pressure in the playoffs. Try pressure being a broke race car driver trying to make it - trying to make your first start at the Daytona 500 when there’s (49) cars there, a bunch of guys going home, not being locked in, going into a duel. … I had never Cup raced before.

“Didn’t really know what to expect (in his qualifying duel) and went in and kind of got lucky. Some things happened on the last lap and ended up in the top 15 (finished 14th) to make the show. That was a stressful environment. That was really difficult.

“You look at now, our speedway cars are so fast at Hendrick Motorsports. You can tag along at the end of the draft and pull out when you want to and guys go out with you. If I was the last car in line in that car (in 2014), you’re losing the draft. You’re not keeping up with everybody. That was really difficult.

“Then I remember walking out from the driver intro stage and just there being so many people, never seeing so many people in my entire life. That was really neat.”


First Cup race: Martinsville Speedway (March 29, 2015) in the No. 25 for Hendrick Motorsports

Started: 27th

Finished: 38th

STP 500 - Qualifying

MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 27: NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (left) congratulates his son Chase Elliott, driver of the #25 NAPA AUTO PARTS Chevrolet, after qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on March 27, 2015 in Martinsville, Virginia. This will mark Chase Elliott’s first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start. (Photo by Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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“Just a lot of excitement … obviously one of the biggest opportunities of my life. I remember going into that weekend and it was supposed to rain on Friday and it did and we didn’t have any points. So if it rained out qualifying, we weren’t going to be able to race. I just remember really stressing about it raining. I was more worried about that than anything.

“Fortunately, it didn’t rain. We got to qualify. We got to race, learned some valuable lessons that I take to Martinsville to this day.

“I feel like they picked some good tracks for me because they were tough, and I think (crew chief Alan Gustafson) had a play in that. I think they did those things on purpose to help me get a little bit of a head start and know kind of what was coming at some of these really challenging race tracks. … Might not have had much fun in the moment at some of those tracks, but I did feel there was a reason they were looking out for my best interests down the road.”


First Cup race: Dover International Speedway (Sept. 24, 2000) in the No. 97 for Roush Racing

Started: 10th

Finished: 18th

UAW-GM 500

CONCORD, NC - Kurt Busch looks on during the UAW-GM 500 in Concord, North Carolina on October, 5 2000. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Sporting News via Getty Images

“I went to Dover because (car owner) Jack Roush said ‘Hey, let’s go there. As good a place as any to make your first start.’ I was like ‘Uh, OK.’ Qualified 10th.

“As I was walking back after I qualified, Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. made a comment to me. He said: “Son, I didn’t know if you were ever going to lift.” I’m like, I don’t know if that was good or bad because I really drove it down there for qualifying.

“When the race started, everybody just took off. They were going so fast. ‘Where is everyone going?’ I thought these races were 400 miles and we’re going to take our time. I kid you not.

“I was so intimidated when I started that race. Bobby Labonte goes blowing by. Dale Jarrett. Jeff Gordon. (Dale) Senior. Everybody.

“I radioed to my crew and I said: ‘Just tell me when I’m 43rd. Just tell me when I’m last.’ … A few laps later, I’m last. When I was a rookie in a Legends race, they make you start in the back, and that mentally made me reset, and then I just started chipping away on trying to make passes and got back up to 18th, two laps down.”


First Cup race: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 7, 2004) in the No. 84 for Hendrick Motorsports

Started: 18th

Finished: 41st

NASCAR  - Nextel Cup -The UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 - Qualifying

#84-Kyle Busch (Photo by Kevin Kane/WireImage)


“I think I hit the wall on Lap 7, and I think I was done on Lap 11. Unfortunately trying to figure out the effects of dirty air. I wasn’t ready. I qualified OK, 18th. Expected to do better.

“I already knew that I was starting further back then I wanted to, so I knew I wanted to go forward. Just trying too hard. Way overdriving my capabilities, the car’s capabilities. That one was short lived.

“Just remembered that as a big learning experience and trying to set the tone in racing in the Xfinity Series for the rest of the year, racing for a championship. Those races I could learn from and kind of recalibrate where I was in my development.”


First Cup race: 2019 Daytona 500 in the No. 31 for Richard Childress Racing

Started: 39th

Finished: 27th

“That first race for us was one of those days where, very early on, we had to fight and keep overcoming things that just were not good for our team.

“We were coming to pit road early in that race and there was some sort of miscommunication behind us. I remember getting run over from behind, flying through the air and taking out myself and Jimmie Johnson. ‘Oh my God, my first race out and crashing with the guy that I looked up to most of my life and career.’

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 17: Tyler Reddick, driver of the #31 Symbicort Chevrolet, and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, are involved in an on-track incident during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 61st Annual Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, 2019 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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“That whole race could have been pretty easy to emotionally check out and give up, whatever the case may be, let the pressure of a bad first race really overcome you. We didn’t. We got the car fixed eventually where we could go back up there and raced.

“Unfortunately, when that happened, I was lined up with Austin (Dillon) and Daniel Hemric and the three of us were pushing the middle of three-wide going toward the front and didn’t wait long enough, didn’t have the experience to know it and got caught up in a crash. Very easily could have emotionally and mentally checked out from that race with the issues we had (earlier) but never quit. Never do.”


First Cup race: Kansas Speedway (Oct. 9, 2005) in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing

Started: 7th

Finished: 32nd

Subway 500 Practice

MARTINSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 21: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Chevrolet, looks on during NASCAR Nextel Cup Subway 500 Qualifying on October 21, 2005 at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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“I remember thinking that Cup racing was for me. I’ll never forget pulling out on pit lane … I felt like I was in a video game. These iconic paint scheme and drivers were all around me (Greg Biffle started beside Hamlin and Tony Stewart started behind Hamlin).

“I was starting up front. It stinks the finish was so bad because we had a cut tire under the green flag and never caught a caution and I was two laps down for having to pit for a cut tire.

“We were really fast that day, just never got to really show it.

“Just a fun experience. I knew when I got in the big horsepower car vs. being in the Xfinity Series that this car fits me better.”


First Cup race: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 11, 2007) in the No. 80 for Joe Gibbs Racing

Started: 31st

Finished: 41st

NASCAR - Daytona Testing

ARIC ALMIROLA during NASCAR preseason testing on January 19, 2007, at Daytona International Speedway, DAYTONA BEACH , FLORIDA. (Photo by Cliff Welch /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty

“I remember it being an extremely nerve-wracking weekend. We were going there with an R&D car, kind of experimenting for Gibbs at the time.

“I remember that back then you had to qualify your way in. When you came as a non-top 35 in points car, and back then they used to get 48-50 cars trying to qualify for 43 spots (55 cars were on the entry list). Vegas was one that everybody wanted to go run because the purse was big. If you made it at Vegas, it was a good payday.

“It was a great place for Gibbs to go and try and experiment and work on some new technology and new setups, so I remember being a nervous wreck. I remember qualifying in and feeling like the weight of the world was lifted off of me. Then I remember waking up race day morning and feeling like the weight of the world was right back on me.

“I just remember being really nervous, just wanting to go and perform and run well to just kind of prove that I belonged. I remember being really devastated that we wrecked and the race didn’t go really how I envisioned or hoped it would.”


First Cup start: Atlanta Motor Speedway (Oct. 31, 2004) in the No. 1 for Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Started: 33rd

Finished: 37th

NASCAR Busch Series - Tropicana Twister 300 - Qualifying - July 9, 2004

Martin Truex Jr. competes in qualifying Friday, July 9, 2004 for the NASCAR Busch Series Tropicana Twister 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)


I recall just how difficult it was. How fast those guys were. I think we had a flat tire at one time, hit the fence and blew up later. It was a tough day. It wasn’t fun at all.

“The biggest thing I remember was just how fast those guys were and how much I still had to learn.

“That was still not even through my first full year in the Busch Series back then. ‘You got a ways to go yet.’ It was kind of a great moment for me, honestly, to see all of that and see how hard those guys were driving and what they were getting out of those race cars. ‘OK, I know what I need to be working on.’”