Five best seasons by the Budweiser car

August, 17, 2010

Sponsorship announcements, when done well, sure are a lot of fun, aren't they?

At Richard Childress Racing on Tuesday morning, the 2010 version of The Worst Kept Secret In NASCAR was officially unveiled. Budweiser will be the sponsor for Kevin Harvick's No. 29 Chevy in 2011.

The news conference was punctuated by Clydesdales and beer cans. And on every wall and every flat table space there were reminders of Budweiser's long, proud NASCAR legacy. There were old photos of Childress drinking Bud while working on stock cars in the 1960s. There were videos of RCR cars celebrating Bud Pole Awards and Busch Clash/Budweiser Shootout victories, from Dale Earnhardt to Mike Skinner to Harvick.

Now comes the hard part, living up to Anheuser-Busch's long, proud racing legacy, from Miss Budweiser winning hydroplane championships to Kenny Bernstein setting NHRA speed records. But even with its success in other racing disciplines, the King Of Beers has always been most recognized for its stock car success. Don't know what I'm talking about?

As always, we're here for you. And we now proudly present the Top 5 Budweiser NASCAR Seasons:

5. 2008: Kasey Kahne

Two wins, 14 top-10s, two poles, All-Star Race champion, 14th in points

Kahne's first season carrying the Bud colors was a roller coaster of inconsistency. After starting with four top-10s in the first five races, he skidded into spring with six straight double-digit finishes. Then he caught fire. He won the All-Star Race in Charlotte and followed it up one week later with a win in the Coca-Cola 600. Two weeks later, he won from the pole at Pocono, followed up by a second-place run at Michigan and a pole at Infineon.

A horrible August kept Kahne out of the Chase, but the pain was eased with all the trophies and cash won in May and June.

4. 2000: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Two wins, five top-10s, two poles, All-Star Race champion, 16th in points

Anyone at Tuesday's RCR announcement who was also around a decade ago (like me) probably felt a little déjà vu crawling up their spine. It was the spring of '99 at Dale Earnhardt Inc. when the familiar "When you say Budweiser" tune was piped into DEI's Garage Mahal and the red No. 8 Chevy of Dale Earnhardt Jr. was unveiled for the first time. The "Countdown to E Day" had begun. Once it arrived, the kid did not disappoint.

Junior won at Texas in April, the seventh race of the season and just the 12th of his Cup career. Four starts later he won again, this time at Richmond. The next event was the NASCAR All-Star Race, which he won with a stirring late dash to the front. He nearly won the Coca-Cola 600 the following weekend, leading 175 laps and finishing fourth.

From there, he started racing like the rookie that he was, slipping outside of the top 10 in points and actually losing Rookie of the Year to his old Busch Series rival, Matt Kenseth. But there's never been much question as to who had the more memorable season.

3. 2004: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Six wins, 21 top-10s, Daytona 500 champion, fifth in points

By 2004, Little E was the biggest star in NASCAR. He'd successfully taken on the challenge of carrying the emotional burden of those still grieving the 2001 death of his father and responded by winning. He'd averaged two wins a year over his first four seasons and finished a career-best third in points in '03.

But in '04 he officially blew up. The season started with a win in the Daytona 500, followed by victories at Atlanta and Richmond. He struggled through the summer, but rediscovered his stride by August, winning three more times over the final 13 races and making a late charge into the top five in points. However, the following year he would finish a disappointing 19th in points, beginning the slow decline that eventually led him to part ways with DEI and Budweiser in 2008.

2. 1992: Bill Elliott

Five wins, 17 top-10s, two poles, second in points

At the end of the '91 season, Elliott parted ways with Melling Racing and longtime sponsor Coors, with whom he'd won a championship and posted one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history (more on that in a minute). Many speculated that the pairing of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville with Junior "The Last American Hero" Johnson would be a Dream Team. They were right.

Over the season's first five races the No. 11 Bud Thunderbird led 770 laps and tied a modern-era record with four straight wins. Unfortunately, they won only one more time. The lack of wins allowed a pack of would-be champs to reel in Elliott in autumn. By the time they reached Atlanta, Budweiser and Elliott had been caught by Alan Kulwicki and Davey Allison.

That finale, the Hooters 500, was perhaps the greatest race in NASCAR history. Elliott won, but pitting one lap too early cost him the bonus points for leading the most laps, a bonus that Kulwicki took and used to win the championship by a scant 10 points.

1. 1985: Darrell Waltrip

Three wins, 21 top-10s, four poles, All-Star Race champion, NASCAR Winston Cup champion

Budweiser had first joined Junior Johnson and Associates eight years before Elliott drove the No. 11 car, sponsoring not one, but two JJ rides. The new No. 12 Chevy was driven by Neil Bonnett. But the real attraction for Bud was being on the No. 11 car, a vehicle that had won three championships with Cale Yarborough from 1976-78 and two titles with its current driver, Darrell Waltrip, from 1981-82.

DW and Bud actually had a better statistical season in their first year together, 1984 (seven wins, four poles), than the year we have listed here. But '85 wins out because, believe it or not, it is Budweiser's only NASCAR Cup Series championship. And it came at the expense of (we told you we'd get back to this) Bill Elliott.

Most NASCAR fans remember that Elliott won 11 races, 10 poles, and the Winston Million that season. What many forget is that he also blew a huge points lead and lost the title to Waltrip, who used short-track success and season-wide consistency to counter Elliott's streaky superspeedway dominance.

"You know the best part of having Budweiser as a sponsor?" Waltrip said during the title celebration in Riverside, Calif. "We don't have to buy beer tonight when we're celebrating!"

Ryan McGee | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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