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NASCAR’s Best Substitute Driver Performances

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In the rare instances when NASCAR drivers need a substitute, some drivers have taken the opportunity and ran with it. What are some of the best mid-season substitute driver performances in NASCAR history?

7. Brad Keselowski: 2007 O’Reilly 200

It may seem hard to believe now, but at one time, Brad Keselowski’s NASCAR career was seemingly on the brink…in the Xfinity Series. After a rookie season in the Truck Series in 2005, Keselowski nabbed a full-time Xfinity Series ride with Keith Coleman. After failing to qualify at Daytona and never finishing better than 24th, the team suspended operations and Keselowski was left without a ride in early June.

The opportunity opened up for Keselowski after Ted Musgrave was suspended from his Truck Series ride at Memphis, and Germain Racing tabbed Keselowski to drive. Keselowski led 62 laps and was trying to hold of Travis Kvapil with 10 to go before Kvapil dumped Keselowski to relegate the substitute to a 16th place finish. Keselowski’s performance was good enough to catch a ride with JR Motorsports, and the rest, as they say, is history.

6. Josh Berry: 2023 Toyota Owners 400

Josh Berry is the definition of a late bloomer, and in 2023, he finally got the top Cup Series opportunity he hoped for. While filling in for Chase Elliot, Berry quietly slotted into the 9 car finishing in 10th at Phoenix. His best race though came at Richmond.

After starting 30th, Berry worked his way up through the field and used pit strategy to vault himself into the lead with just over 40 laps to go. Berry would hold his own after leading 10 laps, and he would finish a career best second. A performance that would likely vault him to a Cup Series ride next season.

5. Matt Kenseth: 1998 MBNA Gold 400

In the midst of his first full-time Xfinity Series season, Matt Kenseth had the opportunity to fill in for a NASCAR legend. Bill Elliott was attending his father’s funeral, and tapped Kenseth to drive the No. 94 car at Dover. Kenseth did nothing but impress.

After starting 16th, Kenseth quietly worked his way up the pack and finished a solid sixth. This was tied for the best finish Elliott had in the car that season. Two seasons later, Kenseth got his first full-time Cup Series ride for Jack Roush, and Kenseth went on to a hall of fame career.

4. Darrell Waltrip: 1998 Pocono 500

Darrell Waltrip was far removed from his glory days by the time 1998 came around. His owner-driver days were coming to an end when Dale Earnhardt came calling. After Steve Park was injured early in the season, Waltrip drove the number 1 Pennzoil car.

Waltrip ran the best he had in a long time finishing fifth at California Speedway, but his best run came at Pocono that June. Waltrip led 10 laps, being passed by Jeremy Mayfield with 21 laps to go, and Waltrip finished 6th. It was Waltrip’s final career top-10.

3. Jamie McMurray: 2002 UAW GM Quality 500

Sterling Marlin was forced to cut his best season short early after injuries. Little-known Xfinity Series driver Jamie McMurray was asked to fill-in for Marlin. After qualifying fifth at Talladega. McMurray struggled and finished 26th before heading to Charlotte the next week for the UAW-GM Quality 500.

McMurray started fifth and led 96 laps on the night. 2000 Cup Series Champion Bobby Labonte was hounding McMurray for the lead, but McMurray was able to hold on and get his first career Cup Series win in just his second start.

2. David Pearson: 1979 Southern 500

In 1979, David Pearson made one of the most fateful decisions of his career walking away from the Wood Brothers following a pit stop malfunction in the 1979 Rebel 500 at Darlington. Pearson sat out the next 12 races before Rod Osterlund called Pearson up to substitute for the injured rookie, Dale Earnhardt (Yes, that Dale Earnhardt).

Pearson ran well in his first three races with the team, but he went out with a bang in the Southern 500 at Darlington, the same place where he walked away from his most iconic ride. Pearson took the lead for the final time with 70 laps to go, and he won the race by 2+ laps over 23-year old Bill Elliott (Yes, that Bill Elliott). It was Pearson’s 104th career victory.

1. Tiny Lund: 1963 Daytona 500

Tiny Lund went to Daytona in 1963 without a car. In the days leading up to the race, the Wood Brothers driver Marvin Panch was involved in a fiery accident in a preliminary race for the 24 Hours of Daytona. Lund sprung into action and pulled Panch from the wreckage, saving Panch’s life.

Panch then requested in the hospital that Lund be his replacement in the 21 car. Lund qualified 12th and stayed in contention all day. After a green-yellow start, the race ran the final 190 laps caution free, and it came down to fuel mileage. It came down to Lund going up against Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett and Fred Lorenzen.

While Lorenzen and Jarrett had to pit for fuel in the waning laps, Lund stayed out. Despite running out of fuel on the final lap, Lund coasted home to take the win by 24 seconds.

Corey LaJoie or Carson Hocevar could add to this list this weekend. Could they possibly pull another Tiny Lund or David Pearson?

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

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