Fourteen of the drivers competing for the 2023 championship have 17 Cup wins at Daytona between them. That total includes multiple winners Denny Hamlin (3), Kevin Harvick (2) and Austin Dillon (2).
How do these drivers stack up against the all-time best Daytona drivers?
I only include drivers with at least 10 races on the Daytona oval. If you’re going to be called an ‘all-time great’, you need enough races to prove it.
Between 1959-71, NASCAR counted some Daytona qualifiers as regular-season races. For example, while most record books assign David Pearson eight Daytona victories, two of those wins were qualifying races. But qualifier races, which are fewer laps and a smaller field, aren’t the same as 400- or 500-mile races.
I therefore don’t include any qualifying races in this analysis. Doing so creates a serious bias against recent drivers. So I credit Pearson with six win in this analysis.
It’s tempting to simply list the drivers with the most Daytona wins.
- Richard Petty (10)
- Cale Yarborough (eight)
- Pearson, Bobby Allison and Jeff Gordon (six each)
- Fireball Roberts, Bill Elliott, Tony Stewart, Dale Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (four each)
But Petty needed 64 races to get those 10 wins. Yarborough won eight times in 48 races, so Yarborough’s 16.7%-win rate just edges out Petty’s 15.6%. Using numbers of wins disadvantages drivers with shorter careers, which is why I prefer win rate.
The table shows that neither Petty nor Yarborough come close to Roberts’ 36.4% win rate. That’s four wins in just 11 attempts.
As far a current drivers go, Dillon takes 11th place with a win rate of 10.5%. The next active driver on the list is William Byron at 13th. Byron is also the last driver with a win rate at or above 10%.
But I want the best driver, not simply the winningest driver. Plenty of great NASCAR drivers never won at Daytona.
Average Finish Position
Luck plays more of a role at Daytona than at most other tracks. A driver can run a brilliant race but finish in the 30s after being taken out by a late crash. Average finishing position measures driving ability and ability to finish races.
Here’s a list of the best all-time drivers in terms of average finishes.
Darel Dieringer raced in the Cup Series from 1957-69. He returned to run Daytona, Talladega and two Charlotte races in 1975.
Although Dieringer won 6 races, his only trip to Daytona’s Victory Lane was the first 1965 qualifier race. Nonetheless, he’s the only driver with an average finishing position below 10 at Daytona.
Fred Lorenzen, Ned Jarrett and Dale Earnhardt finished between 10th and 11th position on average.
Bubba Wallace ranks fifth in average finish at Daytona. He also ranks first among all drivers in percentage of second-place finishes with 27.3%, or a little more than one in four.
Only one driver — Pearson — appears on the top-10 lists for winning rate and average finishing position.
Again, I’m using rates to account for different drivers having run different numbers of races. Here’s a list of the top-10 all-time best drivers for finishing in the top five.
Lorenzen comes in first with a 62.5%. No one else gets close. Second on the list is Jack Smith with a 50% top-five rate.
Hamlin comes in 15th on this list with a 32.4% top-five rate. Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch are right behind him with 31.6% and 31.0% rates respectively.
The all-time best Daytona drivers
My algorithm gives half of the emphasis to average finishing position, 35% to win rate and the remaining 15% to top fives. In all cases, I’m using their rank compares to other drivers. Thus, the driver with the smallest total is the best Daytona driver. A perfect score would be 1.
But no one’s perfect.
Only Pearson ranked in the top 10 in all three of my metrics. That lands him the title of all-time best Daytona driver. He didn’t win any of the categories, but posted strong numbers across the board.
Pearson and Smith are the only drivers with a final ranking below 10. Smith was hurt by his low win rate, as was Earnhardt. It’ll be interesting to see how Earnhardt fares when we do the same ranking for Talladega.
Dillon is the only current driver to make the final list. Here’s how some other recent drivers rank compared to the all-time greats:
- Gordon (11th)
- Hamlin (13th)
- Wallace (18th)
Who do you rank best? Tell me in the comments.
Even more importantly, tell me what metrics you think are most important in determining the all-time best Daytona drivers.