In the spirit of this week’s Darlington throwback race, I thought I would take a crack at using statistics to identify the best driver seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series in the last 50 years. In attempting to do so, I encountered the same problem that confounds everyone from those voting for the NASCAR Hall of Fame to two fans arguing about their favorite drivers over a couple of beers: How do you compare athletes who competed in very different eras?
Take a look at how I resolved the issue and then let me know in the comments how you would do it.
My criteria for ‘best’
Words like ‘best’ are highly subjective. I started by clarifying what metrics I would use. Here’s what I ended up with:
1. I ignore season-ending driver rankings. The driver with the best season doesn’t always win the championship. The current playoff system, with its elimination brackets, changed what championship standings mean. In 2020, Kevin Harvick won nine races and finished fifth. In 2021. Harvick had no wins and finished fifth.
2. Points don’t matter. NASCAR changed how they award points multiple times between 1972 and now, and I didn’t feel like going back and recalculating points for every driver in every season.
3. Wins matter. A historic season doesn’t mean consistently finishing in the top five.
4. Top fives and top 10s matter, but not as much as wins. I require overall excellence, not someone who wins 10 races and finishes the rest out of the top 15.
5. I use percentages rather than absolute numbers because it’s the only way to account for running a different number of races in different years. A driver winning 12 races in a 36-race season has the same winning percentage as a driver winning 10 races in a 30-race season.
6. Laps led (as a percentage of total laps run) count a little.
7. I’m only considering drivers who ran complete seasons.
With those simple, objective rules, how hard can ranking the best seasons be?
Since I’m weighting wins heavily, I started by identifying drivers who won 25% or more of the races in a year. Below, I plot those drivers’ win rates.
Only 23 drivers meet my first criteria.
But here’s the rub: There isn’t a single season starting with a ‘2’ until we get to the 17th-ranked driver on this graph. That sets my science sense tingling, because it suggests there’s some unaccounted-for bias.
In 1975, Richard Petty won 13 out of 30 races. A total of eight drivers won races that year. We haven’t had a season in which only eight drivers won races since 1982. Last year, 16 different drivers won races.
How to fairly compare different decades?
Below, I plot the number of distinct race winners as a function of year.
The numbers range from five distinct winners (in 1974) to 19 in 2001. Since 2000, NASCAR has never had fewer than 12 winning drivers in a Cup season.
But the graph doesn’t tell the whole story.
In 1972, 146 drivers drove at least one race, but only six drivers ran all 31 races. There were 74 drivers who ran at least one Cup race in 2021, but 31 drove full time. And a much higher percentage of 2021 drivers had a realistic chance of winning a race than in the 1970s.
To account for this, I weighted winning percentages linearly, according to the number of drivers who won at least one race in a season.
Given the data, I decided that eight drivers would be my baseline. If there were eight winning drivers in a year, the multiplicative factor was 1. For 2001, where 19 drivers won races, I multiplied by 1.4. The graph below shows the weighting factor.
How did I arrive at this particular weighting? I don’t think you can argue that it was twice as hard to win races in 2021 (16 winners) as it was in 1975 (8 winners). Somewhere around thirty percent seemed more reasonable to me, so that’s what I used. If we weight the win percentages for drivers using my weighting, we get the graph below.
Overall ranking metric
In the end, I decided on a formula that weighs each element according to how important I think it is. My metric uses:
- Winning = weight 1
- Positions 2-5 finishes = weight 0.35
- Finishes in positions 6-10 = weight 0.1
- Laps led = weight 0.1
Remember that each of these quantities is a percentage, not an absolute number. After weighting, the entire score is multiplied by the correction factor I determined to account for differences in competition. I show the results on the graph below.
Best driver seasons
Jeff Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham won 13 out of 33 races in 1998, with 26 top fives (78.8%). The No. 24 car finished only five races out of the top 10 — two DNFs (spring Texas and Richmond) plus Daytona, Las Vegas and Atlanta, the season’s first, third and fourth races. I didn’t include poles in my metric, but Gordon won seven that year. Ten other drivers won races in 1998, including Mark Martin, who won seven races and had 26 top-10 finishes. Gordon won his third championship with his personal-best season in terms of wins, top fives and top 10s, plus set a career-high average finishing position of 5.7.
My choice for second-best all-time season is Dale Earnhardt and crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine’s 1987 season. After a fifth-place finish at the Daytona 500, Earnhardt won the next race at Rockingham, moving him to first place in the point standings. He held the points lead for the rest of the season. He won 11 of 29 starts (37.9% unweighted), with an average finish of 5.9 and 24 top 10s (82.8%). Competition was fierce: Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace rounded out the top five in points. Each of these drivers was, or would become, a Cup series champion and member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
The final spot on the podium goes to Richard Petty’s 1975 season. With crew chief Dale Inman, Petty won his sixth championship in his 17th year of competition. The King won 13 out of 30 races (43.3% unweighted), with 24 top-10 finishes (80%). He led 34.8% of all the laps he completed that year. And he accomplished all that with six DNFS (three engines, one rear end, one wheel bearing and one crash.)
Five out of the six men mentioned in my top three are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The sixth one will be inducted next January.
If you value wins more strongly than I did, Bill Elliott’s 11-win 1985 season (with crew chief Ernie Elliott) would rank higher. My metric penalizes him for having 10 finishes out of the top 10. His top-five rate (including wins) was 57%, compared to the 70-80% of most names higher on the list. But 1985 was arguably the best season of Elliott’s career — and he still finished second in the championship race to Darrell Waltrip, whose three wins didn’t make even the first cut in my ranking.
Kyle Larson and crew chief Cliff Daniels are the first team from the 21st century to appear in the list. He had an exceptional, breakout 2021 that many of us probably don’t appreciate yet because we’re too close to it. No less a judge of driving talent than Tony Stewart, however, deemed Larson “the best race car driver I’ve ever seen.” Mario Andretti told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long that Larson “just captured me in a very special way because I see a lot of myself there.”
Finally, I have to mention David Pearson. He’s not on the graph because I only included drivers who ran all the races in a season. Pearson’s championships in 1966, 1968 and 1969 were before the time period considered here. But in 1973, Pearson won 11 of 18 races he ran for a 61.1% win rate — the highest in the modern era. And then, in 1976, he won 10 out of 22 races, for a 45.5% win rate, which is also higher than anyone on my very first graph.
Those are my choices. Let me know in the comments how my rankings compare with yours. What do you think is most important for a driver’s season to be considered exceptional?