Dr. Diandra throwback: The three best NASCAR Cup driver seasons in last 50 years


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.

A vertical bar chart showing the percentage of races won for drivers between 1972 and 2021. Only drivers who won 25% or more of the races in a season are shown.

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.

A scatter plot showing how the number of different drivers winning in a season has changed from 1972 to 2021

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.

A line graph showing the weighting used.

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.

A vertical bar chart showing the weighted numbers of wins from 1972-2021

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.

A vertical bar chart showing the weighted rankings that indicate the best seasons Cup-level drivers have had

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.

Honorable mentions

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?

Winners and losers at WWT Raceway


Winners and losers from Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:


Kyle BuschWins the pole, leads the most laps and holds the field off over the last five restarts to win the race. He scored six playoff points, giving him 16 on the season, second only to William Byron’s 17. Busch left Joe Gibbs Racing after last season for Richard Childress Racing. Busch’s three wins this year equals what JGR has done so far.

Ryan BlaneyHis sixth-place finish moved him into the points lead. He last led the points after the spring 2022 Richmond race. Blaney also won a stage Sunday to collect another playoff point. He has seven this season.

Kyle LarsonFourth-place finish was a big turnaround after struggles earlier in the race. It has not been easy for this team the last few weeks. He has three top-five finishes and four finishes of 20th or worse in the last seven races.

Daniel SuarezHis seventh-place finish moved him up two spots to 16th in the standings, the final playoff transfer spot at this time.


Ross ChastainHe finished 22nd for his third consecutive result outside the top 20. He entered the weekend leading the points and fell to fifth afterward. He is 29 points behind new series leader Ryan Blaney with 11 races left in the regular season.

Tyler ReddickRebounded from an early spin to lead but had his race end after a brake rotor failed. He was one of four drivers eliminated by brake rotor failures. The others were Carson Hocevar, Bubba Wallace and Noah Gragson.

What drivers said at WWT Raceway


Here is what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:

Kyle Busch — Winner: “Just the restarts kind of went our way. We were able to get through on the outside on that one and push (Kyle) Larson out, then he took bottom of (Turns) 3 and 4, I was able to carry the momentum around the high side to take the lead. That was really important. I think that was kind of the key moment of us being able to win today. Being able to control the rest of the restarts for the rest of the race. Kyle is one of the best. It’s good to be able to sit up here and race hard with him, being a Team Chevy partner. He gave me great respect, I appreciate that. That will be given back down the road.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 2nd: “Yeah, I thought we were super dialed if it was 95 degrees like it was supposed to be with those delays – it kind of took away from the advantage I thought that we had. I’m proud of this whole Sport Clips Toyota team – pit crew did a phenomenal job keeping us in it and doing really good on the money stop with about 60 to go. We are going to have to wait another to get that 50th (win).”

Joey Logano — Finished 3rd: “I’m proud of the fight. We were mediocre – just outside the top five all day long. There was a group of cars that were a tick better than us. Then we executed at the end and beat a few of them. We tried some new things from last year, and we learned some lessons. But overall: Good. We needed a solid run. We’ve been going through hell here lately. So, it’s nice to get a top five, third place, and some points there in each stage. Good day.”

Kyle Larson — Finished 4th: “Proud of the effort today. It’s been a couple tough races. We’ve been so good all year long and the last few have been pretty bad and we’ve had to work on it quite a bit. The team got us in a place where we could contend for the win, so you can’t ask for much more than that. …  I wish I would have done a better job. When I was the leader, I hadn’t been at the front all day, so I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know where people were running on restarts, and I didn’t know how hard they could go. I just got kind of caught off guard and lost the control.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 5th: “Started off the race near the front and stayed there through Stage 1 and thought we could get a little bit better and maybe have a shot at the couple, three in front of us. We had a pit road penalty and had to go to the back, and it was just an uphill climb from there. Just really tough to get through the field. We got some damage from when someone’s brake rotor exploded, that slowed us down even more. Really with all we went through today, a top-five is a really good day for us. I’m proud of the effort.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 6th: “We ran pretty good today. Won the second stage which was good, second in the first stage. Just kind of lost track position, lost the lead. Through a couple stops and restarts, we could just never really get it back. I thought that (Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin) and I were similar. It was just a matter of who was out front. I just got a bad restart at the end and fell to sixth. But overall, it wasn’t a bad day. It was a good points day too, and we’ll keep going.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 7th: “The entire weekend was very solid for us. We barely missed the second run in qualifying and really, we missed it because of me and not because of the car. The car was capable of advancing. In the race, the car was strong right away. It was fun today and we really needed this as a team. We needed a result that we deserved, and I felt like lately it’s been a little difficult on us when it comes to that. Today, I felt like we deserved a top-10 or top-five and we came home seventh, so we will take it.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 9th: “We kind of learned last year that track position is super important. Taking two tires was an option last year, so we knew it’d be one this year. We did it early on and got track position, but we got spun out. So, went all the way to the back and then we put four on, and then you’re just buried back there. So, we had to go for it again, put two on and just left two on. We never took four again. There were a lot of laps on the left-side tires, but track position was super important. We had a great FR8 Auctions Ford Mustang, so I knew we could kind of hold our ground. Those last few cautions kind of hurt us a bit, but still came away with a Top-10. So, it was a good day.”

Chris Buescher — Finished 12th: “That was a long day – long race. There were a lot of cautions and red flags. It really started yesterday. I was in a little bit of a hole after qualifying, and I just didn’t do a good job. I had to dig out of that today. We had pretty good speed in our Fastenal Ford Mustang. I was pretty happy with it, and at times, had to move around the track quite a bit. I figured out Gateway really quickly. Not being able to run here last year, I felt a little behind getting going. Definitely found something there at the end. Honestly wish it was a 600-mile race because I felt like we could have kept getting better.”

Austin Cindric — Finished 13th: “Definitely frustrating having a speeding penalty … I’m a little frustrated with myself with that. You think something at the end of Stage 1 isn’t going to affect your race, but it just put us behind. We tried a bunch of strategy calls to get our Freightliner Ford Mustang up there. Had some good restarts at the end and made the most of it, I feel like. Those restarts got really scrappy. Proud of the team effort, proud of the recovery. Definitely a lot to clean up on my end to maximize what I thought was a Top-10 race car.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 14th: “We had an up-and-down day today fighting the balance in our No. 16 Chevy. I felt like we had a top-15 car most of the day, but we had to play defense to stay there. I wasn’t able to roll speed through the corner like I needed to be more aggressive and keep moving forward. We made a strategy call to take two tires, which didn’t work in our favor. Then we got caught up on pit road and restarted pretty far back at the beginning of the third stage. We’ll take a 14th- place finish after everything we battled with our car today and move forward to Sonoma.”

Justin Haley — Finished 16th: It was an up-and-down day for this No. 31 LeafFilter Gutter Protection team. We fired off tight in traffic, and it was just hard to pass. My crew chief, Trent Owens, made some really good strategy calls and we had positive adjustments all day, despite a couple pit-road mishaps. We had another good Chevrolet hot rod, and we will take a 16th-place finish after a hard fought day.

Ryan Preece — Finished 17th: “That was a really long day. I fought a tight race car all day long and every time we came down pit road, my guys made really strong adjustments. It just wasn’t enough to get us to the front and stay there. There were so many cautions there at the end, I was just trying to save the car. Overall, it wasn’t a terrible day for us after qualifying 29th. The fans were out in full force today, too, that was awesome to see. We’ve just got to keep grinding for better finishes.”

Erik Jones — Finished 18th: “Just an up-and-down day for the No. 43 Bommarito.com Chevy team. Didn’t end up how we wanted it to go, but we’ll go to work and get the car a bit better. I thought we had good speed, just didn’t have things go our way. We’ll work on it and hopefully go to Sonoma (Raceway) and have a solid day.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 19th: “We battled handing issues all day and just couldn’t find it. We were loose to start the day and it felt like our car was tight on aero and loose mechanically. Our long-run speed was really all we had today and we could pass cars late in the run, but we had so many cautions in the final stage we didn’t have the chance to run those cars down. Drew (Blickensderfer, crew chief) put me on offense on the last 20 laps with fresh tires and I thought we could’ve driven up to 15th, but someone missed a shift on the last restart and stacked us up and put us behind. Just one of those days. We had to battle to get all we could get.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 32nd: “We kept our track position just like we wanted to. We got stage points, and I felt like we had a top-eight or so car, which was a big difference from last year. Obviously we’re striving to be better everywhere. We had a really good streak going of really good runs. It looked like the No. 2 (Austin Cindric) just, for some reason, right-reared the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) and took both of us Chevy guys out, so that’s a bummer. We definitely had a top-10 car today.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 34th: “Our day kind of went bad early on, but our McDonald’s Camry was able to get through traffic pretty well, but as the track stated to cool off, it just started going away from us. It was starting to get frustrating out there for sure, to have a car that good, and it felt like it was just going away. I had a bad feeling that was coming soon. I was just getting ready to have to back off with how soft the brakes got, but I obviously should have been thinking about that a lap or two sooner.”

Carson Hocevar — Finished 36th: “I thought it was great. I had a blast. Just so thankful for the opportunity. I don’t have a job for next year. I know Al Niece and Cody Efaw wants me to run for them and I will forever run a race or however many. But man, I’m just so thankful that they gave me the opportunity – the opportunity to drive a Xfinity car and now driving a Cup car. I was running 16th.. just so surreal for the first time ever. I thought we were going to have a good day and be in a good spot for Schluter Systems, Celsius, Spire Motorsports, Ryan Sparks and the No. 7 Chevy team. Hopefully that call for a Cup ride isn’t the only one I get in my life.”

Cup results at WWT Raceway, driver points


Kyle Busch scored his third Cup victory of the season, winning Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime.

Busch is tied with William Byron for most victories this season. Busch and Byron have combined to win three of the last six Cup points races (two by Busch and one by Byron).

MORE: Cup race results at WWT Raceway

MORE: Cup driver standings after WWT Raceway

Denny Hamlin finished second. Joey Logano placed third. Kyle Larson overcame struggles early in the race to finish fourth. Martin Truex Jr. completed the top five.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

Ryan Blaney placed sixth and took the points lead from Ross Chastain, who placed 22nd. Chastain fell to fifth in the standings.

Kyle Busch wins Cup race at WWT Raceway in overtime


Kyle Busch scored his third victory of the season Sunday, holding off the field on five restarts in the final 45 laps at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Busch’s previous two wins this season were at Fontana and Talladega. Sunday’s win is the 63rd of his Cup career. He started on the pole and led 121 of 243 laps — including the last 60 — in a race extended three laps by overtime.

MORE: Race results, driver points 

MORE: What drivers had to say

“That was pretty awesome,” Busch said to FS1. “Man, to sit on the pole, lead a lot of laps and have my guys do such a great job today was pretty phenomenal for us.”

Denny Hamlin finished second and was followed by Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.

Sunday’s race featured an event-record 11 cautions. Failures with brake rotors led to crashes by Carson Hocevar, Tyler Reddick, Noah Gragson and Bubba Wallace.

Corey LaJoie finished 21st, driving the No. 9 for the suspended Chase Elliott.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Ryan Blaney

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Denny Hamlin’s runner-up finish is his fourth top-five result of the year. All have come in the last seven races. … Joey Logano’s third-place finish was his first top-five result since Martinsville in April. … Ryan Blaney finished sixth for his sixth top 10 in the last seven races and took the points lead from Ross Chastain. … Michael McDowell‘s ninth-place finish is his second top 10 of the year.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brad Keselowski, making his 500th career Cup start, had mechanical issues early that left his car underpowered for most of the event. He finished 28th. … Carson Hocevar, making his Cup debut, was running 16th when a brake rotor failed and he crashed, finishing last. … Tyler Reddick spun early in race. After getting back toward the front, a brake rotor failed and he crashed, finishing 35th.

NOTABLE: This is the 11th time in Kyle Busch’s Cup career that he has had at least three wins in a season.

NEXT: The series races June 11 at Sonoma Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox)