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

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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?

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.

Safety key topic in meeting for drivers at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Cup drivers met Friday with Jeff Burton, director of the Drivers Advisory Council, and discussed safety issues ahead of this weekend’s playoff race, which will be without two drivers due to concussion-like symptoms from crashes.

Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch will not race Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. 

Busch suffered his head injury in a crash at Pocono in July. Bowman’s injury followed his crash last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Both were injured in accidents where the rear of the car hit the SAFER barrier first.

Two drivers injured in less than three months — and the series racing at a track where crashes are likely — raises tension in the Cup garage. 

Denny Hamlin blasted NASCAR on Saturday, saying it was “bad leadership” for not addressing safety concerns drivers had with the car. Hamlin also said that the Next Gen vehicle needs to be redesigned.

Burton, who also is an analyst for NBC Sports, said in an exclusive interview that Friday’s meeting was lengthy because there were several topics to discuss. Burton didn’t go into details on all the topics.

Safety was a key element of that meeting. Burton, whose role with the Drivers Advisory Council is to coordinate the group and communicate with NASCAR, discussed the cooperation level with NASCAR.

“We feel like we have cooperation with NASCAR,” he said. “We know the commitments from NASCAR. They’ve made real commitments to us. We want to see those commitments through. I believe that we will in regards to changes to the car. 

“We want to see that come to conclusion as soon as possible. They have made commitments to us and are showing us what is happening, communicating with us in regard to timing, and we want to see it come to conclusion, as they do. 

“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get some changes done before last weekend. It just takes a long time to test stuff.”

NASCAR has a crash test scheduled next week on a new rear clip and rear bumper. Even if the test goes well, there’s not enough time for any such changes this season with five races left.

The frustration from drivers — and voiced by Hamlin and Kevin Harvick — has been that NASCAR was informed about issues with a stiffer car for more than a year. Some questions were raised after William Byron crashed in a test in March 2020 at Auto Club Speedway.

“William Byron busted his ass at (Auto Club) Speedway and that should have raised a red flag right off the bat,” Harvick said Saturday.

Hamlin said more drivers needed to speak up about concerns with the car.

“I know a lot of young guys are just happy to be here, but they ain’t going to be happy when their brains are scrambled for the rest of their lives,” Hamlin said.

Byron is looking for changes to be made.

“I want to have a long career, and I don’t want to have a series of concussions that make me either have to step way from the car or have to think about long-term things,” he said.

Chase Elliott also shared his frustrations Saturday.

“You come off a week like we had in Texas and somebody getting injured and then you come into here, where odds are we’re probably all going to hit something at some point (Sunday) and probably not lightly at that,” Elliot said.

So what do drivers do?

“Do you just not show up?” Elliott said. “Do you just not run? I don’t think that’s feasible to ask. There’s always an inherent risk in what we do and it’s always been that way. 

“My frustration is … I just hate that we put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. It’s just disappointing that we’ve put ourselves here and we had a choice. We did this to ourselves as an industry. 

“That should have just never been the case. We should not have put ourselves in the box that we’re in right now. So my disappointment lies in that that we had years and time and opportunity to make this thing right before we put it on track and we didn’t, and now we’re having to fix it. 

“I just hate that we did that. I think we’re smarter than that. I think there’s just a lot of men and women that work in this garage that know better and we shouldn’t have been here.”

Burton told NBC Sports that drivers did not discuss in Friday’s meeting running single-file in Sunday’s race as a form of protest.

“It wouldn’t be surprising for me to see single-file (racing Sunday) because of what happened at Texas and what could happen next week (at the Charlotte Roval),” Burton said. “Drivers need a period of calmness. 

“There was not a discussion, a collaborated effort or any sort of thing of how you race (Sunday). That conversation did not come up in that meeting.”

Harvick said Saturday that he’ll continue to be vocal about safety issues.

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure these guys are in a good spot,” Harvick said. “Whatever I have to do.”

Harvick later said: “I don’t think any of us want to be in this position. We have to have the safety we deserve to go out and put on a great show and be comfortable with that. 

“Obviously, we all have taken the risks of being race car drivers, but there’s no reason we should be in a worse position than we were last year.”

Harvick said it was a matter of trust.

“The reality of the situation is much different than what they’re looking at,” Harvick said of NASCAR officials. “I think that the trust level is obviously not where it needs to be from getting it fixed. I think they’re going to have to earn the trust level back of reacting quick enough to do the things that it takes. The drivers’ opinion, especially when it comes to safety side of things, has to be more important than the data or more important than the cost. Safety can’t be a budget item.”

Corey LaJoie, who is a member of the Drivers Advisory Council board, said that while challenges remain with the car, he sees the effort being made by NASCAR.

“Nothing happens quick in this deal when you have 38 teams and you have seven cars per team,” LaJoie told NBC Sports. “It has to be a well-thought-out process to implement the changes.

“It’s easy to get up in arms and prickly when we have guys like Alex and Kurt out. You don’t ever want that to happen. Every conversation I’m having is what we, as the Driver Council, is trying to communicate to NASCAR and NASCAR making proactive changes and moving timelines up aggressively to try to implement these changes.”