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?

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

 

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.