Although the season is 17 races old, it remains a challenge to pick a championship frontrunner. Last year at this time, Denny Hamlin was still leading the points. Kyle Larson was coming off three successive wins to add to his victory at Las Vegas, and Martin Truex, Jr. had three wins.
This year, the top-10 finishes, and even the wins, are a little more evenly spread. Twelve drivers have won so far this year. Five drivers have won two races each, and seven drivers have each won a single race.
But no one has won three races yet.
That’s extremely unusual this far into a season.
I tallied the number of races it took for the first driver to rack up three wins in a season. Although I only included the most recent races in the graph below, I’m using the entire dataset in the subsequent analysis.
The fastest a driver has ever gotten to three wins in the NASCAR Cup Series is the fourth race of the season. Herb Thomas accomplished it in 1953 and again in 1954. Bill Elliott did it in 1992, and Kevin Harvick in 2018.
Lee Petty (1955), Dale Earnhardt (1987) and Jimmie Johnson (2010) each reached three wins in five races.
Richard Petty was the first driver to achieve three wins in eight different seasons. Jimmie Johnson and Darrell Waltrip matched that feat in six seasons each.
The average number of races it takes for the first driver to make a third Victory Lane visit is 9.3. Fifty percent of these visits occur between seven and 11 races.
And then there’s the other end of the distribution.
Five times in NASCAR history it has taken 15 races before any driver won three races. It happened in 1964, 1988, 2002, 2003 and 2014. Although to be fair, many more drivers competed in 1964, and not every driver raced every one of the 62 races.
In 2012, no driver won more than two races until Brad Keselowski won his third in the 17th race of the season.
But the longest time for any driver to reach three wins in a season was 18 races. Tony Stewart won Dover and Michigan in 2000 before notching his third win that season at Loudon. No season has ever required more races to meet this milestone.
But what does it mean?
The record itself isn’t so important, but what the record signals is important.
This year isn’t likely to be like 2018. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex combined to win 55.5% (20 of 36) races. The chances that one driver will win 10 races, like Larson did on his way to the 2021 championship, are dwindling.
Can that tell us anything about how many distinct winners we’re likely to have this year?
There is a lower limit. The fewer wins each driver has, the more winning drivers there must be. If no driver has won more than two races after 17 races, there must be at least nine winners. That’s eight drivers with two wins each, plus one more with one win.
I plotted the number of distinct winners in a season against the number of races it took the first driver to achieve three wins.
There’s not much correlation when the number of races before one driver gets three wins is low. For example: In seasons where one driver got three wins in the first six races, there were between five and 16 distinct winners. That makes sense: There’s still a lot of time for multiple scenarios to play out.
But as the number of races before a driver gets three wins increases, the minimum number of distinct winners increases faster than the mathematically required minimum. So in 2022, the lack of three winners today is perhaps telling us to expect at least one or two drivers who haven’t yet won to do so before the season is out.
Percentage of Races Won
There’s another way we measure how level the playing field is – by considering the fraction of a season’s races won by a small number of drivers.
In addition to the 2018 and 2021 seasons mentioned earlier, Elliott, Harvick and Hamlin combined in 2020 to win 21 out of the 36 races. Add in Keselowski, and four drivers account for 25 of 36 wins for the season — almost 70%.
Over the last 50 seasons, the two winningest drivers claimed, on average, 42.2% of all wins each season. In only three of those seasons did the top two drivers win 25% or less of all races in the season. Interestingly, the seasons in which the two winningest drivers won 48.4% or more of the races were all in the 20th century.
Dave Kallmann of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pointed out that Road America has hosted 14 NASCAR races and had fourteen different winners. Most of those races were in the Xfinity Series.
But if the pattern follows through for the Cup Series, we might be asking the same question again next week.
Find out Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.