When Kevin Harvick takes the green flag Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, he will become the newest member of an elite NASCAR club — drivers who have started 800 or more races.
Only nine drivers have achieved this feat so far: Richard Petty (1,185 starts), Ricky Rudd (906), Terry Labonte (890), Dave Marcis (883), Mark Martin (882), Kyle Petty (829), Bill Elliott (828), Darrell Waltrip (809) and Jeff Gordon (805). With 27 races left in the season, Harvick is poised to finish his full-time Cup Series career with 826 races, moving ahead of Waltrip and Gordon.
Making 800 starts is an accomplishment, but what a driver does in those 800 starts is even more important.
I exclude Richard Petty from much of the following analysis because his record outstrips everyone else’s by so much. On the opposite side, I exclude Kyle Petty and Marcis, who each have single-digit wins.
The remaining drivers each have at least one series championship except Martin, a Hall-of-Famer and one of the best drivers never to win a Cup championship, and Rudd. Our comparison group is thus seven drivers (including Harvick) with 11 Cup Series championships between them.
Let’s examine what each man has accomplished in his first 799 races.
Wins are important, but so is consistency, so I collected data for wins, top-five, top-10 and top-15 finishes.
Jeff Gordon leads in all metrics, winning 11.6% of his first 799 races. Gordon posted top-five finishes in 40.7% of his races and top-15 finishes in 70.8% of the first 799 races he started.
But Harvick’s numbers are among the best. He ranks:
- Third in wins (7.5% of all races)
- Fourth in top-five finishes (31.0%)
- Second in top-10 finishes (54.4%)
- Second in top-15 finishes (70.2%)
In other words, Harvick has finished within the top 15 in seven out of every 10 races he’s run. Given that his 799 races include 90 superspeedway races (11.2%), that’s an impressive consistency.
Among all drivers, Harvick ranks:
- Tenth in wins — one behind Kyle Busch
- Ninth in top fives
- Tenth in top 10s
Examining the number of races a driver doesn’t finish shows the challenges of comparing drivers from different eras. The table below shows the DNF (Did Not Finish) numbers for our comparison group.
Harvick has the smallest DNF rate at 6% — but driving skill isn’t entirely responsible for his holding the top position. Breaking out the reasons for those DNFs shows that better car reliability has led to fewer DNFs over time.
Of Harvick’s 48 DNFs, 31 (64.6%) were due to accidents and 17 to mechanical failures. Engines comprise the largest component of DNFs due to equipment at 12, or 25.0%.
Gordon has a slightly higher car-failure rate: 42 of 99 DNFs (42.4%). More than half of his mechanical failures were blown engines. Even so, Harvick still has a little more than half the DNFs due to accidents Gordon experienced.
Elliott, Labonte, Rudd and Waltrip each had more DNFs due to failed engines in 799 races than Harvick had DNFs for any reason.
Labonte ran his last race at almost 58 years old, the oldest of this group of drivers. But his last race win was more than 11 years — and 120 races — earlier.
Martin holds the record for oldest driver at last win among this comparison group at 50.7 years old. That beats even Richard Petty, who was just 47 years old at his last win. Harry Gant owns the ultimate record for driver age at last win. He was 52.6 years old.
Harvick is a relative youngster, just 46.7 years old at his last win. That’s younger than anyone in the comparison group except Gordon, who won at 45.3 years old.
Another metric that shows how the sport has changed is the time between a driver’s last win and his last race. Waltrip drove 251 races without a win after his last career win. Petty drove 241 races.
Gordon drove just 11. Harvick stands at 21 races since his last win at the 2022 summer Richmond race. Eliminating the champion’s provisional played a large part in decreasing demand for these accomplished drivers. Today’s drivers can also mostly afford to step away when they want.
While we’re looking at age, let’s consider how long a driver remains productive. Because some of these drivers ran only a handful of races for multiple seasons, I’ll use number of races between first and last wins.
Harvick won his third and his 778th race, for a productivity span of 775 races. There were a couple extended winless gaps during that run, but that’s the case for most drivers. Even Jeff Gordon.
Harvick finishes second to Richard Petty in terms of number of races between first and last win, and beats Gordon (752) and Labonte (711.)
Another possible milestone at Talladega?
Harvick has run a total of 225,510 laps in his 799 races. He’s led 15,964 laps or 7.1% of all laps run. For comparison, Gordon led 10.9% of all laps he ran, Waltrip 9.8% and Martin 5.4%.
If Harvick manages to lead 36 or more laps at Talladega, he will have led more than 16,000 Cup Series laps.