By Taylor Cayro
When the green flag drops on Sundays, drivers young and old traverse hundreds of miles of grinding, beating, and banging at speeds excess 100 miles per hour. When it’s time to service the vehicle during the race, five crew members will hop over the wall to perform a four-tire change and fuel their beast made of horsepower in less than 15 seconds. Back at the shop in North Carolina, an army of engineers fine tune their freaks of racing nature, all in the hopes of squeezing an extra drop or two of speed out in case the race comes down to a photo finish. All though will have one thing in common, whether they are busy at the shop or on the road, and that is their team’s owner.
A great owner can put together a team that excels and becomes part of NASCAR history. As of 2020, out of 55 inductees in to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, there are 21 owners. These 21 stood out in the 71-year history of the sport. Who though could we consider to be the best? That’s what our mission today will be: to ascertain, through statistics, who the greatest NASCAR Cup Series team owner is.
To accomplish this feat, we will look at the 30 NASCAR Cup Series championship-winning owners and break down whose team put together the most championships, the most victories, the most top 5s, the most top 10s, and their overall average finish. These statistics were sourced from Racing Reference, the gold standard for NASCAR statistics.
Just taking a peak at the 30 team owners, one would find many familiar names that they would expect to find eventually in the NASCAR Hall of Fame if they weren’t already inducted. Names like Rick Hendrick, Joe Gibbs, Junior Johnson, and Bud Moore. If we just determined the best owner by the number of championships they’ve won, drivers Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson have put together 12 championships for car owner Rick Hendrick. The Petty family as Petty Enterprises comes second with ten championships, followed by Richard Childress with six from Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson with six as well, three from Cale Yarborough and three from Darrell Waltrip, and rounding out the top five would be Joe Gibbs with five, one from Bobby Labonte, two from Tony Stewart, and two from Kyle Busch.
This though would only be scratching the surface of their dominance and would be unrepresentative of the week-to-week greatness of these teams. Therefore, let’s dive deeper. When it comes to wins, Richard Petty alone won 196 of his 200 wins racing for Petty Enterprises, making up a sizeable portion of their 268 victories, followed closely behind by Rick Hendrick with 261, Joe Gibbs with 184, Jack Roush with 137, and Junior Johnson with 132.
How about top 5s? Rick Hendrick has an astonishing 1096 top 5s, swapping positions with Petty Enterprises which has 888, followed by Joe Gibbs with 767, then Jack Roush with 757, and dropping down to 562 for Roger Penske.
Hendrick sure is looking like the best owner as, delving in to the top 10s, they blow the competition away with 1891 top 10s, with a distant second being Jack Roush with 1383, then Petty Enterprises with 1258, Joe Gibbs with 1255, and Richard Childress with 1095.
Can Hendrick dominate even with average finishes? No. Not even close. In fact, Hendrick on average finish is only 18th on the list with an average finish of 15.4. Even the great Petty Enterprises is right behind him in 19th with an average finish of 15.5. So what gives? Why the difference? How could the two most dominant teams in wins, top 5s, and top 10s be so low in a list of only 30 owners? Because of one keyword: average.
Petty Enterprises amassed their 268 wins, 888 top 5s, and 1258 top 10s in 2817 starts while Rick Hendrick amassed their 261 wins, 1096 top 5s, and 1891 top 10s in 4257 starts, 1440 more starts than Petty Enterprises. These starts, as one can tell, don’t always end in a victory. Sometimes, cars or drivers can have bad races leading to poor finishes. These poor finishes then weigh down the positive strides the team has made and, in the case of average finish, can bring their dominant numbers down to over halfway down the rankings.
Going back to average finish, we suddenly see new names grace the top with Carl Kiekhaefer’s team having an average finish of 8.2 in 190 starts, Rex White’s team having an average finish of 8.6 in 172 starts, Bondy Long having a 9.3 in 206 starts, Herb Thomas having a 10.3 in 251 starts, and Raymond Parks also having a 10.3 in only 18 starts.
Let’s look at averages even further by going back to wins. Out of Kiekhaefer’s 190 starts, 27.4% of the time his car would end up in victory lane. Those are great odds for a sponsor, driver, and team owner. In comparison, Rick Hendrick in 4257 starts has only a 6.1% chance of his car ending up in victory lane. Kiekhaefer is followed by Holman-Moody, with an 18.3% win percentage in 524 starts, then Herb Thomas with a 17.5% win percentage in 251 starts, Ted Chester with a 15.8% win percentage in 126 starts, and Rex White with a 15.1% win percentage in 172 starts.
Heading over to top 5s, Kiekhaefer reigns supreme again with an impressive 61.1% top 5 percentage in 190 starts. This percentage is met equally by Raymond Parks but in only 18 starts, then Bondy Long comes next with a 55.3% in 206 starts, followed by Holman-Moody with 54.2% in 524 starts and Rex White with 51.7% in 172 starts. These five owners are the only five owners on race day with an over one in two chance that their car will be getting a top 5 when the checkered flag waves. Once again, if we compare to Rick Hendrick, his team in 4257 starts has a 25.7% top 5 percentage, which is still mighty impressive considering the amount of starts his teams have made.
Lastly, let’s look at top 10 averages. As you’ve probably guessed, Kiekhaefer once again sits at the top with a 73.2% top 10 percentage in 190 starts, followed by Rex White with 71.5% in 172 starts, Raymond Parks with 66.7% in 18 starts, Bondy Long with 65.1% in 206 starts, and Ted Chester with 64.3% in 126 starts. Notably, while 20th out of 30 owners, Rick Hendrick’s teams still have a 44.4% top 10 percentage, meaning that on race day, almost half the time a Rick Hendrick car will end up in the top 10. Very impressive!
Hendrick though is not the most impressive ACTIVE car owner. Sure, these incredible averages are held by incredible teams in NASCAR’s history, but that’s what they are: history. There are six active team owners who can still improve their statistics to make them go down in NASCAR history as the truly greatest NASCAR team owner. These active team owns are Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs, Stewart Haas Racing, Jack Roush, and Richard Childress. Can you guess which team has the best average active team statistics with a 7.1% win percentage, a 30% top 5 percentage, and a 48.7% top 10 percentage? In 2579 starts, it is Joe Gibbs.
Gibbs and Hendrick are the only team owners that can claim a unique accomplishment when it comes to championships. These two are the only two team owners to have a championship in all major Cup Series championship formats, with championships in the classic Winston Cup Series, the Nextel/Sprint Chase for the Cup, and the modern NASCAR Playoffs. These two are also the only two team owners with drivers who went on to become championship-winning Cup Series team owners of their own, with Jeff Gordon owning Jimmie Johnson’s seven-time championship winning car at Hendrick Motorsports and Tony Stewart co-owning Stewart Haas Racing, which has seen Stewart himself win in 2011 and Kevin Harvick win in 2014.
Which now begs the question of who the best NASCAR Cup Series team owner is. Is it the most top 5s, most top 10s, and 12-time champion Rick Hendrick? Is it the most wins Petty Enterprises? Is it the best average team owner, Carl Kiekhaefer, who is also the only owner to have a 100% championship percentage, winning both seasons they owned a NASCAR Cup Series team? Or is it the one with more to prove, Joe Gibbs, with the best average statistics for an active team?
The answer could be any of these or a yet unnamed owner. History is still playing out. As we saw looking at the averages, there was a NASCAR Cup Series championship-winning owner with only 18 total starts and most of the top owners by averages had less than 500 starts each. We are living in an unprecedented time in NASCAR’s history where 26 of the 38 full-time cars in 2020 are owned by or affiliated with seven owners (Joe Gibbs, Rick Hendrick, Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Jack Roush, Richard Childress, and Stewart Haas Racing). Looking back just 20 years ago and there were 43 full-time teams owned by 25 different team owners. Beginning in 2021, another Joe Gibbs alumnus, Denny Hamlin, will be starting his own team with NBA legend Michael Jordan and could possibly join the list of drivers who became successful championship-winning owners.
There is still much history to unfold before us. From what we can learn from our past, names like Hendrick, Petty, Kiekhaefer, and Gibbs can be brought up statistically. Ask any fan though and you’ll probably get a different answer.
In this author’s opinion, I feel Joe Gibbs could be considered the best NASCAR Cup Series team owner. 1999 Cup Series champion Dale Jarrett was Gibbs’ first driver. His next would be 2000 Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte. Then 2002, 2005, and 2011 Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. In the history of the team, 2003 Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth, 2017 Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr., 2018 Cup Series champion Joey Logano, and 2015 and 2019 Cup Series champion Kyle Busch have all run for Joe Gibbs. Championship-caliber drivers like Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin have also raced for the coach. He has an eye for talent and also has a way of taming wild beasts to do his bidding, with Tony “Smoke” Stewart and Kyle “Rowdy” Busch having great tempers and great successes while sitting in a Joe Gibbs car. Yes, there were a few under-performing drivers like J.J. Yeley, Jason Leffler, Daniel Suarez, and Eric Jones, but all had promise.
I now turn it over to you. Who do you think is the best NASCAR Cup Series team owner? While we only looked at statistics, perhaps you have good personal experience with one of the team owners or perhaps worked for them and could compare them with other team owners. Please feel free to leave a comment below and subscribe to The Rebel Feed for more informative and entertaining articles like this one here.
This story was written by Taylor Cayro for JOUR 411 – Digital Newsroom at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The above statistics were up-to-date as of publishing on October 17, 2020.