By Taylor Cayro
Here it is. Sunday, November 8, 2020. After a season that saw a two month-long break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the first Wednesday night race in the NASCAR Cup Series in 36 years, double-header race weekends that saw the running of two Cup races on the same weekend, and the first Cup race at the Daytona Road Course, we’ve made it to the final race of the 36 race season at Phoenix. The NASCAR Playoffs have shrunken from 16 to the Championship 4 consisting of Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Chase Elliott. The question is, when the checkered flag flies on lap 312, who will be crowned the champion? Who will join the likes of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and the retiring Jimmie Johnson? With only seventy laps to go, it’s a toss up as the Championship 4 run P1 through P4.
Looking back on past champions, those three names above, Petty, Earnhardt, and Johnson, represent 21 of the 71 championships. They are the only three drivers to put together seven championship winning seasons. Reviewing their stats though, are they really the best drivers in all of NASCAR? Perhaps there was a champion who had a better season? Or perhaps there was a champion who had a better overall career? This article will not be looking at all NASCAR Cup Series drivers, only champions, but still acknowledges that there are some great drivers in NASCAR’s history who were never awarded a crown, such as Cup Series driver Mark Martin, who was described by YouTuber S1apSh0es as “being one of the greatest drivers of all-time while he was competing against THE greatest drivers of all-time.”
Now as we begin to delve into the statistics of past champions, the reason we’ll be looking at two different sets of statistics (best season and best overall career) is because there are still nine of the 34 drivers we’re going to be looking at who are still racing and their career statistics will not be finalized as of the writing of this article. We also will ONLY be evaluating driver’s Cup Series statistics, not the Xfinity, Trucks, or any other lower series statistics. With that said, let’s see statistically which NASCAR Cup Series drivers are the best all-time!
Beginning with a driver who in 1967 made 48 of the 49 Cup Series starts that season and, of those 48, would win 27 of those races, the most of any championship-winning driver in a single season. The driver with the best win percentage in a championship-winning season is The King, Richard Petty, earning a win in 56% of the races he entered in 1967. He is the only championship-winning driver to have a win percentage above 50%, with Tim Flock having a win percentage of 46% (18/39) in 1955 and Petty once again having a win percentage of 46% (21/46) in 1971.
Moving to Top 5s, this driver in 1977 earned a Top 5 five out of every six times they cranked the engine on the iconic Junior Johnson 11 car. With an 83% Top 5 percentage in a championship-winning season, it’s the driver who won three championships in a row before Jimmie Johnson did five in a row. Yes, it’s the one and only Cale Yarborough. His 1977 season was one of the greatest seasons in NASCAR history, netting a Top 10 in 27 of the 30 races ran for an average finish of 4.5. His Top 5 percentage is followed closely by Richard Petty again in 1971 with an 83% (38/46) Top 5 percentage and the Silver Fox, David Pearson, with an 82% (42/51) Top 5 percentage.
Cruising on to Top 10s, this driver missed 13 of the races run that season, the most of any championship-winning driver with Kyle Busch winning his first championship in 2015 after missing 11 races. Finishing outside the Top 10 only TWICE out of the 40 races they ran in 1957, for a 95% Top 10 percentage, it’s Buck Baker. His dominance in 1957 also saw him earn a Top 5 in 30 of his 40 starts and notched 10 victories! His Top 10 percentage is followed closely by two Pettys this time with Lee Petty, Richard’s father, earning a 94% (32/34) Top 10 percentage in 1954 and Richard earning a 90% (28/31) Top 10 percentage in 1972.
Baker’s incredible 1957 season earned him an average finish of 4.7 in his 40 starts, but this wasn’t the best overall average finish. In fact, there are three drivers that rank above him in this category, all of whom have previously been mentioned. In 1955, Tim Flock earned an average finish of 4.6. In 1977, Cale Yarborough earned an average finish of 4.5. And in 1972, with 21 wins, 38 Top 5s, and 41 Top 10s in 46 starts, The King once again reigns supreme with an average finish of 4.2.
Let’s warp back to modern day Phoenix. It is now ten to go. Chase Elliot is leading Brad Keselowski by three seconds. The son of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville is about to lock in his first championship in only his fifth full-time season. If he can complete these last few turns, he will be amongst the youngest Cup Series drivers to win a championship, being only eight months older than one of the greatest of all-time, fellow Hendrick Motorsports alumni Jeff Gordon. Coming out of turn four, after hitting every mark perfectly, Chase Elliott has done it. He has won his first NASCAR Cup Series championship and likely not his last. He becomes the fourth driver at Hendrick to win a NASCAR Cup Series championship and the third driver to win a championship as the son of a former champion after Lee and Richard Petty and Ned and Dale Jarrett.
His season is also no fluke. While many thought Kevin Harvick was a shoo-in to win the championship in 2020 with nine wins, 20 Top 5s, 27 Top 10s, and an average finish of 7.3, Elliott’s championship-winning statistics of five wins, 15 Top 5s, 22 Top 10s, and an average finish of 11.7 are better than Kurt Busch’s 2004 championship, Tony Stewart’s 2011 championship, Harvick’s own 2014 championship, Kyle Busch’s 2015 championship, Jimmie Johnson’s 2016 championship, and Joey Logano’s 2018 championship and puts him on par with Jimmie Johnson’s 2008 through 2010 championship-winning seasons.
How did his season though compare to prior championship-winning seasons? Out of the now 72 Cup championships, on wins by percentage, Elliott’s season is 48th all-time, on Top 5s, Elliott’s is 59th, on top 10s, Elliott’s is 63rd, and on average finish, Elliott’s is 64th. Career wise, well, his career is still too young to really get an idea of the legacy he is going to have but already his career stats put him, based on the percentage of his now 185 starts, 24th out of the 34 champions on percentage of starts with a win, 20th on percentage of starts with a Top 5, 20th on percentage of starts with a Top 10, and 18th on average finish.
Which now makes us all wonder who could be at the top of those career statistic ranks? Well, I’m going to surprise you, but it’s not Richard Petty. Sure, when it comes to the amount of Cup Series starts, there is no one better than The King. He has 294 more career starts than any other championship-winning driver (1184 to Terry Labonte’s 890 starts) and that difference in starts is more than the entirety of eight of the 34 champion’s careers. So it’s no wonder that Petty was able to notch 200 wins, 555 Top 5s, and 712 Top 10s in his career, which safely puts him at the top of any ranking if you only look at those raw stats. Make those numbers a percentage of his starts though, and he only has a win percentage of 17% (4th all-time), a Top 5 percentage of 47% (8th all-time), a Top 10 percentage of 60% (10th all-time), and an average career finish of 11.3 (10th all-time). So who is better than The King?!
Out of 229 career starts, the championship-winning driver with the best win percentage is Herb Thomas, winning 21% (48/229) of the races they entered. He is followed by Tim Flock with 21% as well (39/187) and David Pearson with 18% (105/574).
Out of 187 career starts, the championship-winning driver with the best Top 5 percentage is Tim Flock, earning a Top 5 in 55% (102/187) of the races they entered. He is followed by Lee Petty with 54% (231/427) and Red Byron with 53% (8/15).
Out of 427 career starts, the championship-winning driver with the best Top 10 percentage is Lee Petty, earning a Top 10 in 78% (332/427) of the races they entered. He is followed by Rex White with 70% (163/233) and Tim Flock with 69% (129/187).
And lastly, out of 427 career starts, the championship-winning driver with the best career average finish is Lee Petty with an average finish of 7.6, followed by Herb Thomas and Rex White both with an average finish of 9th.
And there you have it. The best Cup series championship-winning drivers of all-time but broken down into digestible statistics. If you’re now curious who the best of the championship-winning drivers still racing are, by wins, it would be Jimmie Johnson at 12% (83/685), by Top 5s Kyle Busch at 38% (214/570), by Top 10s Kyle Busch again at 56% (316/570), and by average finish would be Kevin Harvick at 12.7.
Now is the point where, as the author, I should give you one last profound bit of information or closing remark and I feel Kevin Harvick may have put it best at Martinsville after missing the cut for the Championship 4, “You know, look, these championships aren’t like winning like Petty and Earnhardt used to win them. You have to, you know, put them together three weeks at a time. And, you know, it comes down to one race and it came down to one race for us tonight and [we] came up short.” Thus the reason for breaking down seasons and careers.
Championships aren’t decided by consistency anymore. Ever since Kurt Busch won his championship in 2004 during the first Chase for the Cup, earning a championship hasn’t been the same. One thing is for certain though: the drivers are still as talented as ever. Over this past semester, I have had the pleasure to write for you about one of my favorite things in life. NASCAR has brought me so much joy since I was a child. I grew up with names I’ve analyzed over the past few weeks. I was just seven when Matt Kenseth was the NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year. He raced against some of my favorite drivers in Rusty Wallace and Bobby Labonte. He raced against Dads of drivers today like Bill Elliott and Dave Blaney, fathers of Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney respectively. This sport has meant so much to me over the years and I thank this class at UNLV for allowing me to write about it and express my love for it.
NASCAR has gone through many ups and downs since I was a child. Many drivers have made a name for themselves and many will go down in NASCAR record books. I now join the millions of other fans who must now impatiently wait for the 2021 Daytona 500 on February 14. To all those fans out there, this Bud’s for you. Thank you.
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This story was written by Taylor Cayro for JOUR 411 – Digital Newsroom at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.