The ‘Big Three’ drivers who dominated the XFINITY Series last year are now part of what is being called one of the most promising rookie classes in Cup. A very competitive list of free agents in 2021 plus ‘perform or perish’ equals high expectations for the newcomers.
But are they too high?
To answer that question, let’s look at how long it took the very best NASCAR drivers to win.
Our ‘Aspirational Driver’ Group
Things have changed a lot over the years, as has NASCAR’s definition of what a ‘rookie’ is. In the early days, few drivers ran full seasons, and many drivers ran with multiple teams in a single season. After looking at about 125 drivers, I ended up with four groups of drivers that we can call ‘successful’ at some level in Cup. They include:
- 24 eventual champions
- 10 drivers who ranked as high as #2 in the season-ending standings
- That’s drivers like Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Ricky Rudd.
- 23 drivers who made it to ranked #3-#5
- 20 drivers who ranked in the top ten at least once during their NASCAR Cup careers
Rookies: Age vs. Experience
Looking at the ages of drivers when they won their first races has a number of flaws.
- Drivers today start much younger than they used to.
- Some drivers only move up to full-time teams after years of experience with lower-tier teams.
- The number of races in the season varies.
- The inevitable decline of a driver’s body with age doesn’t play as big a role in motorsports as it does in other sports.
- Because NASCAR has changed their definition of a ‘rookie’, it makes determining what the ‘rookie year’ is a little complicated.
Expectations and Age
The graphs are in yesterday’s post, but here’s a quick summary of the results for the champions:
- The 24 champions all won their first races between ages 19 and 34
- 1/3 of future champions won their first race when they were 27 or 28
- The youngest future champions were
- Joey Logano (19) in 2009
- Kyle Busch (20) in 2005
- The oldest champion drivers were
- Dale Jarrett (34) in 1991
- Alan Kulwicki (33) in 1988
You can see how things have changed with time: the oldest drivers are late 80s/early 90s and the youngest are in the 2000’s. Since 1999, none of the future champions won their first race after age 30
Experience is a better parameter than age, and number of races run is the best way to parameterize experience.
How Long Did Champions Race Before Winning?
Here’s a histogram of how many races champions ran before winning. On the horizontal axis, the number given is the upper limit. ‘5’ means 5 or fewer races. ’10’ means 6-10 races.
- Fast Out of the Gate
- The shortest time to win was Kevin Harvick, who won the third Cup race (Atlanta) he ran in 2001 after stepping in for Dale Earnhardt
- The second shortest time to win was Brad Keselowski, who won his 7th race (Talladega) in 2009
- Slow and Steady
- Dale Jarrett won the 130th race he started in 1991
- Bill Elliott won the 119th race he started in 1983. (So Chase beat the old man by twenty)
- The longest it took a currently driving champion to win a race was Martin Truex, Jr. He won race number 60.
You can see that the age has gone down with time. The seven champions who took the longest time to win races all did it before the year 2000. But there were drivers pre-2000 who won early in their careers, too.
Here are the numbers for a few current drivers I haven’t mentioned yet:
- Kurt Busch took 49 races to win
- Brother Kyle took 35
- Jeff Gordon took 42
- Jimmie Johnson won race 14
- Tony Stewart won race 25
- Joey Logano won race 23
How Does This Translate to Season Expectations?
If we call an effective season 36 races, then we can make the following graph:
- 12 drivers that would go on to become champions (50%) won a race in their first season
- 6 of those 12 drivers won before 2000 – and 6 won after. Good drivers and good drivers, no matter what era.
- 5 drivers won a race in what would have been their second season
- 3 of those 5 were pre-2000; 2 were post-2000
- 4 drivers won in their effective third seasons — all pre 1990
- Those last two columns are Elliott and Jarrett.
What About the Non-Champions?
While every driver wants to win a championship (or two or seven), there are plenty of good drivers — including some in the Hall of Fame — who haven’t been champions. Let’s take a look at how those drivers fared.
The outliers are all drivers from the pre-2000s first-win era.
- The data point in the 280-290 bin is Sterling Marling, who didn’t win his first race until race number 282. (highest season finish: 3rd)
- Dave Marcis won his 230th race (highest season finish: 2nd)
- Buddy Baker won his 220th race (highest season finish: 5th)
The first thing I noticed from this graph was that winning your first race early doesn’t guarantee you anything. Four of our champions won their first race within 20 races, but so did four 2nd-5th place drivers and two drivers who never broke the top 5.
That’s emphasized by the fact that Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne aren’t on this graph. Both won their second race, and were rewarded with high expectations. But neither ever broke the top ten. Bayne’s best season was 22nd.
In fact, 26 drivers won at least one race and never broke the top 10. Many of those drivers’ first wins came at a superspeedway or a road course.
And we can’t forget Michael Waltrip whose his highest season finish was 12th and whose first win came on race 466 (Daytona)
Are Early Top 5s Important?
Those drivers who go on to eventually place in the top 5 season-ending rankings get their first top 5 early.
Some drivers win before they get their first P2-P5. Brad Keselowski won his seventh race and then didn’t get his first non-winning top 5 until race 66.
- 19 of the 24 champions earned a top 5 by race number 20
- That’s 80% of the championship drivers
- That includes 2 drivers who won before they got their first top-5.
- Again, getting the first top-5 early doesn’t mean you’re on the way to an eventual championship. There are plenty of drivers with early Top-5s who never made it into the top 10.
- Yep, that lone data point out at 90 is Dale Jarrett.
What Should We Expect from This Year’s Rookies?
Let’s not suggest that rookies who don’t win in their first year aren’t going to make it in Cup. (I’m not the only one saying this, either.)
If they win this year, that’s great. But Jeff Gordon took 42 races to win his first and Martin Truex, Jr. took 60 races. Kyle Larson won race #100. You fire a driver for not winning in his first year at your own risk.
The data do suggest that the most successful drivers win their first race by their third season.
HOWEVER, you’ve got to manage expectations. Not every driver drives for a top-tier team. Nor does every driver have the benefit of having the same crew chief and time to develop good communication. Hendrick had a challenging 2018 and Stewart-Haas had a challenging 2019. When the best drivers on the team aren’t winning, are you really going to count that against the younger drivers?
Joey Logano came into Cup with huge expectations that weren’t met until he joined Penske. Kevin Harvick, despite winning his third race ever in 2001, didn’t compete for championships until 2013.
This data also isn’t justification to write off drivers like Daniel Suárez. The former XFINITY champ got his first top-five on race 22, but hasn’t won after 109 races and isn’t likely to win this year as he focuses on building up a team. Suárez got pushed prematurely to Cup, got pushed out of Gibbs in favor of the reigning champ, then lost his Stewart-Haas ride to the potential of Cole Custer.
Nor does it argue for excluding drivers like Matt DiBenedetto (156 races before getting his first top 5), who is showing us what he’s capable of in better equipment.
And let’s not forget that the rookies are competing against a huge number of championship drivers currently in the series.
If any of the rookies win this first year, let’s recognize that for the huge accomplishment it is; however, if they don’t, let’s not write them off in favor of the next shiny thing.
- Come see me! While we’re talking about expectations, don’t forget I’m headed out to Colorado next week to give four (four!) talks in four different cities. Come see me! I promise you can expect a lot of fun.
- Where do NASCAR’s top drivers celebrate their first wins? Surprise: Daytona and Talladega are #5 and #6!)
dreamingdata. Stats and facts for this weekend’s race.
- The Plural of Anecdote Is Not Data. We’re only two races into the season. One was a superspeedway race and the other was impacted heavily by pit strategy. It’s way too early to be drawing conclusions about ANYTHING yet. Give it five or seven races before looking for trends.