Does the Driver Who Leads the Most Laps Usually Win?

We all remember at least a couple of times when a driver led the most laps without winning the race. But how often does that actually happen?

As always, thanks to for providing such a wealth of data.

How Often Does the Driver Who Leads the Most Laps Win?

I looked at 1493 races from 1970 to 2020 and tallied up how many times the driver who led the most laps won the race.

A pie chart showing how often the lap-leadingest driver won from 1970 to 2020

It turns out that it’s just about even, with a very very sight edge for winning.

Story over, right?

Of course not.

Times, They are a Changing

My impression of how often this happens didn’t jibe with the numbers. Such impressions are often wrong, but worth checking out. Importantly, my impressions come from the last 20 years, not the last 50.

So I went back to the data and looked at the last 20 years. Turns out, you get a result that’s a little more in line with what I was expecting.

A pie chart showing how often the lap-leadingest driver won from 2000 to 2020

In the last 20 years, the driver leading the most laps was more likely to lose than win. We went from 49/51 to 59/41

Since the average over 50 years was about 50:50, that must mean that, between 1970 and 2000, the driver leading the most laps was more likely to win. So I broke the data down by decade.

A column chart showing how often the lap-leadingest driver won over the decades from 1970s to the 2010s

You can see a systematic shift in the likelihood of winning a race when you’ve led the most laps. In the 1970’s, you had almost a 70% chance of winning that race. Today, it’s less than a 40% chance.

Leading the Most Laps by Season

I wondered if there might be some more information to be had if I separated the data out by year. The advantage of looking at it by decades is that you average out the year-to-year variations. The disadvantage is that you may miss additional information.

A column chart showing how often the lap-leadingest drivers won the race by year

Nothing immediately springs out at me from this graph and it’s harder to see the overall downward trend.

What About Stages?

I don’t think we can tell with any certainty, but I’d say no. Stages started in 2017, and there is a march upward since them on the winning side, but it’s only three data points and we see similar variations in previous years.

Let me plot the data a slightly different way to see if it makes my reasoning any clearer. (You can look at my blog from Thursday to see how I can plot this information to make it very hard to see that the trend is definitely downward.)

A column chart showing how often the lap-leadingest drivers won the race by year

You can see that, although there were different values in different years, there is definitely a downward trend. I did try to correlate the peaks to things like having dominant drivers, The scatter about the line isn’t extraordinarily different for the lat three years.

But let’s make a note and, on this blog in 2030, we’ll add the next decade to the graph and see if it was stages after all.

Assuming, of course, that NASCAR is still running stages by then.

But Why?

That’s what the drivers want to know, right?

How come the car leading the most laps doesn’t win? Does the lap-leadingest driver lose because he gets crashed out? Incurs penalties? Gets tricked by pit strategy when a race gets shortened by weather?

Let’s see what we can tell from this data.

The Impact of Race Length

The percentage of races that either went into overtime or were weather shortened is similar for races where the lap-leadingest driver won and races where he lost. (78% for winning, 82% for losing)

Pie charts show that there's really no noticeable effect of overtime or shortening on the question of whether lap-leadingest drivers win
Sorry. There really shouldn’t be two decimal places here. Excel won this time. Grrrr.

Although we’re talking about a small number of races, it doesn’t look like there’s much of a difference between cases in which the lap-leadingest driver won and cases in which he lost.

Note that I separated overtime and green-white-checkers because NASCAR statistics does.

So let’s look at all the losses for the time frame from 2000-2020.

A flowchart showing the disposition of 730 races between 2000 and 2020
Note that the percentages on the lower figures are relative to the cars that did NOT DNF.


Some of the lap-leadingest drivers who led didn’t win the race were involved in a crash or other equipment failure.

  • 5.2% of the losing drivers did not finish the race due to an accident
  • 2.5% of those drivers lost an engine
  • 92.2% of the lap-leadingest drivers finished the race.

So DNFs account for about 7.7% of the failures to win.

Penalties and Accidents

You might also wonder if drivers who are doing well (i.e. leading the most laps) lose because of accidents or penalties. Note that NASCAR’s only made penalty data available since 2009, so I tallied it up for that period, and applied the figures to the entire dataset from 2000-2020.

The percentages on the diagram for the following items are percentages of the cars running at the end. To be consistent, here I’ll express them in terms of the percentages of the total 428 lost races.

  • If we include drivers who had accidents, but finished the race, the total for accidents is 65/428 of 15%.
  • We still have the 2.5% who lost because their engine let go.
  • About 16 drivers had penalties, which is 3.7% of the 428 losses
  • Another 11 drivers (2.5%) incurred both penalties and accidents.
A pie chart showing the ultimate reasons why lap-leadingest drivers don't win

How Did Drivers Leading the Most Laps Finish?

Looking at how these lap-leadingest drivers did finish…

  • 21.7% of the drivers finished 2nd (25% of all non-DNFs)
  • 13.0% of the drivers finished 3rd
  • 47.4% of the drivers got a top 5
  • 68.7% of the drivers ended up with a top 10
  • 81.3% of the drivers finished on the lead lap. (If you only count those who didn’t DNF, that rises to 90%)
  • Another 5.9% of the drivers finished one lap down

And every single one of them was mad that they didn’t win.

Bonus: What About Tracks?

It’s interesting to look at the likelihood of losing despite leading the largest number of laps as a function of what track you’re at.

A column chart showing how often the lap-leadingest driver wins at different tracks

You can see from the graph that road courses are the most likely tracks where the highest lap-leader wins the race. The Charlotte Roval is hatched because we have a very small number of races there (2), so it’s hard to argue those numbers are meaningful.

On the other end of the graph are some of my favorite tracks (Bristol, Martinsville, Darlington, New Hampshire and Phoenix. These are shorter tracks. I need to look into whether the higher probability of having an accident at these tracks plays any role.

Bonus II: Are Some Drivers More Likely to Lead Laps without Winning?

I’m just starting to look into this, but I can tell you that:

  • Kyle Busch is responsible for the most cases of leading the most laps but not winning. He accounts for 40 of the 428 races where the lap-leadingest driver didn’t win.
    • That’s about 10.7% of the races lost in 2000-2020.
    • It’s also 7.3% of all the races Kyle Busch has ever run.
  • Jeff Gordon is next on the list with 39 races, which is 4.8% of the races he’s run. (Jeff’s run more races than Kyle.)
  • Kevin Harvick comes in third with 38 (5.5% of the Cup races he’s run.)
  • Other drivers high on the list:
    • Jimmie Johnson (33 races)
    • Tony Stewart (27 races)
    • Matt Kenseth (25 races)

What I haven’t looked at here is how many times they’ve led the most laps and won.

But that’s another blog.

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