Elite Drivers After Their Last Wins

@KudzuCarl read my article for NBC Sports about how many races elite drivers ran after their last win. He suggested using finishing position as a metric, which is a great idea.

Again, this analysis includes only ‘elite’ drivers, which I define as drivers with at least 10 wins. I also required that each driver run at least 10 race after their last wins.

The Top Drivers After Their Last Wins

I’m defining ‘top’ as having the best average finishing positions here.

A table showing the average finishing positions of elite drivers in the races after their last wins

Dick Hutcherson drove 103 races from 1964 to 1967 and won 14. He won two races in his last year of driving and had an overall 8.5 average finish that year.

Dick Rathman drove in five seasons from 1951 to 1955 he amassed 129 race starts and 13 wins. His career average finish was 10.8.

You all, of course, know Jeff Gordon, the original NASCAR youth movement leader.

Highlights

  • I was surprised to see Clint Bowyer’s name this high. His career average finish is 15.6, which is not very different from his average over his last 93 races. He didn’t win any races his last two seasons, in which he posted 15.2 and 14.7 average finishing positions.
  • Except for Jeff Gordon, Herb Thomas and Ned Jarrett, all the drivers in this table had second-place finishes after their last wins. Thomas and Jarrett posted thirds, while Gordon never got any higher than sixth.
  • I included the endpoints for the middle two quartiles. Those last two columns represent where half the drivers’ finishes were. For example:
    • Gordon finished half of his last 11 races between 11th and 14th.
    • Bowyer finished between 12th and 21st half the time.

The Rest of the Elites After Their Last Wins

Here’s the data for the remaining drivers

A table showing the average finishing positions of elite drivers in the races after their last wins, covering those drivers with average finishing positions worse than 17th

Another surprise was seeing Bill Elliott at the bottom of the list. But he (like Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte) finished their careers running part-time for lower-level teams.

The Champion’s Provisional

Old-timers probably remember the Champion’s provisional. Back when the Cup Series routinely had more cars than grid space, a few cars failed to qualify for each race.

NASCAR instituted a Champion’s provisional in 1991: A former champion could claim the 43rd starting position if he didn’t qualify for the race on speed. The rule was made because Richard Petty failed to qualify for four races in 1989 and television ratings dropped.

This rule made past champions invaluable to new and struggling teams.

But as is usually the case, drivers and owners abused the system. A past champion was limited to eight provisionals in 1999 after Darrell Waltrip used the provisional 20 times in 1998 to make races.

The number of provisionals dropped to six in of 2007 and was finally abolished altogether by the charter system.

Elliott, Jarrett and Labonte hit the sweet spot, which (I suspect) accounts for their positions on the list. They are part of the minority of drivers who didn’t finish better than third after their last wins.

A Few Other Observations

  • 62.7% of all the drivers on both lists got at least one second-place finish among races run after their last win.
  • An additional 18.6% posted third-place finishes
  • Which leaves 18.7% of the drivers who never places higher than fourth.

Conclusion

So there you have it: The quality of finishes after a driver’s last win relied on multiple factors, including which teams he ran for, and the quality of their equipment. The existence of the champion’s provisional also played a big role for a short period of time in the history of the sport.

If you have a question, tweet me at @drdiandra, or leave a comment.

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