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NASCAR Throwback: Are Things Easier for Rookie Drivers Now Than in the 90’s?

It’s throwback weekend! Everything 90’s is new again. So why not look back and consider whether today’s rookie drivers have it easier (or harder) than their counterparts did. The level of competition plays a role, but probably not the one you think.

Meet the Rookies

Let’s get some context by looking at who we’re talking about. Here are the top Rookie-of-the-Year contenders for the first five years of each decade. I’ve listed the winner first.

NASCAR Rookies from 1990-94 and from 2010-2014
Names in bold mean that the driver went on to win at least one Cup race. Names in red mean that driver went on to become a series champion.

The Rookies of the Year (ROTYs) from 2010-2012 might not be familiar to you. They didn’t run full-time and most haven’t continued in NASCAR. Kevin Conway, for example, ran 28/36 races in 2010 and only ran 3 more races in NASCAR after that. I was glad to see Stephen Leicht pop up this year in the XFINITY series.

That’s not to say this didn’t also happen in the 90’s. It was common that not everyone would run all the races and sometimes even the season champion would have missed a race.

There were 33 races in 1998. Every race had the maximum 43 cars but only 17 drivers ran all 33 races. Another 10 ran 32 races — many because they DNQ’ed once. Compare this with 2018, where 29 drivers ran all 36 races.

Here’s the next five years of rookies.

NASCAR Rookies from 1995-99 and from 2015-2019
Names in bold mean that the driver went on to win at least one Cup race. Names in red mean that driver went on to become a series champion.

Interesting Note:

  • The average age of the Rookie of the Year from 1995-1999 was 31.6 years.
  • The average age of the Rookie of the Year from 2015-2019 is 22.2 years

How Hard is it to Compete?

Let’s look at the records of the rookies relative to the veterans.

Winning in Your Rookie Year

Surprisingly, there are only three drivers in these decades who won races in their rookie years:

Prior to Tony, only five drivers won races their rookie year:

  • Earl Ross (1974) — his first and only win
  • Dale Earnhardt, Sr. (1979)
  • Ron Bouchard (1981)
  • Morgan Shepherd (1987)
  • Davey Allison (1987)

That’s six people in 25 years, which might make you think that winning a race your rookie year is almost impossible.

Except check out the ‘aughts’.

  • 2000: Kenseth, Earnhardt, Jr.
  • 2001: Harvick
  • 2002: McMurray, Newman, Johnson
  • 2003: Biffle
  • 2005: Kyle Busch
  • 2006: Hamlin
  • 2007: Montoya
  • 2009: Logano, Kezelowski

That’s twelve drivers who won races in their rookie years in the 2000’s, compared with three in the 80’s, one in the 90’s and two in the 2010’s. Today’s drivers compete against a class of exceptional winners when it comes to rookie-year performance.

Verdict: The numbers are low: one rookie winner in the 1990s and two in the 2010s. It looks to me like it’s about equal — but both decades are way below the 2000’s.

The Quality of the Competition

Our current rookies are competing against those exceptional win-your-rookie-year drivers from the 2000’s, but was the competition any less in the 1990’s? Here’s the drivers in the Top 5 at the end of the season for each of the first five years of each decade.

A table of the top-five finishers for 1990-94 and 2010-2014
Bold indicates champions. Stars indicate Hall of Fame members.

I bolded drivers who have won championships and starred Hall of Fame members. The latter is totally unfair because many of those on the right-hand side aren’t even eligible yet. But you can guess that there are at least five on the right-hand side.

Here’s the second halves of the decades.

The top five drivers for 1995-1999 and 2015-2018
Bold means champion, star indicates Hall of Fame.

This is a ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?’ question. Do you want to argue that one group is better than the other? If I count correctly, in the first half of the decades there are 12 championships on the left side and 15 (and counting) on the right. In the second, but I count 20 championships on the left and 17 on the right, but we’ve got two more years to go before we can finalize this comparison.

I’m calling this one even.

Breaking Into the Top 5

Most drivers in the top five at the end of the season have at least five years of Cup-level experience. Considering only the 1990’s and the 2010’s:

  • 1990’s: Tony Stewart made his first appearance in the top 5 in his rookie year.
  • 2010’s: Chase Elliott made his first appearance in the top 5 in his second year at the Cup level.

If we look at all the drivers who made it into the top five within five years of their rookie season:

  • In the 1990’s decade, only Davey Allison (4 years), Jeff Burton (4 years), Jeff Gordon (3 years) and Tony Stewart (1st year) made it into the top five.
  • In the 2010’s, we have Brad Keselowski (3 years) and Chase Elliott (2 years).

Interestingly, the average number of years in Cup for the top 5 didn’t vary that much between the two decades. It’s hard for younger drivers to break into the top five in any decade, but slightly harder in the 2010’s than it was in the 1990’s.

We can sum up the differences in the decades as follows:

Summarizing the trends in the different decades
  • The 90’s were a time of individual domination. Out of the 10 championships, two people won seven of them.
  • The 2010’s, on the other hand, came on the tail end of Jimmy Johnson’s championship streak. Out of nine championships, we’ve had seven champions.

So It Seems… Pretty Even?

1990’s-era drivers had to contend with champions with long winning streaks, while 2010-decade drivers have a much broader range of competition. Either way, it’s still a challenge for new drivers to get a foothold in NASCAR.

But Not All The Competition is On-Track

There’s one area with a demonstrable difference in terms of young drivers having it tougher than their counterparts and that’s in getting on the track in the first place.

NASCAR has changed in the last 20 years and today’s drivers have much different and formidable challenges than those in the 1990’s did.

NASCAR’s Growth and Contraction

There were 29 races on the schedule in 1990. By the end of the decade, there were 36 races.

The NASCAR Season expanded from 29 races to 36 races.

The car count expanded, also: The 29 races in 1990 each had between 32 to 43 cars. In the 2000’s, almost all of the 36 races featured the maximum number of 43 cars.

NASCAR’s expansion was good in a lot of ways (more attention, more fans) and not-so-good in other ways (George Gillette, Bobby Ginn and others who got into NASCAR as a way to make a buck, rather than for the love of racing.) As with most businesses, NASCAR contracted in the 2000’s.

So where are we now?

Fewer Owners

A driver needs a car. The number of owners has gone down as the costs of doing business have gone up.

The Number of Full-Time Owners is Down

The number of full-time owners (owners who run at least one car full-time) is about 2/3 what was. The majority of that decline is among Ford teams.

Column chart breaking out the changes in full-time NASCAR Cup owners from the late 90's to the late 2010's.

The Number of Part-Time Owners is Way Down

The decrease is even larger when you look at teams that don’t run the entire whole season.

A column chart showing that the number of part-time owners is way down

If you’re wondering how I got fractions here, it’s because some teams ran part of the season with one manufacturer and the rest with another.

Many part-time teams have multiple drivers, often choosing their driver by what he brings to the table in terms of publicity or sponsorship. That doesn’t happen with full-time cars. Fewer part-time teams means fewer opportunities for drivers.

Numbers of Cars

You will point out (quite rightly) that the multi-car team was rare in the 1990’s. By 2006, NASCAR had to impose a four-car limit on teams. So the decrease in number of owners might have been compensated for by the increase of multi-car teams.

But we have to add in two more factors

  • The number of races increased significantly from 1990-2001, meaning more seats.
  • The maximum number of cars per race changed, first rising, then falling.

Define the number of opportunities as the number of cars that race in a season. We know that number, and can project it for 2019 by scaling the data for the season thus far.

Number of opportunities for drivers in 1990's vs. the 2010's

The number of opportunities increased significantly from 1990 to 2001, from 1112 in the early 1990’s when a season was 29 races, to 1548, which corresponds to 36 races, each with 43 cars.

The magnitude of the recent drop surprised enough to re-re-check my calculations. We went from 43 cars to a maximum of 40, which eliminates 108 opportunities each season. A number of races this year had only 36 cars, so the size of the drop starts to make sense.

So does this mean drivers are back where they were in 1997? No, because there’s one more factor to consider.

More Single-Driver Cars

With the advent of the XFINITY and Truck series as proving grounds for drivers, there are fewer opportunities for ‘tryouts’. Drivers are signed to season-long (if not multi-season long) contracts right off the bat. That trend is much higher today than it was in the 1990s.

The percentage of cars with only one driver has gone up from the late 1990's to the late 2010's.

Conclusion

The competition on the track might be a little tougher today than it was in the 1990’s, but not enough to make much of a difference.

The real challenge for young drivers is off-track, because industry contraction and consolidation makes finding a ride is harder now than it was in the 1990’s.

1 thought on “NASCAR Throwback: Are Things Easier for Rookie Drivers Now Than in the 90’s?

  1. I thought it was interesting when you talked about how the quality of competition is different for newer drivers than it is for older drivers. I imagine that the technology that pit crews and drivers used a long time ago was very different then what is used now. It seems that things get faster the more advanced technology gets.

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