Dominance of the Few Isn’t New in NASCAR

Last year, the Big Three (none of whom went on to win the championship) dominated the season. This year, Joe Gibbs Racing has three drivers accounting for 14 wins in 28 races.

But it turns out that having a small number of drivers responsible for a large number of the wins isn’t anything new.

How Many Different Drivers Typically Win in a Season?

In mid-July last year, only seven drivers had won races. Three of those seven drivers had won 14 out of 19 races. The trend was more obvious in 2018 because Harvick won races 2-4 and Kyle Busch won races 7-9.

We went on to have 12 distinct winners in 2018, which is on the low side, but not record-setting if you look at data over the last 30 years.

A column chart of the number of distinct winners from 1990-2019.
  • On average, 13.7 distinct drivers win each season
  • The low was in 1993, when 10 drivers won 30 races
  • The high was in 2001, when 19 different drivers won 36 races

We’re at 11 distinct winners right now, but don’t forget that one (or more) of the playoff drivers will likely win in the remaining races.

But Not All Seasons Had 36 Races

The number of races per season changed from 1990-2001, so I’ve scaled the numbers to represent how many winners there would have been if all seasons had 36 races. This raises the numbers for the earlier seasons because they were up to 16% shorter than the later seasons.

A column chart showing the number of distinct winners if we normalize every season to 36 races
  • An average of 14.4 distinct drivers win each season
  • The low was in 1999, when 11.6 (equivalent) drivers won
  • The high was still in 2001, when 19 different drivers won

Decadal Trends

The number of distinct winners may change a lot from season to season, but when you look at the averages, there isn’t a lot of change.

A column chart showing the number of distinct winners (normalized to 36 races) by decade

The number of average winners is down by one in this decade compared to the last, but both are slightly higher than the 1990s when you take into account the changing number of races.

But That’s Not the Whole Story

The number of distinct drivers doesn’t really tell you about dominance. For example, 1990 and 1991 both had 14 distinct winners and 29 races — but the wins were distributed differently.

  • In 1990
    • The winningest driver won 9 races
    • The second-winningest driver won 3 races
  • In 1991
    • The winningest driver won 5 races
    • The second-winningest driver also won 5 races

Those are two very different situations. In 1990, there was a single dominant driver who won 31% of the races. In 1991, three drivers split almost half the wins.

The Dominance of the Top 5

To take the differing number of races into account, we’ll look at the percentage of races won in a season by the top-5 winningest drivers. Note that these may not be (and often aren’t) the drivers who finished in places 1-5 in the championship standings.

A column graph showing the percentage of races won by the top 5 winningest drivers over the last three decades
  • In three years, over 80% of the races were won by five drivers
    • In 1993, 83.3% of all races were won by five drivers
    • 1997 and 1998 are the only other years that five drivers won more than 80% of the races
    • All three of these seasons are prior to this century
  • In this century:
    • 2019 is second only to 2008 in terms of dominance by the top five winningest drivers
      • Five drivers won 77.8% of the races in 2008
      • This year is at about 77%
  • The top-five winningest drivers have never won less than 50% of the races.

That last one sort of surprised me. A small number of drivers — a different group each season — have always dominated NASCAR.

Top-5 Dominance is Decreasing

The numbers cycles through the years, but if we group these numbers by averages over a decade:

A column graph showing the percentage of races won by the top 5 winningest drivers over the last three decades

The dominance within the NASCAR Cup series has actually decreased from the 1990s to now by almost 10%. Although we have five dominant drivers, they are less dominant than they were in the 1990’s.

Big-Three Dominance?

In 1993, 83.3% of all races were won by five drivers — but the fifth of those drivers only won one race. So you can guess what I looked at next.

A column graph showing the percentage of races won by the top 3 winningest drivers over the last three decades

In the last thirty years, three drivers have always won at least one-third of the races in a seasons and sometimes more than two-thirds.

  • As with the top 5, the numbers are higher in the 1990s.
    • In 1993, 70% of all races were won by three drivers
    • 1998 came close, with three drivers winning 69.7% of the races
  • In this century:
    • 2008 is the highest percentage of races won by three drivers, with 66.7%
  • The top-five winningest drivers have never won less than 1/3 of the races.

Dominance on the Decline

While the Big Three last year was definitely a thing, it was far from the first time three drivers have dominated a season. And 2018’s Big three weren’t as dominant as trios in the past have been. Again, looking at averages over the decades:

A column graph showing the percentage of races won by the top 3 winningest drivers over the last three decades

The percentage of races won by the top 3 winningest drivers has gone down since the 1990’s by 12%. Today, we should expect that three drivers will win at least 12 races each year and — on average — about 16 races of a 36-race season.

The Lone Dominator

While having three or five drivers in close competition is good, the sport becomes less competitive when one driver wins a huge majority of races.

A column graph showing the percentage of races won by the winningest drivers over the last three decades

Competition now is higher than in the 1990, as demonstrated by the inability of one driver to run away with wins.

  • Single-driver dominance was at its maximum in the 1990s
    • In five seasons out of the ten one driver won more than 30% of the races
    • This trend culminated with Jeff Gordon winning 13 races (almost 40% of the races) in 1998. We have not seen a season like that since
    • The next highest was 1993, when Rusty Wallace won 10 races (out of 30) — and finished 2nd in the championship standings
  • In this century:
    • In 2007, Jimmie Johnson won 10 races (and the championship)
    • In 2008, Carl Edwards won 9 races
  • The winningest drivers has never won less than 13.9% of the races (5 races)

If we look again at decade averages:

Single-driver domination is down by about 9% now relative to the 1990s.

Conclusion

There have always been cyclical variations in dominance within the Cup series, but in every year since 1990:

  • The top-5 winningest drivers have won at least 50% (18/36) of the races each season
  • The top-3 winningest drivers have won at least 33% (12/36) of the races
  • The winningest driver has won at least 13.9% (5/36) of the races

Competition has increased relative to the 1990s. Wins are spread around more, even when there are a smaller number of distinct winners each season.

Bonus Graph

Here’s all the data from above in a single graph. The dark blue bars are wins by the winningest driver, light blue is the 2nd winningest driver, red is the third winningest driver. The 4th and 5th winningest drivers are combined in the orange bars and the green bars show the wins by everyone else.

A graph pulling together all the data from this blog into one colorful, but not necessarily transparent picture.

2 Comments

  1. How about a follow-up looking back even further to the days of Petty and Allison — the golden years that so many people look back on when complaining about today’s Nascar?

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