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How the Races Were Won - Conclusions

by Sean Wrona

The point of this analysis was to begin the process of attempting to objectively determine what share of a driver's success the driver was responsible for because I feel it is an important yet overlooked measure of talent. I realize according to my definitions this analysis can sometimes be silly and defy common sense. For instance, Bobby Labonte inherited the lead at Pocono in 1999 when temporary leader Jimmy Spencer (who was not controlling the race in any real sense, and probably would have been passed by Labonte in a lap or two) hit the wall. By my definitions I am forced to count that as incidental. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Brad Keselowski won at Fontana this year and did pass Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch who had previously dominated the race, solely because he took four tires and got lucky that NASCAR threw many cautions that may have been unnecessary to extend the race allowing him to make an improbable charge. While Keselowski is without question one of the best closers in NASCAR today, one can argue that in that particular instance, his crew chief and/or NASCAR officials primarily won the race for him. Keselowski's win is technically a natural win but it was harshly criticized by many fans (definitely with some justification I would say). So was Keselowski's natural win necessarily more impressive than Labonte's incidental win? I would likely say not.

There were a bunch of other instances where my evaluation of the terminal lead change seems to defy common sense. I certainly admit that, but despite that and other situations such as counting bump-and-run passes as incidental wins when many would argue they should be considered as natural, at least for NASCAR where that is generally considered an accepted technique (not to mention discerning the differences between taking the air off a driver's spoiler and a bump-and-run and even the differences between a bump-and-run and an intentional spinout, which can be not so clear). Hence you can quibble about individual races easily, but most of these controversial races are not the norm. When it comes to drivers with a lot of wins, these individual debatable races do not make a large difference. In the aggregate, these records do mean a lot when assessing a driver's career. The biggest failing in my research was likely that I did not go deeply enough into the 1990s races to look for strategic assist races. While I'm absolutely certain there were many more of these in both NASCAR and IndyCar in the 2000s and 2010s than in the 1990s (there were never many in Formula One) I think there were likely several I didn't check in the '90s that probably fall under this category that I neglected to consider. However my main interest is comparing drivers to their contemporaries since different eras may reward different strategies to win races. Since NASCAR has been so caution-happy in recent years, the probability of races being decided naturally has generally diminished while off-track and especially strategic assist wins have markedly increased. Drivers need to be judged according to the context of their own era when undertaking an analysis like this.

Formula One

Formula One is pretty and cut-and-dried as the vast majority of races (especially lately) are natural or off-track. However, what is interesting to note is that the majority of drivers with few wins generally never won naturally. This shouldn't be very surprising because F1 generally has relatively few natural lead changes in most races and most races in which the driver who leads after the standing start does not win are decided in the pits, not on the track. Hence to a much greater degree than in NASCAR or IndyCar, the races are decided on speed. Generally only the drivers who are actually fastest in a race will win naturally, which means almost any win by an underdog in Formula One is not natural. Among all the drivers with six or fewer wins from 1990-present, only six of them had any natural wins in this period. Gerhard Berger, Giancarlo Fisichella, Riccardo Patrese, and Ralf Schumacher had two apiece, and generally only did so when they had very strong cars and usually superior teammates. Thierry Boutsen and Daniel Ricciardo also managed one apiece and those two and Fisichella who were the only drivers with three or fewer total wins who had any natural wins.

Championship drivers by contrast will invariably have half or nearly half of their wins won naturally. In terms of percentage, the clear standouts are Sebastian Vettel (33/40), Lewis Hamilton (28/34), and Nigel Mansell (13/16). All three of those drivers had blockbuster seasons when they had ridiculously strong cars, not to mention teammates who were generally regarded as somewhat weaker. Hamilton and Vettel further have the advantage of the drag reduction system which aids passing and makes it easier than it was in the past. Much to my surprise, Michael Schumacher won fewer than half of his races naturally but I don't think one can really criticize him for this because he still had more natural wins from 1990-present than anyone else had total wins in the period. Besides Schumacher still had more natural wins than off-track wins. Of the drivers with ten or more wins, three in particular stand out as weak using these metrics. Rubens Barrichello was the only driver with 10+ wins who had more off-track than natural race wins. Kimi Räikkönen and Jenson Button had the same number of natural and off-track wins. As far as the natural winning percentage is concerned, Räikkönen was the most impressive of these three with 9/20 races won naturally, with Button having 5/15 and Barrichello at 3/11. None of these surprises me a great deal. Räikkönen showed well through his championship season but has struggled since apart from his Lotus years. I had already felt that Button was the most overrated driver in F1 history before this because he owed most of his career to his championship season, which only happened because Brawn's diffuser was ruled legal, not to mention how much he was hyped by the British media in his earlier seasons. I would not say he is the worst champion, but he does look weaker than any of the other champions in this period by this metric including Jacques Villeneuve. At least Villeneuve's natural winning percentage was higher as his five natural wins came in only 11 wins as opposed to Button's 15, but Button certainly had more longevity. Regardless, I think many people in the know would argue that they don't stand up to the other post-1990 champions and this does a great job of indicating drivers who had great cars but did little with them. All three of Michael Schumacher's principal teammates look very weak here, with Johnny Herbert at 0/3, Eddie Irvine at 0/4, and Barrichello at 3/11 even while Schumacher was dominating. Felipe Massa at 8/11 was a significant improvement over any of them and it does seem to be a pity that he didn't win a title when Button and Villeneuve did despite fewer natural wins in the same number of total wins or higher.

While as I said, Formula One is pretty cut-and-dried in terms of this analysis, IndyCar and NASCAR are a much bigger mess and therefore more fun to analyze. Obviously the most significant thing that happened in IndyCar racing post-1990 was the split. This creates a giant mess as CART and IRL raced on a wildly different set of tracks with similarly different specifications and vastly different paradigms of what racing should be. The early IRL had all ovals and intentionally lowered horsepower to make the competition closer so drivers who dominated on that side of the split tended to have more wins as one could argue races were decided on speed more and strategy somewhat less. However, since the IRL pack racing model allowed for any competitive driver to remain part of the lead pack in never-ending side by side battles when few drivers could really pull away because horsepower was restricted (much like NASCAR plate races) it could be easily argued that each individual pass meant much less since passing may have been too easy. When you further add that CART clearly had the superior drivers from 1996-2001 and probably 2002 while the series that had more talent was much less clear in the 2003-2007 period, this gets even harder to figure out. However, CART races were generally overwhelmingly decided on strategy in the late '90s/early 2000s while IRL races weren't. Although I don't really have a choice but to include all the races together now that IndyCar itself does, this does create an interesting mess. That doesn't mean I can't draw conclusions from these data as long as you focus on comparing contemporaries to each other while acknowledging some periods led to more natural wins than others.


Although Scott Dixon is the overall win leader in IndyCar racing from 1996-present, he does not lead in natural wins as he trails Michael Andretti, Sébastien Bourdais, Paul Tracy, Will Power, and Sam Hornish, and he is tied with two others who have fewer total wins (his ex-teammate Dario Franchitti and Al Unser, Jr.) In the pre-split era of CART and the late-split era of Champ Car races were most frequently won naturally, as was the case in the early IRL period. However, in the early split on the CART side strategy was much more important in deciding race wins and in the post-split period it is almost as important, so it makes sense that Dixon would be behind drivers in the pre-split period (Andretti and Unser, Jr.) or those who dominated most during the Champ Car (Bourdais and Tracy) or early IRL period (Hornish); however, it does appear that he is close but slightly behind his two main contemporaries, Franchitti and Will Power, in this regard as far as natural wins are concerned, but I don't believe this is necessarily a deal-breaker in evaluating their careers as there are many aspects, not just this, that should be considered. Power had a reputation in some corners as being the fastest driver by himself but struggling while racing other cars. I think these results clearly disprove that as his natural win percentage of 16/24 was very good, especially for a driver who primarily dominates on road and street courses. I would say Power does struggle at pack racing and racing in heavy traffic, but if there are only one or two cars around him, he is a skillful passer. He does not seem as adept in heavy traffic which is why his weaknesses seemed to be pack racing on ovals before the IRL got rid of it after Dan Wheldon's death and endless slingshot passes as seen in the last three Indy 500s. If the new oval IndyCar aero kits prove to separate traffic and prevent the sort of slingshot passing that has been seen at Indianapolis with the DW12, Power will easily be one of the favorites to win since even on the ovals he's great at passing drivers one at a time (and his three-wide pass of Dixon and Kanaan at Fontana last year was even more impressive when he didn't need to do that to win the title), but if the slingshot passing continues, I don't think he'll get his first Indy 500 win this year.

Michael Andretti easily looks the most impressive among IndyCar drivers by this metric, especially when considering the vast majority of his natural wins were before the split when he was competing against everyone (after the split, many of his wins were not). Most impressive of all may have been his 1998 win at Homestead, where he passed Alex Zanardi on a late restart in one of the most dominant seasons in CART history (when Andretti's Swift-Ford-Goodyear package was nowhere NEAR as fast as Zanardi's Reynard-Honda-Firestone package). I would say the people who take Al Unser, Jr. or Bobby Rahal over him even though they both won more titles and Indy 500s are probably wrong. While Unser has a reputation as being a great all-around driver, I think this analysis proves he is seriously overrated on oval tracks. In his CART career, he only won 6 of his 31 races on ovals and only three of those were natural. He is the only driver with multiple Indy 500 wins in the period who never won one naturally - in 1992 he inherited the lead when Michael Andretti lost fuel pressure and in '94 he inherited the lead when his teammate Emerson Fittipaldi crashed, despite winning the pole and having one of the dominant cars in the field. He only made three natural passes for the win on ovals: at Michigan in '90 against Bobby Rahal, at Milwaukee in '94 against Fittipaldi, and at Loudon in '94 against Tracy, and in 1994, the Penske cars had an absurd advantage over the rest of the field such that they all lapped the field several times on multiple different occasions. To be fair, in all three cases, he passed teammates, and his winning a championship in 1990 when Rahal went winless is huge, but still, wouldn't you expect more? Unser was also the luckiest driver in general, winning nine of his 25 races incidentally and no other driver had a similar percentage. Granted, many defenders would say that 'to finish first one must first finish' and compliment Unser for his steady hand that allowed him to finish races when more dominant drivers broke, but is this more skill or luck? I'm not so sure that's clear. Even though CART was very road-course skewing in those days, it had more than 20% ovals. Furthermore, he did not win on an oval until his 8th full time season in 1990, yet drivers who had reputations for being 'weak on ovals' early in their careers actually did sooner, such as Dario Franchitti and Will Power, who did so in their 6th full-time seasons, even though neither of them were natural.

I have long felt that the most overrated driver in IndyCar history is Hélio Castroneves. Considering how many drivers Penske has had success with (winning either championships or Indy 500s) it says a lot that Castroneves has now been there for fifteen full seasons (longer than any other driver except Rick Mears, who had several partial seasons in there) and has failed to win a championship, even more so when you realize three of his four teammates (Gil de Ferran, Sam Hornish, and Will Power) have now done so. I certainly do not believe championships are everything, but unlike NASCAR, I do think CART and IndyCar had credible points systems that properly reward performance (at least until recently when IndyCar started to introduce lousy ideas like qualifying points for the Indy 500, full-points doubleheader races, and double points races). Of all the drivers with numerous wins, he easily appears to be the worst on this basis, which confirms my suspicions. Castroneves won only ten of his 29 races naturally despite being on what was the premier team (or one of the premier teams) for most of that period, and won over half of his races (15) off-track through pit stop exchanges. He did finally win one of his Indy 500s naturally in 2009, but his first two were only won due to pit-stop exchanges, while he has lost more than one naturally on the track (2003 to his teammate de Ferran and 2014 to Ryan Hunter-Reay), yet people use his three Indy 500 wins to hype him as one of the greats? Seriously? All his teammates (even Ryan Briscoe) look better at winning natural races on a percentage basis, although I would take Castroneves over Briscoe historically due to his longevity. There were two other negative standouts in this regard. Hunter-Reay only won four of his 14 races naturally, but in his case, I'd cut him a break, because I think for most of his career (even his Andretti years where I think the cars have only been really strong on the ovals) he has been at an equipment deficit, and if you are at an equipment deficit, you can't really pass a superior car on the track, so being able to pass a car off the track still is a measure of skill (it's the same reason I wouldn't knock Fernando Alonso in Formula One for having a lower percentage than Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vettel who have had much better cars). The drivers worth the most criticism are those that have low percentages with top equipment, and I don't think the Andretti of RHR's day is quite what it was in 2004-07 when they really did have top equipment. Hunter-Reay also had four strategic assist passes which does mean he won eight-races on track; Castroneves, by contrast, had none. Cristiano da Matta's record looks incredibly disappointing with only three out of twelve natural wins, two in which he led flag-to-flag in his 2002 championship season and the other in which he won via an on-track lead change at Fontana in 2001, but considering how many endless slingshot passes there were in the Handford Device races, that may not be that impressive. da Matta's championship season now looks like one of the most overrated in CART history, as his wins at Laguna Seca and Toronto where he was never passed were his only wins at all, alongside three off-track wins (two involving off-track passes of Alex Tagliani, a driver I don't rate very highly), and two incidental wins. Having said that, in that period there weren't a whole lot of races won naturally in general. In the early-to-mid split years, Juan Pablo Montoya and Alex Zanardi are definitely standouts, as they won multiple races naturally every year when few others did (only Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser in 1996, no one else in 1997, only Dario Franchitti and Greg Moore in 1998, only Franchitti in 1999, and no one else in 2000). Their early split dominance looks even more impressive when you look at it this way. Yes, Ganassi had dominant cars in this period, but the races did look more competitive if you actually watched them; apparently most of the competition was when Ganassi cars were being out-strategized. Plenty of other drivers have done well with the dominant car, either CART or IRL, including Sam Hornish (15/19), Nigel Mansell (5/5), Greg Ray (5/5), Buddy Rice (3/3), and Tony Stewart (3/3), but what's more impressive is when a driver has a sizable percentage of natural wins without having the dominant cars such as Justin Wilson at 5/7, who is the obvious standout here. Other drivers who won in weaker cars before getting to the stronger ones such as Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud, who both have slightly weak natural winning percentages but won most of their races in greatly inferior equipment before getting to Penske, greatly impress me. I'm still impressed by drivers who won races not naturally as long as they weren't flukish, and as long as they were driving for weaker teams. However, for drivers who drove for premier teams and won the vast majority of their races not naturally, such as Castroneves and da Matta and Vasser (4/10), that can be a valid criticism. For drivers with relatively few wins, there were some drivers who never won naturally, including Marco Andretti, Mario Domínguez, Christian Fittipaldi, Carlos Huertas, Charlie Kimball, Danica Patrick, Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato, Oriol Servià, and Alex Tagliani. While I can understand defending those drivers who drove weak cars, Andretti, Fittipaldi, Kimball, Patrick, and Rahal definitely had shots in top equipment and it's rather disappointing they weren't able to earn a single natural win in it (although Andretti, Kimball, and Rahal all managed one strategic assist each). Many fans would say 'a win is a win' but when you consider how the races are won, I think you have to argue that some non-winners who showed dominance at times, like Raul Boesel and Vitor Meira, should be rated over a lot of these sorts of drivers (and I skipped a bunch of them too, including Mario Andretti, who was in his 50s and largely washed up when he won one incidental race at Phoenix in 1993, but he obviously would have a ton of natural wins in previous decades).


Unlike IndyCar, NASCAR did not split in the '90s so the data are less messed up. Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Tony Stewart by far have the most wins in the period with 92, 71, and 48, and by far have the most natural wins with 58 and 46. Regardless of how you slice it, they are likely three best drivers since 1990 (I would say Dale Earnhardt's '80s legacy easily trumps his '90s legacy even if he technically won more titles in the latter decade). However, when you look beyond those three drivers, things start getting a little more interesting. Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace finished tied with 39 total wins from 1990-present with Earnhardt slightly behind at 37, but Earnhardt led the way in natural wins with 26 to Wallace's 24 and Martin's 21, which is how most people would rank those three drivers' '90s accomplishments I believe, despite Earnhardt having slightly fewer wins than Martin and Wallace. Martin's 21 natural wins are tied with Kevin Harvick and Dale Jarrett even though they both have fewer wins than Martin. For those who believed that Martin really didn't have the aggression or edge in his glory days that the more dominant drivers like Earnhardt, Gordon, Stewart, and Johnson did, this easily supports this idea. Frankly, in the past, I would have easily rated Martin over Jarrett and Harvick, but now I seriously have to think about it. Harvick especially dominated most in an era that was considerably after Martin's in an era when a far greater percentage of races were won unnaturally (off-track or strategic assist) than in Martin's heyday yet he has already caught Martin in natural wins with many fewer total wins? I used to make fun of FOX for nicknaming Harvick 'The Closer' on their broadcasts, but I've got to admit the title seems to fit, because his 21/30 natural wins (including both of his wins this season) is a higher percentage than any other driver has in this period except for Ernie Irvan and Sterling Marlin. It's also interesting that all three of those drivers were very great restrictor plate drivers in their prime, because most restrictor plate races tend to be won naturally by my definition since they are usually (not always, but more often than 'regular' races) decided by on-track, not off-track passes (even if you argue that restrictor plate racing by its very nature is unnatural, an opinion for which I've got to say I have a lot of sympathy). What makes Harvick look even more impressive is that usually drivers who have had weaker cars need to compensate for that by winning in other ways, and most drivers with relatively few wins tend to have a lot more fluke wins (although this actually seems to be the case for F1 and IndyCar more than NASCAR where very few drivers ended up with no natural wins). While I don't think Childress was terrible when Harvick was there, I think anyone would be hard-pressed to argue that in general their cars were as fast as Hendrick, Roush, and Gibbs in those years. I often felt that Childress emphasized reliability over trying to win, even as early as 1991 long before Dale Earnhardt's death (but Earnhardt was still good enough to get them multiple wins a year most years regardless), yet Harvick managed to win 23 races for a team that was more concerned with finishing than winning. Even though I many times said that I thought Harvick would never win a championship due to him being preoccupied with his feuds with other drivers and/or distracting himself due to too much racing in Busch/Nationwide (as opposed to Gordon or Johnson, who seldom did), looking at Harvick's Childress career in this perspective suddenly makes me wonder how I could have not seen this coming once he had Hendrick horsepower, i.e. equipment designed to win races rather than merely finish them. Despite the fact that Harvick and Bowyer all had some great points finishes (most of Bowyer's being truly undeserved) Childress was definitely second-tier then and for somebody to have second-tier equipment for so long and *still* be one of the leaders in natural wins and natural winning percentage is freaking amazing, especially to have already tied Jarrett and Martin, who have more wins and generally had better cars, and in a period when fewer races are being won naturally in general (although lately there have been more than there were especially in the mid-2000s and early 2010s).

While most of the legends did roughly as expected, and Harvick was seriously a revelation, there were a few drivers who greatly underachieved compared to what you'd expect from them, and the overwhelming example for this is Davey Allison. Allison has a reputation from most fans as being one of the best non-champions in NASCAR history. He co-led NASCAR in wins in 1991-92, and led in average percent led in those years as well. He had a nearly 10% winning percentage and he had his best seasons right before his fatal plane crash. This has led him to not merely be considered one of the greatest non-champions in Cup history, but has caused others to make grandiose statements like he would have rivaled his father Bobby in wins or been the driver to 'stop Jeff Gordon', or that he was even one of the greatest drivers in general. This all seemed wrong to me when I considered the equipment that he had and what he failed to do with it. Failed to do with it? That's exactly what I mean. When Ernie Irvan replaced Davey Allison in the #28 car late in 1993, he led more laps in his eight starts for the team than Davey did in his sixteen starts. In 1994, Irvan led more laps in his 20-race partial season than Davey EVER did in any full-time season. Irvan's percent led for his partial 1994 season exceeded 30% which has not been seen in a full-time season since Dale Earnhardt's 1987 (although Harvick actually has a higher average percent led than either at this point in 2015). Davey Allison's average percent led statistics of 15% and 17% in 1991 and 1992 look seriously impressive on the surface as he did lead Cup in those years, but when Irvan managed to hit 32% in average percent led a mere two years later, and is generally regarded as weaker? It got me thinking. Allison was the only driver of his time period besides Earnhardt who started in anything resembling top equipment. Earnhardt took over the Rod Osterlund car which had finished 5th in points with Dave Marcis the previous season (and Marcis was 2nd in points entering the series finale). Jeff Gordon landed the Hendrick ride in 1993 which was one of the best cars a rookie ever got. However, looking at the period in between, when you look at Allison's main contemporaries, such as Bill Elliott, Alan Kulwicki, Mark Martin, Ernie Irvan, Harry Gant, Geoff Bodine, Rusty Wallace, Ricky Rudd, Tim Richmond, Dale Jarrett (even if Richmond's peak was pre-Allison and Jarrett's peak was post-Allison), and so on, every single one of these drivers started out in worse equipment than Allison did, and some like Gant had worse equipment for their entire career (including 1991 when he pretty much matched Allison). Allison only actually contended for one championship (1992) in a year when the Fords had such an absurd level of dominance that Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, and Irvan all finished outside the top ten in points despite dominating the surrounding seasons. Okay, Cale Yarborough went winless in the Harry Ranier car in 1986 the year before Allison arrived there and Allison did win twice as a rookie. However, the Ranier car had won nine consecutive seasons before then and was expected to win. Allison got rushed into top equipment easily due to his father's success. It was no different than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (although I'd say Allison's equipment was even more proven than Junior's since Junior won DEI's first race). Dale Jarrett actually *was* a little different as Ned Jarrett's success unlike Bobby Allison's or Dale Earnhardt's was not very recent so he didn't quite get the same opportunities earlier on and had to work his way up in weaker equipment, which Davey didn't, allowing Davey to win the ROTY over DJ in 1987. When you consider that a LOT of drivers like Bodine, Bonnett, Gant, Irvan, Rudd, etc... had roughly comparable win totals to Allison despite on average having worse equipment (and I don't think this is debatable) why is Davey the standout? Why is he elevated to being one of the best non-champions while all these other drivers are ignored? Sure, most of them except Gant spent SOME time in truly great equipment, but not as much as Allison did. This led me to judge Davey Allison as the most overrated driver in NASCAR history even before I did this analysis, but once I analyzed how the races were won, it's even more stark. Among the 13 races Allison won from 1990 to his death, only TWO of them were won naturally. TWO. No other driver considered to be a top driver is anywhere near this low. He pales compared to ALL the non-champions who are generally considered worse: Bodine, Gant, Irvan, Rudd (although Rudd's 4/13 was also extremely disappointing), etc... Allison won 6/13 wins off-track due to pit stop exchanges, one due to a strategic assist, and two incidentally. That leaves two races I wasn't able to figure out due to a lack of video footage (his spring '91 Michigan win where I can't figure out whether he passed Hut Stricklin on or off-track, but it actually looks like off-track from the lap leader data and his spring '92 Michigan win where it looks like he did have a natural pass of Mark Martin but I can't prove it since I don't have the data). If he won both races naturally, that brings him to 4/13, which STILL puts him tied for last among all drivers with 10+ wins from 1990-present, even drivers who have much weaker reputations like Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.) He was not lacking equipment, while many of his contemporaries were. The Fords were dominant in 1992 yet he got beaten for the championship by Kulwicki in a much weaker car (Kulwicki by the way won ALL FOUR of his races in the period naturally despite having questionable equipment, which ties him with Davey's absolute possible maximum of four in the '90s). Mark Martin's team borrowed a #28 engine for the 1990 season finale at Atlanta because Roush judged the Yates engines to be unquestionably superior, yet Martin was 2nd in points while Allison was 13th? Yet most fans seem to rate them equally? Seriously? Most fans also seem to rate Allison as the best of the four major Yates drivers when I would now easily take him last. In between Davey's two spring Michigan wins at 1991 and 1992, he got passed on the last lap by Dale Jarrett in the summer 1991 race. Jarrett, who was driving for the Wood Brothers on worn tires. Does anybody think Jarrett's equipment was as fast as Allison's in that race? Yet he managed to pass Allison and win on a horsepower track, no less. Jarrett sure had dominant equipment in the late '90s, probably the best, but is it really better than what Allison had considering how dominant Allison was in '91-'92 and Irvan in '94? Yet Jarrett at least won races naturally, and on a wider variety of tracks. Most people rate Allison over Jarrett for being more versatile, but ALL his short track and road course wins were won unnaturally (his only two clear natural wins were in the 1991 Coca-Cola 600, when he passed Earnhardt on track, and the 1992 Daytona 500, when he passed Michael Waltrip, and I'm actually even being generous with this one, as what really gave Davey control was the Big One which took out the three leaders, Bill Elliott, Ernie Irvan, and Sterling Marlin, when they were battling for the lead, which basically took out all his real competition). Allison was certainly really good at retaining the lead when he got it and he certainly should be credited for position retention, but how hard is it to retain your position when you have the best engines? Jarrett at least had races on some difficult tracks that he won naturally: Phoenix, Rockingham, Darlington, Bristol, Richmond, etc... In that sense, Jarrett was actually more versatile. He won his short track and driver's superspeedway races naturally, while Allison generally didn't. Allison's record in terms of natural wins at best matches Rudd so that does seem to make them the weaker of the four major Yates drivers relative to Irvan and Jarrett, but Rudd at least had weaker cars than Allison did generally and did have that stellar road course record and a lot more longevity. Regardless, how can people still believe what they believe about Davey Allison when he was really a lot more like Kyle Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (who actually have BETTER natural win totals and winning percentages, even if Davey's actual natural win total is 4 instead of 2). Now maybe Davey was a lot better in 1987-1989. I haven't evaluated his wins in those periods, but Davey's 1991-92 is the case most of his fans make for him as being 'almost certain to stop Earnhardt and Gordon from winning future titles'. No way. He is not even close if even drivers like Kyle Petty, Sterling Marlin, Clint Bowyer, and Jamie McMurray even have better natural win records. Note: I wouldn't go so far as taking those guys over Davey, not at all, but it is funny that people praise Davey for the same things they critique Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kyle Petty for, who in the grand scheme of things, weren't much worse, and by this particular statistic, actually looked better (and I'm not sure about Petty's SABCO equipment vs. Allison's Yates equipment, but I suppose it could have been better). They all probably got better rides than they deserved because of their fathers' success. Dale Jarrett, unlike them, actually earned the better rides he got after paying his dues in weaker cars. Just for the record, I have great respect for Davey fighting adversity and he was a much nicer guy than most Cup stars are. I certainly like him more than a lot of the drivers who I see as better, but it's time for people to stop pretending he was a flawless driver when he was actually the worst of the four major Yates drivers. I would still call him one of the major non-champions, but towards the bottom of the list for sure.

There were other drivers who were fairly disappointing, but most won't surprise anyone. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had 8/23 natural wins, and considering most of his natural wins were on plate tracks when he had absurdly dominant cars, that looks pretty bad. He did have wins at some interesting tracks like Phoenix, Bristol, Richmond, etc..., but usually these races weren't won naturally (usually he won due to bump-and-run passes; he actually won more races due to bump-and-run passes than his dad did in the period, despite Earnhardt's image as dirty and Junior's image as clean...if you think bump-and-run passes should be natural you're likely to disagree). His record looks very similar to Davey Allison's, but that was one of the first things that caused me to argue that Davey was overrated (Junior's 2000-2006 looks eerily similar to Davey's 1987-1993 yet people bash Junior and no one bashes Davey). I'm not going to argue Junior is an all-time great or anything, but nobody does. It's when people argue that Davey is despite having a similar record to Junior, when both of them got the top-quality rides they did because their fathers were so dominant and still doing pretty well when they emerged that I have to note the comparison. Junior won't win a championship and he isn't that great, but he isn't any worse than Davey either and I'm now starting to think people are a little hard on Junior. His 2001-04 was quite good even if his 2005-10 was ugly. Jeff Burton is another driver who on a season-to-season level looks similar to Junior and Davey, and to his credit, he made it without having a famous last name, which likely implies more talent, and his natural win record of 11/21 is better. I don't think he's great or anything and I think the strength of the Roush equipment in the late '90s overrated him, and he did get waxed by Harvick at RCR, but having half natural wins isn't bad. He was okay, and Harvick has now proven at Stewart-Haas to probably be the 4th best of the Gen-X drivers behind only Gordon, Johnson, and Stewart, so getting beaten by him isn't embarrassing or anything. Bobby Labonte, on the other hand, despite his championship, looks weak (though still better than Allison's and Rudd's records). He only managed eight of 21 natural wins at six different tracks (Atlanta, Charlotte, Indianapolis, Michigan, Rockingham, and Talladega), five of which are incredibly dependent on equipment (all except Rockingham, which is probably Bobby's most impressive win). Even worse, none of his post-championship wins were natural. He won at Pocono three times but never did so naturally (although I was likely unfair in that race when Jimmy Spencer hit the wall allowing Labonte to inherit the lead) and you can also debate the 2003 spring Atlanta race when I judged his pass of Jeff Gordon to be a bump-and-run but I can certainly see a lot of people arguing that one. While Labonte did have more natural than off-track wins (unlike Allison and Rudd), which is good, on a percentage basis, he had more incidental wins than any other driver with 10+ wins. Six of his 21 wins were incidental. On average, no one from 1990-present was as lucky as him, and if you look at three of his wins in particular, it's easy to understand this. He must be one of the very few Cup drivers in history to win TWO different races due to incidental last-lap passes (which weren't even bump-and-runs), inheriting the lead at Atlanta in 2001 on the last lap when Jerry Nadeau ran out of fuel, and inheriting the lead at Homestead in 2003 on the last lap when Bill Elliott cut a tire. In the 2000 Southern 500, he also won by beating everyone out of the pits when he had not led at any point earlier in that race. That was technically an off-track win, but it still proves his luck. The only thing that brings Bobby Labonte's win total even close to Terry's is how lucky he was. Notice a trend here? Most of the drivers who appear weaker than their win totals imply rode the coattails of a successful family member, which allowed them chances in top equipment maybe others deserved more. For as dominant as Kyle Busch has been, it's also interesting that Kurt has more natural wins than him, in fewer total wins and on average worse equipment (13/25 to 12/29); that would be another case of this, but it's only slight, and I would rate Kyle Busch over Junior, Davey, and Bobby for sure. Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle also appear relatively weak with fewer than half of their races won naturally (15/31 and 9/19) unlike most of their peers who were above half, but there is one other driver who stands out as really weak with 10+ wins, and it shouldn't be a surprise: Ryan Newman. Remember all his fuel mileage wins in 2003? His last six wins that year were all won off-track or via strategic assist because he was stretching his fuel mileage. All he did was pass drivers in the pits or pass other drivers who stayed out of the pits (he was always passing the faster drivers on pit stops, and when he no longer had the brilliant pit strategies that he did in 2003, he was mostly reduced to contending on one-mile tracks like Dover and Loudon and winning races on strategy, although many fewer...he might be the weakest driver with 10+ wins, even weaker than Sterling Marlin). Even though I think Harry Gant was unquestionably better than Davey Allison, his record is a little weak, with 3 natural wins and 4 off-track wins, but the man was 50 years old and that's still a great record for somebody at age when most drivers would be long out of their prime.

A few drivers with relatively few wins are worthy of mention. As mentioned before, Alan Kulwicki won all four of his '90s wins naturally, matching Davey's maximum total (and possibly exceeding it if either his '91 or '92 Michigan wins weren't won naturally) as an underfunded, sometimes barely-sponsored, owner-driver. Bobby Hamilton has a similar record, as he won all four of his races for second or maybe third-tier teams naturally, at four different tracks, Martinsville, Rockingham, and Phoenix, where the driver plays more of a role, and Talladega, which is usually decided on horsepower (and although Petree did have really good restrictor plate equipment in the wicker-bill era, remembering Kenny Wallace and Joe Nemechek pushing Earnhardt to victory in the 2000 fall Talladega race, I'm not sure it was the outright best equipment, and he still passed Tony Stewart to win). As I mentioned, Marlin and Kyle Petty have really good percentages (8/10 and 5/6). Maybe Kyle Petty would have been just as good as Davey Allison or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in top equipment if you don't think SABCO was top equipment. Having said that, drivers like Marlin and Michael Waltrip were far too reliant on their restrictor plate wins in seriously dominant cars, so maybe that can be brushed aside. Only two of Marlin's four non-plate wins were natural, which is probably a lot more reflective of what his ability was. Petty I do have questions about because he had Gary Nelson and Robin Pemberton as two of his crew chiefs who were two of the most notorious cheating crew chiefs of that era. His Rockingham wins were incredibly dominant, even for that era, when nobody dominated a single race anywhere near like that except him. As much as I like Petty, I unfortunately have to wonder if something else was going on there (especially when Nelson has even admitted he cheated when he was Petty's crew chief such as having Petty pull a lever to drop buckshot out of his car to reduce the weight of the chassis to make the car faster). On the flip side, I have to list the drivers who failed to win any natural races as well. Jeremy Mayfield despite winning five races in all and having a bunch of seriously dominant runs NEVER won a race naturally. I was shocked. I was sure he would have done so but he always needed help to win (unless I suppose you want to give him props for punting Earnhardt at Pocono). Robby Gordon, Elliott Sadler, and Brian Vickers have the exact same record: 3 wins, 0 natural, 1 off-track, 1 incidental, and 1 strategic assist. I've still got to give Robby the edge by quite a bit here because Sadler and Vickers had dominant cars with Yates and Hendrick and Robby didn't, not to mention Robby's road course record (even if his road course wins weren't natural, he was still VERY fast on them) and his record in general outside Cup. Jimmy Spencer won two plate races after passing drivers in the past, but he got away with an illegal intake manifold and everybody acknowledges that now (really, when he had two wins, three top fives, and four top tens, that season, and only had one top ten outside the plate tracks, you've got to wonder what else is going on. Even Michael Waltrip's record in the DEI days wasn't that stark). Since the cars were illegal, I'm not giving him natural wins for those. Five one-time winners never won a race naturally: Trevor Bayne, Brett Bodine, Casey Mears, Paul Menard, and Regan Smith. Menard's a ride-buyer, Bodine and Mears are two more examples of drivers who piggybacked off earlier relatives' success, Bayne was a left-field fluke considering he needed David Ragan to be penalized for a lane change violation to even inherit the lead (and considering most plate races are won naturally, for a plate race to not be won naturally is seriously worthy of criticism), leaving Smith as easily the most impressive, especially when you consider that he probably really SHOULD HAVE won at Talladega in 2008, which would have given him a natural win, and because he probably had the weakest car of all of them. I wouldn't necessarily take any of these drivers over drivers who failed to win a race like Mike Skinner or Joe Ruttman but showed a lot more speed when they were at their peak.


I think what this analysis has proven is that winning is dependent on more than just the driver, and that the driver gets too much credit for individual results when the team plays a role that needs to be separated out. Are there many things that can be criticized about this analysis (especially my judgments of specific races?) Very likely, but it's a start. There is a reason why drivers who worked their way up from weaker equipment should be rated higher than drivers who had similar statistics but had strong equipment from day one. Generally nowadays, in Formula One, IndyCar, and NASCAR, the top drivers start in top equipment relatively quickly, which is a bit of a break from the past (especially in NASCAR). However, when drivers started out in much greater equipment than their contemporaries, as Davey Allison did, without much greater results, this is worth noting. As more and more races in IndyCar and NASCAR are decided in the pits, it becomes more and more vital to consider how the races were won to determine who the truly great drivers were. One thing that does please me this year and the past couple is that particularly in NASCAR, whose generous charity rules made the races artificially exciting and induced way too many unnatural wins, races seem to be won on speed much more. As cheesy as Brad Keselowski's win at Fontana was, at least he still did pass the two dominant cars on the track. I think things are getting a little better in this regard in all series (well, except F1 where the great Fernando Alonso and the pretty good but not great Jenson Button are driving for McLaren, which might be the worst team this year) as talent is being rewarded more than usual (even Joey Logano's Daytona 500 was one of the most impressive restrictor plate race wins I have seen in years, as he passed all three of the more dominant drivers in better cars, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson on track). While I do tend to despise restrictor plate racing myself for being too artificial and have issues with the Handford device/recent Indy 500-style slingshot racing, although I like that much better, in general natural wins are the wins people celebrate and most want to see. Therefore, I think the drivers who won natural races are in general the ones who should get the most credit. Wouldn't you agree?

After this, I think I'm done inventing some new statistics for a while, although I do have some ideas I've been working on that I'll introduce occasionally in future months. For the next few weeks, however, I'm going to start calculating scores for this year's races using the points system I introduced in the Last Year's Rolex column, although I think I'm going to make some slight adjustments to the formula I am using. I will not merely be covering series that are highly publicized in the US. Unfortunately NASCAR does not provide all the information I need to calculate race scores, so I will have to be neglecting that series, but I am interested in doing so for the following series at least: F1, IndyCar, World Endurance Championship, Tudor United SportsCar Championship, European Le Mans Series, Formula E, V8 Supercars, BTCC, and WTCC (unfortunately DTM doesn't provide the needed information). Do I expect I'll be able to keep up with all that? Not hardly, but I am interested in giving all those series their due at some point since they are among the major international championships or national championships with international interest.

Sean Wrona is the Managing Editor of racermetrics.com, the Webmaster of race-database.com, the winner of the 2010 Ultimate Typing Championship at the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, and the ratings compiler and statistician for the Mensa Scrabble-by-Mail SIG. He earned a master's in applied statistics from Cornell University in 2008 and previously digitized several seasons of NBA box scores on basketball-reference.com. You may contact him at sean@racermetrics.com.