Racermetrics race-database.com

On-Track Passing in NASCAR Year by Year

by Sean Wrona

In this column I will break down the leaders in each of the statistical categories I have invented for on-track leading for every season from 1985-2017. Although I have also done the years 1983 and 1984, I did not include them in the previous articles in this series so I will not be doing so here either. For each table, races led reflects the number of races each driver made an on-track pass for the lead, but does not include races where a driver won the pole and led the opening stint of the race, unless that driver made a pass for the lead later in the event (or there were no on-track passes for the lead, in which cases I did give the polesitter a race led.) Record indicates the lead change record for that season (number of passes for the lead made to number of times passed for the lead.) Wins are self-explanatory. TNL is the number of times a driver was the last driver to take the lead on track in the race. LML is the number of times each driver led the most laps in a race (if there was a tie, I awarded it to the driver who finished higher in the race.) LSL (short for lead share leader) is the number of times each driver led a given race in lead shares (indicating the number of races in which each driver was the best passer in the race; if there was a tie, I awarded it to the driver who took the lead on track last.) LS is the number of lead shares each driver accumulated, and CRL or cumulative races led is the sum of the percentage each driver led in all races in that season. Once again, I only counted races for which I was confident enough that I had all the lead changes, based on either video footage, contemporary newspaper reports, or in a few cases, detailed caution lap records (there were a few races that had so many cautions that there weren't any green flag runs long enough to have pit stops in which I assumed all passes under green were natural, even if they didn't have video footage, although this was likely incorrect.) I have listed the leader for each category in a given year in red boldface print. For the lead change record category, I only considered drivers who had five or more races led naturally, which is what I felt would be necessary to be a large enough sample size.

For each year, I will also provide season summaries, particularly spotlighting seasons that appear to be significantly overrated and underrated. Generally, in the most underrated seasons, TNL should be higher than wins (because the driver placed themselves in position to win more often than they won, due usually to circumstances outside of their control such as being beaten out of the pits or mechanical failures), LSL should be higher than LML (drivers who were the top passer more frequently than they led the most laps were unlucky as they were more dominant through their own efforts than they were through their team's), and lead shares should be higher than CRL (again, drivers who take the lead on track by themselves should be rated higher than those who lead often not through their own efforts.) Hence if there is a driver who leads in leading the most laps but does not lead in races with the most lead shares, or a driver who leads in CRL but does not lead in lead shares, or a driver who leads in wins but does not lead in TNL, those are hallmarks of an overrated season. Drivers who lead in lead shares but do not lead in CRL, lead in TNL but do not lead in wins, or lead in LSL but do not lead in races leading the most laps, generally achieved more through their own efforts and were hurt by their teams. Drivers are sorted by the number of lead shares for each season, because I believe that is the best measure that reflects how many races drivers lead, how often drivers lead, and how late in the race drivers lead (with passes closer to the end of the race being worth more.) This simultaneously is likely the best measure that reflects both passing ability in general, clutch passing ability, and diversity (being able to make passes on a wide variety of tracks) and therefore is likely the best column on which to sort these data. This is by far and away the longest Racermetrics column I have ever written so to break it up I will provide links to each individual season and you can just read whichever seasons particularly interest you if you have no interest in reading the whole thing.

1985 | 1986 | 1987 | 1988 | 1989
1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994
1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999
2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004
2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009
2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014
2015 | 2016 | 2017


13 of the 28 races from this season are missing, but there is certainly enough information available to indicate that neither the champion and most consistent driver Darrell Waltrip or the most dominant driver Bill Elliott were as successful as they seemed. Both had tremendously overrated seasons. Although five Elliott wins are missing, what we do have indicates that Elliott was certainly very lucky to win as often as he won. He had more wins than TNL, more races in which he led the most laps than races in which he earned the most lead shares (Dale Earnhardt actually earned more lead shares in the races counted and led more races as well), and substantially more cumulative races led than lead shares. Although Elliott was the most dominant driver by far nearly doubling Earnhardt's CRL, Earnhardt was nearly just as dominant in terms of on-track passing (although unfortunately too much of that in this era was him knocking people out of the way on short tracks, which I believe he did to Tim Richmond three separate times to take his final lead.) Elliott led all statistics related to leading, but Earnhardt led all statistics related to leading through his own efforts, indicating that the only reason Elliott looked that good in 1985 was the strength of his team. However, he was still significantly stronger than Waltrip, who had a fairly lackluster season in terms of passing, even posting a negative lead change record. This was a general trend for Waltrip, who from 1983-1992 posted 11 more wins than TNL, more than any other driver. To be sure, he developed a conservative style after his crash in the 1983 Daytona 500, and it was highly effective in terms of getting good results to remain competitive in the championship, but if you look at how Waltrip won many of these races, he was extremely lucky (think of how he won both his only Daytona 500 win in 1989 and his only Southern 500 win in 1992 on fuel mileage for instance) and in this portion of his career he was much less dominant than Elliott, not even mentioning Earnhardt, who thoroughly eclipsed all other drivers in this era more than most people realize looking at the stats now. Elliott may still have had the best season, especially if you include his five missing wins, and likely his team deserved the title, but it appears Earnhardt may have already been the best driver before his reign of dominance began. Both Elliott and Waltrip were inflated by their teams, while Earnhardt seemed to have been hurt by his.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt927-1722343.4711.887
Bill Elliott721-1965432.2423.804
Neil Bonnett412-1111221.5841.433
Geoff Bodine514-1001011.5530.605
Cale Yarborough715-1322201.3191.502
Darrell Waltrip410-1222121.0941.080
Terry Labonte47-1111210.8461.393
Harry Gant35-700110.7041.038
Ricky Rudd23-311010.6670.553
Bobby Allison22-500000.4810.546
Tim Richmond46-800000.4240.574
Ron Bouchard12-200000.1980.208
Kyle Petty13-400000.1870.097
Richard Petty22-100000.1430.054
David Pearson11-100000.0400.010
Greg Sacks11-100000.0370.015
A.J. Foyt11-100000.0070.005
Benny Parsons11-100000.0030.016
Trevor Boys00-100000.0000.016
Dave Marcis00-100000.0000.015
Joe Ruttman00-100000.0000.027
Ken Schrader00-100000.0000.010
Lake Speed00-100000.0000.029
Rusty Wallace00-100000.0000.056


Although Tim Richmond's season tends to get more hype than Earnhardt's because he won more races than Earnhardt, had an even flashier style (while Earnhardt generally had a conservative points racing style actually for the most part despite his unfortunate tendency to wreck people, and even that was overblown in the '90s), and because Richmond's ascent to dominance was more rapid while Earnhardt's was more slow burning and sustained, that doesn't mean Richmond had the better season. Although there is one Richmond win missing in the data, Earnhardt significantly outperformed him in every category except wins and lead change record, and that likely indicates that Richmond only won more because he had the stronger team. Furthermore, Earnhardt led the points standings most of that season and needed to be more conservative to protect his points lead, while Richmond was coming from far behind, which meant he needed to be more aggressive to play catch up, which may be the only reason he ended up winning more races and setting a stronger lead change record in the first place. The fact that Richmond's teammate Geoff Bodine matched him in the number of races led with fifteen, and rarely did anything similar to that in any other season (except for 1994) also doesn't bode well for Richmond. Although Richmond certainly thoroughly dominated Bodine in any category you'd want to look at, particularly those related to on-track passing, the fact that Bodine too was so dominant in so many races (and was usually thoroughly dominated by his other Hendrick teammates in 1987-1989) indicates that Hendrick likely had stronger cars than Childress did that season, no doubt explaining why Darrell Waltrip went to Hendrick the following season after leaving the Junior Johnson operation. Richmond may have been flashier, and certainly had the second best season, but Earnhardt clearly deserved this championship. Just winning the most races doesn't mean you were the best driver. Waltrip's 6-12 record looks astonishingly poor considering he finished third in the championship, and clearly Bodine appears to have had the third best season. Morgan Shepherd's seven races led look interesting considering how much he struggled in most other seasons, but his lead change record was very weak although he did get a natural win at Atlanta. Chevrolet's increase in speed this season hurt Bill Elliott considerably as without the dominant cars he fell to a negative lead change record.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt1945-3355786.0035.365
Tim Richmond1531-2164444.0163.392
Geoff Bodine1529-2713423.5614.315
Morgan Shepherd79-1611111.3660.899
Darrell Waltrip66-1221101.3041.401
Bill Elliott614-1611111.0731.444
Harry Gant413-1301121.0351.163
Rusty Wallace46-721120.9000.899
Bobby Allison46-711000.5810.407
Neil Bonnett44-511000.5800.647
Terry Labonte34-202020.5540.584
Ricky Rudd23-300000.3640.854
Bobby Hillin, Jr.34-211000.3570.092
Buddy Baker25-201010.3130.253
Richard Petty22-310200.3000.155
Cale Yarborough33-200100.2680.311
Sterling Marlin24-500000.1340.115
Kyle Petty11-310000.0990.064
Rick Wilson11-000000.0580.037
Joe Ruttman11-200000.0440.143
Rodney Combs11-100000.0370.021
Phil Parsons11-100000.0310.005
Benny Parsons11-200000.0220.048
Pancho Carter00-100000.0000.015
Tommy Ellis00-100000.0000.020
Alan Kulwicki00-100000.0000.040
Dave Marcis00-100000.0000.099
J.D. McDuffie00-100000.0000.005
Jimmy Means00-100000.0000.019
Lake Speed00-100000.0000.015
Davey Allison00-200000.0000.069


Earnhardt pretty much unambiguously had the best season here no matter what you look at, even if Bill Elliott did have a higher lead change percentage, which may entirely reflect him having faster cars (which he clearly did on the superspeedways, posting a dominant Daytona 500 win among other things.) Elliott still had just as sizable a distance between himself and anyone else as Earnhardt had to him. They were first and second pretty unambiguously no matter what you look at.Although Terry Labonte finished 3rd in points in his debut season for Junior Johnson, and Darrell Waltrip finished 4th in points in his debut season for Rick Hendrick, they weren't particularly impressive. Neither of them won naturally (with Labonte beating Earnhardt out of the pits at North Wilkesboro and Waltrip bumping Labonte into Earnhardt on the last lap at Martinsville and passing them both as they spun; although Earnhardt only half-spun and saved his car, I still did not count that as a TNL for Waltrip, but it was debatable) and neither of them had such stellar lead change records with Waltrip only at 7-7 and Labonte at a dismal 8-15. Those two races indicate that Earnhardt was maybe even unlucky. Despite winning eleven races (one of which was missing), he actually had one more TNL than win. Unlike Elliott's 1985, Earnhardt's 1987 was dominant - and consistently dominant - across all categories. Tim Richmond was probably in his mere eight starts more impressive than all three of the Hendrick regulars (Waltrip, Geoff Bodine, and Benny Parsons) combined as he doubled their combined win total, TNL total, and nearly matched their lead share total despite missing most of the season. Hendrick clearly felt the loss of Richmond very badly. Davey Allison's rookie season was overrated as he led the most laps in 3 races but only led in lead shares twice, and had significantly more CRL than lead shares, but it was still highly impressive, and certainly more than his 1989 and 1990 were. Rusty Wallace probably had the third most impressive season as nobody besides Earnhardt and Elliott really came close to his nine races led, although on a percentage basis Richmond did much better and Allison did almost as well. Wallace was clearly underrated as he had more TNL than wins, more races with the most lead shares than races leading the most laps, and more lead shares than CRL. This likely presages Wallace's dominance in 1988 and 1989, although as it turned out, both of those seasons were overrated for him.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt2051-37101112118.9948.900
Bill Elliott1531-1565574.6364.221
Rusty Wallace912-1123122.2431.858
Tim Richmond49-422221.9481.047
Davey Allison613-1422321.8542.464
Bobby Allison35-412110.9600.840
Darrell Waltrip67-710000.9140.719
Ricky Rudd55-711000.8780.384
Geoff Bodine56-301110.8231.501
Ken Schrader35-1300110.7980.547
Terry Labonte58-1510100.6971.624
Richard Petty22-200000.5050.174
Buddy Baker24-200000.5000.349
Benny Parsons33-700000.3370.249
Neil Bonnett14-500000.3080.335
Morgan Shepherd22-200000.2570.383
Alan Kulwicki11-300000.1430.186
Rick Wilson11-000000.1390.060
Harry Gant11-200000.0670.167
Brett Bodine00-100000.0000.049
George Follmer00-100000.0000.067
Sterling Marlin00-100000.0000.132
Phil Parsons00-200000.0000.069
Brad Teague00-200000.0000.051
Dave Marcis00-300000.0000.266
Jimmy Means00-300000.0000.053
Kyle Petty00-410000.0000.213


This season had considerably more parity than the previous few (likely due to the Goodyear/Hoosier tire war) and is thereby significantly more interesting. While Earnhardt, Elliott, and Wallace effectively continued their dominance of the previous season, almost all categories had a lot more diversity within their leader lists. Earnhardt and Elliott still led the most races by a large margin, with both of them tied at fifteen races led. However, Wallace and Elliott both had higher lead change percentages than Earnhardt and certainly appeared more clutch at the end as they both won six races to Earnhardt's three. Curiously though, Earnhardt's 4 TNLs are right between Elliott's 5 and Wallace's 3 and except for wins and lead change record Earnhardt dominated Wallace in every category, indicating he was merely unlucky to not win a third straight championship, although this time Elliott may have outperformed him (they were certainly close.) All three of them led the most laps more often than they led in win shares, and all three of them had higher CRL than lead shares, indicating that in each case their teams may have been pulling more weight than in previous seasons. However, it was Ricky Rudd who clearly had the most underrated season, and maybe actually the best of his career. Although he only won one race and finished 11th in points, he was the last driver to take the lead on track four times (he was beaten out of the pits by Wallace at Riverside, spun by Earnhardt at the fall North Wilkesboro race, which oddly nobody mentions with regard to their famous contact in the race one year later, and blew engines at Richmond and Phoenix while leading; although his one win that year wasn't natural it doesn't make up for that bad luck.) Although Wallace fought for the championship and Rudd did not, Rudd had the best lead change percentage of everyone and had more lead shares than Wallace and wasn't too far behind Earnhardt and Elliott, and he did this in the Kenny Bernstein car which was not known for being a powerhouse. I've tended to find that Rudd's 1990s are generally overrated, but his 1980s do seem to generally be underrated to compensate for that, and it is fairly impressive despite Rudd being renowned as a conservative driver that he led in lead change percentage in three different seasons, one in each decade. Darrell Waltrip was a bit more impressive this year than the previous few, and thoroughly dominated teammates Geoff Bodine and Ken Schrader. Davey Allison was lucky to benefit from Rudd's engine failure at Richmond but was the TNL at Rockingham before being beaten out of the pits by Elliott and later crashing. Hoosier tires were very dominant early in the season with Neil Bonnett posting an 8-2 record and Lake Speed winning. Sterling Marlin was the most consistent Hoosier driver over the entire season with seven races led, but although he had some impressive on-track passes for the lead, he didn't really factor in any race wins, while Bonnett and Speed dominated theirs, so they both had more lead shares. Earnhardt, Elliott, and Wallace were still the most dominant, but it wasn't quite as pronounced as 1987 and Rudd certainly wasn't as far off from them as his wins and points position would indicate.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt1532-3034744.4274.963
Bill Elliott1528-2065633.7014.184
Ricky Rudd69-514342.8102.017
Rusty Wallace1017-1163432.6993.119
Darrell Waltrip722-1823132.2671.999
Davey Allison1018-1122132.2381.674
Geoff Bodine812-1500101.2491.349
Neil Bonnett38-222121.2460.796
Lake Speed46-811111.1250.919
Sterling Marlin710-800000.9660.847
Phil Parsons610-1011010.9260.547
Terry Labonte36-810010.8390.741
Ken Schrader58-1211010.7870.426
Morgan Shepherd24-601000.5300.285
Bobby Allison38-811110.4760.473
Rick Wilson25-300110.4010.438
Alan Kulwicki33-510000.3170.345
Harry Gant33-300100.2970.803
Brett Bodine23-600000.2720.499
Benny Parsons11-400000.2000.241
Buddy Baker22-300000.1420.130
Mike Alexander12-400000.0380.143
Richard Petty11-100000.0300.008
Mark Martin11-400000.0180.275
Dale Jarrett00-100000.0000.047
Chad Little00-100000.0000.032
Dave Marcis00-100000.0000.132
Butch Miller00-100000.0000.045
Jim Sauter00-100000.0000.018
Michael Waltrip00-100000.0000.056
Cale Yarborough00-100000.0000.032
A.J. Foyt00-200000.0000.034
Bobby Hillin, Jr.00-500000.0000.164


Rusty Wallace may have won the championship, but it appears that was entirely because he was lucky. He certainly deserved a championship for the amount of career success he had, but he was not the best driver this season. Despite Dale Earnhardt having a missing win in this season and Wallace having no missing wins in his career, it is clear that Wallace was tremendously lucky and Earnhardt was tremendously unlucky, which is certainly enough to make up for a 12-point swing. Earnhardt was the TNL 7 times but only won 4 races, while Wallace was the TNL only 3 times and won six, and Darrell Waltrip was even worse, matching Wallace in wins with only 2 TNLs. Earnhardt doubled Wallace in the number of races he had the most lead shares (despite Wallace nearly doubling Earnhardt in the number of races he led the most laps), and had nearly two more lead shares as well. Wallace nearly matched Earnhardt in cumulative races led, but didn't come close in lead shares. Clearly, Wallace was leading more - and winning more - through the efforts of his team more than through his own efforts, and that should likely explain why Earnhardt was likely better able to sustain his dominance over the next half decade than was Wallace (and Wallace's 1993 and 1994 both come out to be badly overrated too.) To be fair to Wallace, two of Earnhardt's races in which he was the TNL but did not win (the infamous North Wilkesboro race and the Bristol night race, where he crashed by leading) where arguably Earnhardt's fault, and mistakes he made that he should have paid the price for. Even adjusting for that effect however, I think Earnhardt's season was still stronger. Wallace was nowhere near as close of a threat to Earnhardt as he is regarded, nor was Bill Elliott, nor was Darrell Waltrip, making all of them look less impressive and Earnhardt even more. While Wallace's season was overrated, it was still clearly second best, but Waltrip's was hideously overrated. Note first off that he has almost the same exact record as his teammate Ken Schrader. Both of them led ten races and Waltrip's lead change record of 30-26 was nearly identical to Schrader's 30-27. However, despite only winning once to Waltrip's six times, Schrader actually beat him in lead shares (and was only one race behind him in the points standings.) Based on the preceding few seasons, Waltrip was clearly in decline, and looking at any other statistic other than wins here, he deserved nowhere close to the six wins he got, and by no means was head and shoulders above Schrader, although both of them were clearly far more dominant than Geoff Bodine. Alan Kulwicki's 1989 was even more underrated than Ricky Rudd's 1988. Despite finishing 14th in points and not winning any races, Kulwicki was badly unlucky, outdueling Wallace twice at the spring Rockingham and spring Richmond races and taking the lead right before cautions came out, at which point Wallace beat Kulwicki out of the pits both times to win (possibly this alone was enough for him to win the title) and he could never recover. Then Kulwicki blew an engine while leading at Charlotte where he was also the TNL. His six poles and being fourth in laps led come a lot closer to matching Kulwicki's performance than his lack of wins or his 14th place in the points standings does. It should be clear based on that why Kulwicki was offered the Junior Johnson ride in 1990 replacing Terry Labonte first, and why Bodine was the second choice. That's not even counting that Kulwicki nearly won the Daytona 500 on fuel mileage, not Waltrip, before cutting a tire with two laps remaining even though he had the fuel to finish; had he won that race, his career might be looked at very differently, although Schrader was overwhelmingly more dominant than anyone else at Daytona that year and was the TNL there. Kulwicki's 1989 was probably the most underrated season of any in the surveyed period.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt1852-3447586.6516.351
Rusty Wallace1536-2563944.8826.068
Ken Schrader1030-2712142.4901.491
Alan Kulwicki818-2003232.4871.429
Darrell Waltrip1030-2662212.2402.189
Bill Elliott611-1133211.4891.394
Mark Martin1117-2412011.3711.322
Ricky Rudd34-111111.2721.319
Harry Gant35-411120.8530.926
Terry Labonte510-1122110.7810.512
Davey Allison416-1621110.6860.941
Geoff Bodine69-1410110.6431.343
Morgan Shepherd314-1500200.4960.855
Rick Wilson33-200000.2730.104
Tommy Kendall11-100000.2380.011
Sterling Marlin11-201000.2000.116
Greg Sacks12-300100.1780.228
Dale Jarrett11-200000.1670.201
Kyle Petty22-200000.1640.080
Neil Bonnett24-600000.1520.079
Phil Parsons33-300000.1490.133
Dick Trickle22-300000.1110.230
A.J. Foyt11-200000.0290.026
Trevor Boys00-100000.0000.010
Bobby Hamilton00-100000.0000.016
Jimmy Means00-100000.0000.021
Larry Pearson00-100000.0000.016
Jim Sauter00-100000.0000.016
Michael Waltrip00-100000.0000.082
Dave Marcis00-200000.0000.040
Rick Mast00-200000.0000.055
Ernie Irvan00-300000.0000.142
Bobby Hillin, Jr.00-500000.0000.127


Dale Earnhardt was pretty much just as dominant in this season as he was in 1987 even if he won two fewer times in one more race. Just as in 1987, he may have actually been slightly unlucky, as he had one more TNL than win and one more race leading in lead shares than races he led the most laps. However, his last-lap cut tire in the Daytona 500 probably is responsible for most of that minor difference. Regardless, he thoroughly dominated all other drivers in all categories. This time unlike 1989 Wallace was a bit unlucky with 4 TNL to 2 wins but despite that he was certainly far further off from Earnhardt in 1990 than he was in 1989, and no one else comes close. Certainly not Mark Martin, who may have been the most consistent and had the highest average finish but had no business being even close in the championship battle. He certainly would have backed into the title had he not had the 46-point penalty, and this was far from Martin's best season. He had a losing lead change record for the third year in a row (and would not even have a winning one until 1992); he was 7th in lead shares and 6th in CRL and his dominance really wasn't commensurate for him being ahead of Earnhardt in points most of the season. Really, just like most of the rest of the period from 1987-89, Wallace and Elliott remained the closest thing to challengers to Earnhardt as usual, while Martin's power run would be a bit later from 1992-1998. Geoff Bodine may have finished 3rd in points but he wasn't necessarily as impressive as that indicates either. For the sixth consecutive season, the Junior Johnson #11 team, whether it was driven by Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte, or Bodine, had a negative lead change record, likely indicating Johnson had either the best strategist or pit crew, making all his drivers look better than they were (Johnson drivers in this era seemed to pretty consistently finish higher in the points standings than they were actually running in the race.) Ricky Rudd's move to the Hendrick team was clearly a successful one, as he had the highest lead change percentage of all drivers and beat teammates Ken Schrader and Waltrip by nearly all metrics (although Waltrip missed much of the summer due to an injury.) Ernie Irvan had a quite underrated breakout season as there is a staggering difference between his 2.1 lead shares and 0.8 cumulative races led. He was leading much more often through his own efforts than the efforts of his team. In addition to his win at Bristol, he was the TNL at the Southern 500 the following week, where he made three out of four passes for the lead before being beaten out of the pits by Earnhardt. Irvan's seasons being underrated continue as a general trend for him for basically every other year in the '90s. Finally, Davey Allison's season looks remarkably overrated. Although he did win two races, he won neither of them by an on-track pass for the lead and he only led four races naturally all on superspeedways usually early, giving him an astoundingly low 0.23 lead shares, considering how dominant he would be the next two seasons. Morgan Shepherd may have briefly led the points due to consistency in the early season, but did not earn his Atlanta win naturally, as he took the lead from Elliott in the pits upon the pit road crash that took the life of Mike Rich, and Earnhardt was actually the TNL there, as Elliott beat him out of the pits.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt1645-3191010118.5938.064
Rusty Wallace1223-2124544.4313.588
Bill Elliott914-812422.2203.225
Ernie Irvan69-712022.1260.794
Geoff Bodine717-2432431.9572.792
Ricky Rudd57-312121.4390.720
Mark Martin811-1332111.4091.576
Ken Schrader610-1101010.9520.644
Alan Kulwicki411-911010.9251.037
Kyle Petty34-1010200.7061.824
Darrell Waltrip34-400100.5840.683
Greg Sacks310-500000.5400.548
Derrike Cope34-421010.5170.257
Sterling Marlin11-101010.5000.241
Dale Jarrett22-200000.4330.149
Harry Gant33-211000.4030.175
Brett Bodine11-510100.3330.575
Morgan Shepherd22-610000.3110.609
Davey Allison45-420000.2260.607
Terry Labonte11-000000.1640.042
Dick Trickle11-200000.1640.174
Michael Waltrip11-200000.0670.060
Mike Chase00-100000.0000.054
Mickey Gibbs00-100000.0000.003
Irv Hoerr00-100000.0000.033
Tommy Kendall00-100000.0000.054
Rob Moroso00-100000.0000.050
Jack Pennington00-100000.0000.035
Jimmy Spencer00-200000.0000.052
Bobby Hillin, Jr.00-400000.0000.221


Clearly, this is one of the most interesting seasons for a variety of reasons. After a 1989 and 1990 that were much more lackluster than they seemed as he won four races despite only one TNL in those seasons, Davey Allison suddenly exploded into dominance in 1991 leading or sharing the lead in all statistical categories except for lead change record. This is usually attributed to Robert Yates no longer attempting to be the car owner, crew chief, and engine builder all simultaneously as he did for most of 1989 and 1990, and hiring crew chiefs Jake Elder, and eventually Larry McReynolds, to replace himself. Considering Allison has already proven to be one of the best unrestricted superspeedway duelists ever, but pretty lackluster at dueling at all other track types, it seems the main difference here is the speed of his cars in this season and in 1992. This is really the first season where it seems like Earnhardt was generally outperformed by another driver in every regard in terms of on-track leading, although it's worth noting that they were still tied in number of races with the most lead shares and very close on number of races led and total lead shares. It's also clear that much like with Tim Richmond in 1986 that Allison was probably more aggressive to try to come from behind and therefore won more and made more passes for the lead as a result. It's also worth noting that one of Earnhardt's wins is missing and none of Allison's are, which could make a difference here. They were clearly closely matched, and more closely matched than the points standings would indicate. My usual criticism of Allison that he was extraordinary on superspeedways and not so much on other tracks was definitely not the case this season. It does seem that he stepped it up as a driver this year too taking the lead on track at Richmond, both Bristol races, and Watkins Glen, tracks where he hardly ever factored - but sometimes lucked into wins anyway - prior to this point. Earnhardt likewise led at Watkins Glen and led three of the eight short track races, so it's not like he had that much of an advantage on the drivers' tracks either. Earnhardt was certainly more consistent than Allison and seemed to have a history of not battling as hard as he could have or not winning as often as he could have to ensure the title so if you prefer his season on that basis, I won't argue with you, but this is the moment when Allison became suddenly great for a brief period after two very overrated seasons prior to that. Wallace wasn't very far behind in terms of dominance and his 25-10 lead change record is electrifying, although unfortunately a bit contrived. Much of that stems from the spring Bristol race where NASCAR introduced the infamous odd/even pit rules where odd cars pitted on one lap and even cars pitted on the next. Outside polesitter Ricky Rudd was handed the lead on each restart by these bizarre rules, with Wallace passing him on each successive restart. This plus his late race passes of Ernie Irvan gave him a staggering 8-1 lead change record in that race (without it Ernie Irvan clearly would have had the highest lead change percentage, and without Rudd's record of 4-9 in that race, he'd be barely below negative instead of substantially), so it skewed a lot. Considering Wallace also made up three laps to win in that race, it was probably the best race of his career regardless. He was certainly unlucky as well though in spite of that race and the rain-shortened Pocono race because he had two more TNL than wins and three more races where he had the most lead shares than the most wins. While Irvan was underrated in 1990, he did win and lead more often than he should have based on his own efforts; however his very high lead change percentage and being second in the number of races led mean he still may have had an underrated season even finishing 5th in points. Alan Kulwicki had another underrated season with more TNL than wins and more races where he led in lead shares than led the most laps, but that is badly skewed by the spring Atlanta race where he won the pole and there were no on-track lead changes (because of the pit rules that forced all drivers to pit for tires under green.) Clearly the bizarre 1991 pit rules skewed a lot of drivers, like Wallace, Kulwicki, and Rudd, in some odd directions, which mean these have to be taken with a grain of salt to some degree. Rudd clearly had a disappointing season despite finishing 2nd in points in 1991. The man who led in lead change percentage in 1988 and 1990 only won one race when Michael Waltrip had the botched pit stop at Darlington, and even without the Bristol race, he still would have had a negative lead change record. However, it was Harry Gant who had the most overrated season. Despite tying Allison in wins, he wasn't even close on performance (unless perhaps you account for the difference between the Robert Yates and Leo Jackson teams) as he clearly lucked into the fuel mileage race at Talladega and didn't even lead two of the races in his four in a row streak (Southern 500 and Dover) naturally, giving him only 2 TNL despite his 5 wins and 4 in a row. It was a nice story, but overhyped, and his performance wasn't up there with Allison's, unless you think he overachieved for the level of his equipment substantially, which is arguable. Surprisingly, Sterling Marlin actually became the first Junior Johnson driver to finally achieve a .500 lead change record, after all previous Johnson drivers (except Neil Bonnett in 1985) had negative lead change records. He thoroughly dominated his teammate Bodine, who again posted another negative lead change record although neither of them were significant race factors. Bodine won a fuel-mileage race at Charlotte (with what many people speculated at the time was an oversized fuel tank, which would be no surprise for that team) but was a complete non-factor relative to Marlin. This is the start of Marlin's breakout which was much bigger and much more sustained than anybody realizes by looking at his stat lines. I must also offer a huge shout out to Dale Jarrett. Although his season was mostly forgettable besides his win, people seriously underrate the significance of his win. He passed the dominant driver of the year on worn tires on the last lap in a car with a clearly inferior engine on a horsepower track no less. This is actually the only time between Neil Bonnett in 1982 and Ryan Blaney in 2017 that the Wood Brothers earned a natural win on track, and Allison won the previous and following Michigan races, so this was no slouch that Jarrett outdueled. For him to do something that no other driver did in a 35 year time span may be his most impressive accomplishment. Anybody who still thinks Davey Allison was better than Dale Jarrett, or the best Yates driver in general, needs to look at that race carefully and explain it.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Davey Allison1743-2955564.5484.206
Dale Earnhardt1539-3734364.3383.001
Rusty Wallace1125-1024143.5111.765
Ernie Irvan1225-1621432.6112.469
Alan Kulwicki511-1312031.9670.511
Harry Gant816-1652511.8603.620
Mark Martin915-1911211.3341.965
Michael Waltrip48-801111.0980.826
Sterling Marlin711-1100001.0210.711
Ricky Rudd814-2010201.0001.317
Ken Schrader711-1722010.9891.494
Darrell Waltrip34-422010.7540.669
Kyle Petty45-611210.6881.325
Dale Jarrett22-411000.5520.204
Brett Bodine25-300100.4970.379
Hut Stricklin36-601000.4970.285
Jimmy Spencer22-400100.4100.744
Bill Elliott22-211100.1620.771
Joe Ruttman11-100000.1090.055
Geoff Bodine22-510000.0530.549
Bobby Hamilton00-100000.0000.020
Bobby Hillin, Jr.00-100000.0000.031
Ted Musgrave00-100000.0000.030
Dorsey Schroeder00-100000.0000.033
Stanley Smith00-100000.0000.039
Robert Sprague00-100000.0000.014
Terry Labonte00-200000.0000.277
Rick Mast00-200000.0000.145
Chad Little00-300000.0000.065
Morgan Shepherd00-300000.0000.243


To a degree, Davey Allison continued his dominance of 1991, but from a leading perspective, this year was nowhere near as impressive for him. However, when you consider that he was injured repeatedly, it may have been in that regard. While Allison did lead both Bristol races naturally, all his other races led came on superspeedways and he did not come close to having the diversity he did in 1991, despite the fact that the Fords were substantially faster. Considering his injuries, this is likely understandable. However, since he had a truly dismal start to 1993 from a leading perspective (and Ernie Irvan replaced him and instantly dominated to a greater degree than Allison was doing), I tend to believe these two seasons were anomalies for him relative to the rest of his career, or what would have come had he lived. He really stepped it up in 1991 for sure, but his cars seemed to carry him in 1992, where he was less dominant despite a greater speed edge. His lead change record looks less impressive. He had one fewer TNL than win, and also more CRL than lead shares, and more LML than LSL, and that even counts the 1992 Daytona 500 as a TNL because he passed Michael Waltrip who stayed out of the pits on a restart even though all his real competition was taken out in the Sterling Marlin/Bill Elliott/Ernie Irvan wreck for the lead. Alan Kulwicki, however, was again in some sense underrated. Although he only won two races to Allison and Elliott's five, he was somewhat unlucky while both of them were lucky as his 3 TNL and 3 LSL were right between Allison's 4 of each and Elliott's 2 of each (although one of Elliott's wins - the spring race at Rockingham - is missing and he did appear to dominate that.) Elliott's win at the spring race at Atlanta where he managed to stay out of the pits and lap the field after all the faster cars had pitted was maybe the luckiest of his career, and obviously we all know Kulwicki sacrificed the final race to secure the championship by making sure he led the most laps at the fall Atlanta race, so he wasn't the TNL there either. The trend of Junior Johnson drivers always having negative lead change records continues here, but what's particularly odd is that Elliott and teammate Marlin had the exact same lead change record at 12-13. Elliott won five races and Marlin won none and the season was considered a tremendous disappointment for Marlin, leading to him being fired and strangely replaced by Hut Stricklin. However, while Elliott clearly outperformed him by all metrics (and almost certainly more when you include the missing Rockingham race) they just weren't as far off in terms of dueling ability and lead change stats as you'd expect given the win difference. Marlin was the TNL for the spring Talladega race before Allison beat him out of the pits and wasn't passed. Considering the level of Ford dominance, it was disappointing for him, but considering he was passing nearly as efficiently as Elliott was, I think it's clear he shouldn't have been fired. While Allison and Elliott both had overrated seasons and Kulwicki had an underrated one, clearly the most underrated season was that of Mark Martin. Although Martin was technically eligible for the championship at the final race he was generally an afterthought compared to the other championship contenders, but his performance was just as strong if not stronger. His 20-6 lead change record was in fact one of the best lead change percentages ever recorded, especially shocking since Martin had had a negative lead change record in all previous seasons. This was clearly Martin's breakout, and to a degree that makes sense given the level of Ford dominance made pretty much everyone in a Ford look better and almost everyone in a Chevrolet and Pontiac look worse than they actually were, but Martin's year-to-year improvement here looks staggering, even more than any of the other championship contenders. He was tied with Allison in TNL and races with the most lead shares despite not leading the most laps in any race that season, indicating that he was putting himself in position to win and leading through his own efforts way more than it appeared from the overall results. This year, not 1990, is clearly when Martin made his jump to elite. With twice as many lead shares as cumulative races led, and his rankings in all the other lists, this is definitely one of the most underrated ever seasons despite him finishing 6th in points and still being eligible for the title. Ernie Irvan too was considerably underrated also tying Martin and Allison for most races with the most lead shares and TNL. Martin was the TNL at Phoenix when Allison beat him on a pit exchange and also at the Southern 500 before, like Allison, losing the race on fuel mileage to Darrell Waltrip in addition to his wins. In addition to Irvan's wins, he was also the TNL at Michigan before Harry Gant beat him on fuel mileage; however, the Morgan-McClure team only really specialized at plate races and with Chevy's horsepower disadvantage, Irvan's talent could really be only felt on the road courses, particularly in a year like this when there were rather fewer lead changes than a lot of other seasons. Almost all the other GM drivers except for Kyle Petty's bizarrely dominant season struggled, with Earnhardt especially having his first negative lead change record in many years, and his only one between 1984 and 1998.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Davey Allison1321-1854643.7924.637
Mark Martin1120-624043.1761.544
Alan Kulwicki1021-2323532.8853.506
Bill Elliott812-1342422.7553.070
Kyle Petty611-623432.7052.472
Ernie Irvan1016-1734142.6422.266
Rusty Wallace811-811311.6051.832
Geoff Bodine35-323131.4621.121
Sterling Marlin612-1301011.3860.949
Darrell Waltrip57-1031211.1901.161
Dale Earnhardt67-1011011.1781.286
Harry Gant45-621100.9211.195
Ricky Rudd57-810100.4650.974
Brett Bodine44-900000.4110.543
Morgan Shepherd12-100010.3930.139
Dale Jarrett23-500000.3010.381
Ken Schrader22-500000.2290.256
Terry Labonte12-300000.1430.284
Jimmy Hensley22-200000.1210.065
Hut Stricklin11-000000.1070.121
Bobby Hillin, Jr.11-100000.1060.000
Richard Petty11-100000.0280.031
Dave Mader III00-100000.0000.014
Rick Mast00-100000.0000.000
Greg Sacks00-100000.0000.015
Dick Trickle00-100000.0000.065
Michael Waltrip00-100000.0000.015


The right man won the title and the only real question here is whether the right man finished second. This season was clearly dominated by far by only four drivers: Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Ernie Irvan. Earnhardt led in almost all statistical categories in 1993 and in my opinion clearly outperformed Wallace in spite of Wallace winning 10 races to Earnhardt's 6. Wallace in 1993 clearly had by far and away the most dominant pit crew in the sport and that inflated his 1993 season very badly, as well as his 1994. Although Wallace did win seven of his ten races naturally, he won the other three by beating others out of the pits: Hut Stricklin at the spring Martinsville race and Harry Gant in both Rockingham races, none of which he led naturally at any point. Stricklin's opening lap pass of Geoff Bodine at Martinsville was actually the only pass in that race and gave him an entire lead share and an absurdly high ranking on this list. Earnhardt however was mostly unlucky, especially on the road course races, where he was the TNL in both before getting collected when cars wrecked in front of him both times (and had he won them both like he had dominated them, it's likely he would be thought of very differently as a road racer.) Earnhardt and Wallace ended up tied with 7 TNL but they led the most laps in the same number of races, and Earnhardt had the most lead shares in eight different races, twice what Wallace had. It is clear that Wallace was badly inflated by the strength of his pit crew in this season, just as in 1989, and he wasn't the best driver this season. The fact that he has a negative lead change record in a season in which he won ten races is especially shocking, but if he didn't have the speed of others and was granted the lead on restarts from having the fastest pit crew, that makes sense. The real question is actually whether Martin had a better season than Wallace, not whether Wallace had a better season than Earnhardt. Martin, who won four races in a row this season, continued his streak of being an impressive duelist that began in 1992 even though Ford didn't have nearly the advantage it had in 1992 (look how far Bill Elliott and Davey Allison drop while Martin actually arguably rises.) I long thought this season, not 1998, was Martin's most impressive, considering Martin had a much bigger advantage over his teammate and the other Ford teams in this year than he did in 1998 when much like 1992 almost everyone in a Ford looked better than they were, and it's nice to see a statistical basis of that. Although Wallace doubled Martin's win total and nearly doubled him in terms of the number of races with the most laps led, through Martin's own efforts he was the TNL 6 times (only one off both Earnhardt and Wallace) and in terms of lead shares he was way more dominant than Wallace, beating him by over two full lead shares and nearly matching Earnhardt, despite Wallace beating him by nearly two full lead shares. This indicates that again Martin had a massively underrated season, and while I don't think you can argue that Martin's season was better than Earnhardt's, I think it was at least just as good as Wallace's and possibly better, and that definitely defies the conventional wisdom. Irvan and Sterling Marlin were the only Ford drivers who looked strong at all except for Martin. Davey Allison had a dismal dropoff in 1993 (especially surprising since he had fully recovered from his 1992 injuries by then, but was seemingly much more dominant while injured) and only led one race naturally (his win at Richmond is the last race missing, but it appears he took the lead from probable TNL Kyle Petty in the pits under a caution period), yet despite Allison having a 2-6 record, Irvan had a far better 16-12 record and led 7 of the 9 races after he took the #28 car starting at the Southern 500. Irvan led more laps in those nine races than Allison did in the first 16 races of 1993, and more laps in his 20-race 1994 than Allison did in any season. Anyone who wants to argue Allison was better than Irvan needs to come up with a reasonable response for that. Despite being fired from Junior Johnson for whatever reason, Marlin had easily the best season of any Ford driver besides Martin and Irvan in terms of dueling. His lead change record of 8-5 was the best of anyone despite driving for the Stavola Brothers, he gave them their best championship finish since Dick Trickle in 1989 and was easily the most dominant in terms of on-track lead changes for that team since Bobby Allison in 1987 or possibly anyone ever. He dominated the inaugural race at Loudon before being beaten out of the pits by Allison, who would instantly be passed by Wallace, and he also dominated surprisingly at North Wilkesboro although Wallace passed him straight up there. Marlin way punched above the expectations of that team, and his 15th place points finish was quite impressive considering Jeff Burton, who would go on to double Marlin's win total, finished 24th and 32nd the next two seasons as the team would steadily get worse. This might be the most impressive season of Marlin's career actually given the context of his team, and it shouldn't be that big a surprise in retrospect that he began to really take off after this. Dale Jarrett was also somewhat impressive beating all three Hendrick drivers for the Joe Gibbs team, which was at that point a Hendrick satellite. He finished fourth in points, second highest of all the Chevy drivers behind only Earnhardt. This was the first time a Hendrick satellite operation had consistently outperformed all of Hendrick and is certainly worth praise. Coupled with his Michigan win in 1991, Jarrett was clearly underrated in this period as well, and maybe it shouldn't be such a surprise he did so well against Ricky Rudd when they were teammates for Yates, considering he outperformed him clearly in this season.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt1861-4967985.9805.601
Mark Martin1738-2756585.8784.654
Rusty Wallace1326-30107943.5096.571
Ernie Irvan1535-3033233.3892.943
Kyle Petty815-1311111.6701.568
Sterling Marlin68-500211.3591.080
Hut Stricklin23-301011.1230.226
Dale Jarrett813-1211001.0770.913
Jeff Gordon511-1101000.7810.689
Ken Schrader714-1700000.7440.716
Harry Gant34-102010.6150.698
Darrell Waltrip23-600010.4630.242
Ricky Rudd68-610100.4570.614
Geoff Bodine37-910000.4310.646
Jimmy Spencer23-400010.2990.133
Morgan Shepherd33-510000.2980.233
Davey Allison12-600000.1540.324
Rick Mast11-300000.1430.082
Terry Labonte11-100000.1070.137
Bobby Labonte11-500000.0950.084
Bill Elliott11-300000.0920.048
Bobby Hillin, Jr.12-200000.0800.015
Phil Parsons11-100000.0750.009
Ted Musgrave11-200000.0730.028
Brett Bodine23-600000.0690.279
Derrike Cope11-300000.0220.189
Dick Trickle11-100000.0180.010
Trevor Boys00-100000.0000.005
Dave Marcis00-100000.0000.032
Lake Speed00-100000.0000.010
Michael Waltrip00-300000.0000.169


Dale Earnhardt, now in his 40s, was clearly beginning to fall off from his previous dominance but he still deserved this title after Ernie Irvan's injury put him out for the rest of the season. Despite only starting 20 of the 31 races that season, Irvan still blows the other dominant drivers (Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Geoff Bodine) out of the water in all lead change related statistic. No one is even close, and I guess that shouldn't be that surprising if he won an award at the NASCAR banquet for most miles led despite not even running the last eleven races of the season. Earnhardt's only advantage over Irvan that kept him ahead of him in the points standings for much of the season was his consistency. Irvan was clearly outperforming him by all other metrics, and on a percentage basis, he would lead every metric except for wins. Again, that is because just like in 1989 and 1993 the dominance of Rusty Wallace's pit crews once again greatly inflated his season (when Ray Evernham would borrow most of Buddy Parrott's pit crew innovations for Jeff Gordon and do them better, not to mention Buddy Parrott leaving as crew chief and Todd Parrott leaving as car chief for the #2 team after the 1994 season, it should be no wonder Wallace's advantage disappeared in subsequent seasons.) While the other four dominant drivers that year all at least had .500 lead change records or greater, Wallace had easily the worst at 30-42, which again implies his pit crew did as much work for him as he did. His three more wins than TNL, two more races leading the most laps than earning the most lead shares, and having an additional CRL than lead share all indicate again this was an overrated season. Having said that, in only one race (the spring Martinsville race where Wallace beat TNL Irvan out of the pits) did it come down to the pit crews; his other lucky wins came in the Bristol night race when leader Bodine blew an engine and at the fall Dover race when leader Martin crashed while leading with a blown tire with a few laps left. While Wallace did have some underrated seasons, his career is clearly overrated as a whole considering all four of his major seasons (1988-89, 1993-94) were not as impressive as they looked. I gave Irvan credit for the TNL for both restrictor plate races Jimmy Spencer won since it is known that Spencer had an illegal car in those races and Irvan was the last driver with a legal car to take the lead on track, although others may disagree. This also makes Spencer one of only a handful of drivers to win a race without having any natural lead changes to his credit in that season along with Kyle Petty in 1987, Ricky Rudd in 1997, Elliott Sadler in 2001, and Chris Buescher and Tony Stewart in 2016. Irvan's other TNL that he did not win was the aforementioned spring Martinsville race. While Bodine thanks to his Hoosier tires and the absurd dominance they sometimes provided had one of the most dominant lead change records of the year (and only his second positive one since 1987) and certainly he had a much more impressive season than his points finish would indicate due to all the engine failures and crashes due to blown tires or being intentionally wrecked by his brother, he was to some degree lucky as his CRL was considerably greater than his LSL, indicating he was not as dominant as the amount he was leading would indicate, much like Wallace, and unlike Earnhardt, Irvan, and Martin. Martin again for the third straight time had a clearly underrated season with two more TNLs than wins and one more lead share than CRL, those races being the blown tire at Dover and the spring Bristol race where Bodine took the lead on caution flag pit stops before Earnhardt trapped him a lap down when Bodine pitted laps before a caution came out. Although he was outperformed by Irvan and Earnhardt, I'd say he outperformed Bodine when you consider consistency factors and he was once again comparable to Wallace. Wallace was not nearly as good as 1993-1994 made him look, but Martin was much better. Both played second-fiddle to Earnhardt and #28-era Irvan however. While Dale Jarrett's Joe Gibbs satellite dominated the Hendrick cars in 1993, that did not happen this year, as the addition of Terry Labonte to the team seemingly revitalized them and despite his conservative style and sub-.500 career lead change percentage, he had an unusually impressive 14-5 record here in a year all the other major Chevy drivers had .500 records or worse except for Sterling Marlin. Labonte was particularly stellar in the fall Richmond race which he won and earned a 7-2 lead change percentage, but note that that isn't that much better than his overall percentage for the season, so while he wasn't factoring in most of the races, he was truly elite when he was factoring, and in a year when the Chevies may have been a little down on horsepower to the Fords no less.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Ernie Irvan1652-40361085.5676.417
Dale Earnhardt1851-5143344.3483.223
Rusty Wallace1330-4285644.1395.315
Geoff Bodine1532-1934653.8605.057
Mark Martin1528-2124243.4652.513
Terry Labonte714-533231.9851.310
Jeff Gordon915-1921121.8951.647
Ken Schrader410-1100100.6950.600
Sterling Marlin712-911000.6850.496
Bill Elliott36-611000.6400.241
Ricky Rudd36-711000.5850.670
Lake Speed33-500000.3690.146
Dale Jarrett33-312000.3450.162
Jeff Burton34-500000.3320.389
Darrell Waltrip22-200000.2690.200
Rick Mast34-300000.2370.438
Todd Bodine24-500000.2230.224
Bobby Hamilton33-200000.2120.068
Morgan Shepherd22-600000.1830.221
Mike Wallace12-100000.1760.040
Hut Stricklin22-200000.1480.049
Harry Gant11-100000.1270.207
Bobby Labonte11-100000.1030.010
Ward Burton22-200000.0840.226
Ted Musgrave11-400000.0770.134
Joe Nemechek11-000000.0670.044
John Andretti11-200000.0590.124
Greg Sacks33-400000.0560.142
Chad Little11-100000.0370.005
Brett Bodine11-400000.0130.178
Loy Allen, Jr.11-500000.0110.063
Derrike Cope11-200000.0070.047
Chuck Bown00-100000.0000.000
John Krebs00-100000.0000.014
Dave Marcis00-100000.0000.066
Kyle Petty00-100000.0000.015
Kenny Wallace00-100000.0000.009
Jimmy Spencer00-320000.0000.242


Although the early '90s were interesting with a lot of unexpected surprises, the same cannot be said for this year. Jeff Gordon thoroughly dominated in all statistical categories except lead change record, which would consistently be a relative weakness for him compared to everything else: he was apparently always a better driver than a racer. The top five in the championship were more or less the top five in every single category as well, albeit in a different order, as Wallace this time unusually had an underrated season with 4 TNL and one lead share more than his number of CRL; his number of TNL tied Earnhardt, Mark Martin, and Sterling Marlin for the second most. While Earnhardt's consistency and lead share statistics certainly mean he had the second most impressive season, deciding between the other three is rather ambiguous. Martin again had the highest lead change percentage in 1995 as he did in 1992 but this time in a year Ford relatively struggled (Martin delivered half of Ford's eight wins that year, and did so on every track type). Wallace led just as many races naturally as he did in 1993 and 1994, but this time was probably a bit unlucky not to win more, though that doesn't counteract his inflated dominance of the previous two years. Compared to Martin, Gordon, Earnhardt, and Wallace all had positive lead change records but only barely, and Martin was clearly the best duelist, and even Marlin was a better duelist than them, although most of that clearly resulted from the #4 car's absurd advantage on the restrictor plate tracks that year that was a greater advantage than they had even in the years Ernie Irvan was there. Ricky Rudd's second owner-driver season was oddly more impressive especially from a lead change record perspective than almost all his Hendrick seasons. Overall, there really isn't a lot to say because most drivers more or less are probably where most people would expect in every category. Both of the Labonte brothers however stood out as having particularly overrated seasons this year, with Bobby inheriting the lead when TNL Ken Schrader blew an engine at the Coca-Cola 600 as well as winning a fuel mileage race, and Terry Labonte inheriting the lead when teammate Gordon missed a shift at Pocono and beating Wallace out of the pits at the spring Richmond race. Terry's dropoff is pretty astonishing considering he was the best duelist the previous year and the cars seemed to be infinitely stronger this year considering Gordon's dominance, not to mention the fact that Terry would go on to win the next year's championship.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jeff Gordon2254-53781177.1137.993
Dale Earnhardt1738-3654465.1354.365
Rusty Wallace1330-2624444.0812.988
Mark Martin922-1444442.6243.476
Sterling Marlin918-1434132.6142.066
Ricky Rudd917-1211121.9421.286
Bobby Labonte48-1131000.9390.879
Dale Jarrett59-1311100.8831.028
Bill Elliott35-800110.6620.618
Ken Schrader413-1101110.6270.737
Ward Burton35-111010.6240.436
Bobby Hamilton45-500000.5170.301
Ted Musgrave11-201010.4000.144
Terry Labonte33-531010.3581.029
Darrell Waltrip33-500000.3400.488
Wally Dallenbach, Jr.11-100000.3330.233
Kyle Petty22-310100.3280.624
John Andretti22-500000.1960.231
Rick Mast12-100100.1940.365
Michael Waltrip11-300000.1900.157
Derrike Cope11-300000.1780.182
Hut Stricklin11-200000.1560.137
Lake Speed12-200000.1110.034
Geoff Bodine22-200000.1040.050
Dick Trickle11-000000.0910.025
Robert Pressley11-200000.0670.103
Loy Allen, Jr.13-300000.0660.096
Morgan Shepherd11-400000.0550.105
Rich Bickle11-100000.0330.005
Brett Bodine11-100000.0220.015
Todd Bodine11-000000.0160.050
Steve Grissom00-100000.0000.040
Ernie Irvan00-100100.0000.433
Jimmy Spencer00-100000.0000.017
Jeremy Mayfield00-200000.0000.187


This year is mostly more of the same. Just as in 1995, Jeff Gordon led in all categories except for lead change percentage, and more or less most drivers should be where you expect based on the level of their dominance. Terry Labonte certainly didn't deserve the title but he did clearly step it up this season and with more TNL, LSL, and CRL than wins, he was probably unlucky to win only twice; it is interesting that his lead change record is better than Gordon's, but those differences are still too massive to really justify his championship. Sterling Marlin had the highest lead change percentage this time but that is ridiculously inflated due to his restrictor plate dominance. His 12-5 record on plate tracks gives him a decent, but not earth-shattering, 5-3 record outside them. If you discount the #4 car's plate advantage Ernie Irvan was perhaps surprisingly easily the top duelist of the year upon his comeback. The addition of the second car for Robert Yates Racing clearly reinvigorated them after Dale Jarrett had an okay but fairly mediocre 1995 by team standards, as both drivers proved to be exceptional duelists and had underrated seasons, with Jarrett having 5 wins to his 4 TNL and Irvan having 4 races where he had the most lead shares to 0 races where he led the most laps. Both Jarrett and Irvan had nearly an entire lead share more than their CRL, clearly indicating they were punching above their weight in terms of making passes, but likely didn't have pit crews able to compete with Gordon's, clearly a major advantage for him, which would become an even bigger one in 1997 as the Fords got even faster but Gordon remained just as dominant. Aside from the Yates drivers having better seasons than they looked, and Gordon and Wallace being a little lucky in terms of their race performance but obviously unlucky in terms of their championship performance (as they should have both finished better in the championship than they did based on the level of their dominance), few others really stand out as that lucky or unlucky as everybody else did more or less what they should have done, and there weren't huge gaps for the most part between championship rankings and rankings on this list for most drivers, except inevitably that the inconsistent drivers like Gordon, Wallace, and Irvan did a little worse in the championship than they should have. For a top ten points finisher, Ricky Rudd's 5-8 lead change record with his one win not being natural was a tremendous disappointment, especially considering how strong his 1995 was.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jeff Gordon2055-55108966.5086.432
Dale Jarrett1630-2545233.2802.195
Rusty Wallace1019-1454233.0352.775
Terry Labonte1126-2023432.7982.977
Dale Earnhardt1131-3121342.4682.494
Ernie Irvan1221-1222042.1951.205
Sterling Marlin817-823312.0461.819
Bobby Hamilton615-1111221.4031.547
Mark Martin1017-2400321.2372.619
Geoff Bodine55-711010.9370.426
Jeff Burton57-601010.7740.540
Bobby Labonte59-1311100.6961.119
Ken Schrader46-700000.6580.291
Hut Stricklin25-500100.4070.490
Ricky Craven23-700000.3020.387
Johnny Benson, Jr.22-301110.2910.552
Ricky Rudd45-810000.2810.469
Morgan Shepherd12-200000.2380.270
Jimmy Spencer24-600000.2270.408
Ward Burton23-500000.2250.129
Lake Speed22-100000.1970.051
Robert Pressley22-500000.1950.341
Ted Musgrave11-200000.1330.016
Kyle Petty22-100000.1110.164
Derrike Cope12-200000.0990.133
Michael Waltrip22-400000.0710.108
John Andretti11-200000.0610.157
Bill Elliott11-400000.0610.373
Jeremy Mayfield11-300000.0390.118
Dick Trickle11-100000.0280.010
Steve Grissom00-100000.0000.064
Dave Marcis00-200000.0000.101


This time, like in 1989, the wrong driver won the title, and for similar reasons. Dale Earnhardt may have finished barely ten points behind Rusty Wallace in 1989, and Dale Jarrett may have finished barely ten points behind Jeff Gordon in 1997, and Wallace and Gordon may have both won more races in their respective championship seasons, but the Dales clearly outperformed both of them in their respective seasons when considering the entire race performance and not merely who won. Much like most of Wallace's championship-caliber seasons, Gordon was very, very lucky. Although he had ten wins, he only had six TNL, as he beat Ward Burton out of the pits at Pocono, beat Jarrett out of the pits under caution in his Southern 500 win (actually, he beat Jarrett into the pits as Jarrett did not decide to pit until after Gordon had committed), beat Ernie Irvan out of the pits at Loudon, and won the inaugural race at Fontana on fuel mileage after Mark Martin had to pit late. Gordon clearly owed a lot to the Rainbow Warriors pit crew and Ray Evernham's strategy calls in this season especially and it wasn't nearly as dominant as it looks on the surface. Jarrett's season, however, was a lot more dominant than it looked on the surface, as he had 9 TNL to his 7 wins. Besides the Darlington race, he was TNL at Dover before crashing with Gordon while leading and was the TNL before future teammate Ricky Rudd won on fuel mileage at Indianapolis. Jarrett led both lead shares and CRL and was about equivalent at both indicating that he led proportionally just as often at almost all points in the race, but his greater TNL than win total indicate that he was stronger late and pretty clutch this season. When you further consider the Watkins Glen race, where Jarrett was penalized while running about 11th with a handful of laps left for smoke that turned about to be tire smoke and not engine related, dropping him to 30th, while Gordon was not penalized for jumping the final restart in the race despite Geoff Bodine's strong disapproval, and also considering Jarrett's general greater performance than Gordon in all the other categories, Jarrett has a much better argument for being robbed than Mark Martin does in 1990, but people don't usually tend to make that case. Irvan clearly had one of the most underrated seasons of the '90s in 1997 as he won one race and finished 14th in points, which looked so unimpressive relative to Jarrett alongside Irvan's off-track controversies that it led Robert Yates to fire him. However, although Irvan's performance wasn't anywhere near Jarrett's, it was far better than it looked on the surface. Irvan was extremely unlucky because he was the TNL four times (only behind Jarrett and Gordon that year) but only won once, as he was beaten out of the pits by Jeff Burton at the spring Loudon race and Jeff Gordon at the fall one and by Jarrett at the spring Darlington race. He factored in far more races that year than most people realize and was only behind Gordon, Jarrett, and Mark Martin in races led. With one more lead share than cumulative races led, that further indicates how unlucky he was. He nearly matched Martin, who had a very overrated season and really shouldn't have been in the title hunt that year, and Rusty Wallace, who had an underrated one (although most of that stems from the Sonoma race where he made the only pass for the lead and then drove off track very early in the race, handing Martin and the ultimate win, and likely skewing all such lead change stats pro-Wallace and anti-Martin for that year.) Despite Jeff Burton appearing to have his breakout, he had an overrated season and a negative lead change record. He inherited the lead at the inaugural Texas race when Todd Bodine crashed and beat Irvan out of the pits and wasn't a factor as often as it looked. Bill Elliott on the other hand was unlucky and a factor much more often than he looked, as he had the most number of lead shares in a race three times, seriously threatening for the win in both the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500 that year as well as the spring Michigan race. It was his only truly impressive season as an owner-driver. Aside from Gordon, this was a bad season for almost all Chevrolet drivers as GM started giving Hendrick in general and the #24 team more and more support particularly after Dale Earnhardt's injury at Talladega. Earnhardt still had a winning lead change record and still fares somewhat well here and seems unlucky not to have won. Although maybe he did not belong in the top five in points, he still didn't do as badly as many may expect. Rudd managed to match Jimmy Spencer as the only driver to win multiple races in a year without leading any races naturally, inheriting the lead after almost everyone else crashed at Dover and his Brickyard 400 fuel mileage win, although that is to some degree understandable considering all the owner-drivers were badly struggling at this point except for Elliott, who had arguably more success in terms of on-track performance than the Bodine brothers, Darrell Waltrip, and Rudd combined, except for Rudd backing into a couple of wins.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Jarrett2044-3079766.3926.165
Jeff Gordon2239-32106455.3744.912
Mark Martin1324-2443422.6973.469
Rusty Wallace813-1012332.5511.910
Ernie Irvan1018-1214232.4101.457
Jeff Burton912-1531211.7362.055
Bill Elliott713-1400131.6221.373
Dale Earnhardt619-1800121.0681.017
Bobby Hamilton611-1411011.0171.179
Ricky Craven511-1400110.8340.846
Terry Labonte36-412210.7900.999
John Andretti37-311110.6570.821
Bobby Labonte47-711210.5771.417
Joe Nemechek34-500000.5460.394
Kyle Petty11-301010.5000.543
Ward Burton45-601100.4900.487
Geoff Bodine22-400000.3740.366
Darrell Waltrip12-300010.3570.103
Ted Musgrave23-300100.3150.646
Sterling Marlin34-500000.2880.310
Ken Schrader33-600000.2070.165
Jeff Green11-200000.1790.084
Jimmy Spencer23-600000.1770.205
Michael Waltrip11-200000.1560.044
Hut Stricklin12-200000.1520.021
Kenny Irwin, Jr.11-100000.1330.030
Derrike Cope11-100000.1150.016
Robby Gordon11-200000.0950.128
Greg Sacks12-300000.0770.042
Robert Pressley11-100000.0560.028
Wally Dallenbach, Jr.22-200000.0360.117
Mike Skinner11-400000.0230.151
Todd Bodine00-100000.0000.027
Ricky Rudd00-120000.0000.234
Johnny Benson, Jr.00-200000.0000.127
Kenny Wallace00-200000.0000.000


Although Jeff Gordon certainly had the best season, it seems his advantage over Mark Martin was a little overrated as Martin was the most impressive duelist for the third time in seven years (1992, 1995, and 1998) with a 37-23 lead change record, recovering from a bit of a slump in 1996 and 1997 in terms of on-track passing. Although Gordon, Martin, and Dale Jarrett, all had more wins than TNL this year, for the most part they were relatively equal for everyone, with the main drivers affected being drivers who weren't regular threats like Johnny Benson (whose TNL is highly, highly debatable as Martin slowed down via gentlemen's agreement coming to a caution and Benson beat him to the start-finish line before Martin beat him to the pits) and Chad Little (whose TNL at Texas was actually legitimate before Martin beat him out of the pits). For all the talk of Gordon's luck (and he certainly won more races than he likely should have considering he didn't lead often enough for what one would expect from a 13-race season), his results seem more deserved than they were in 1997 although Martin's much higher lead change percentage means the difference in their performance was closer than it looked. Martin did in fact manage to lead more laps (barely) than Gordon in 1998, but Gordon tended to lead more at places that had fewer laps in a given race (such as restrictor plate tracks and road courses) more than Martin did, so when you consider all races equally, he was much more dominant in terms of leading. Martin's dominant lead change percentage was reflected in his having nine races with the most lead shares though, an unusually high number. It seems Gordon more thoroughly dominated the competition in 1995 and 1996 than he dominated Martin in 1998, although it's interesting that in none of the seasons of his heyday did he actually lead in lead change percentage (not until 2011 did he finally manage to do that.) That is far from the case in Dale Earnhardt or Jimmie Johnson's heyday as they were much better duelists at their peak, and does likely indicate that Gordon's peak was overrated, although not massively. Most other drivers did about as well as you'd expect they would have done. Earnhardt had his first negative lead change record since 1992 and only second since before the years covered in this study, and everybody in a Ford looked strong while almost all GM drivers except Gordon continued to look rather weak. One strong exception is Bobby Hamilton, whose 9-3 record would have been the highest lead change percentage had he managed to lead five races. Considering he substantially improved upon Sterling Marlin, finishing 10th in points to his 25th, this might have been his most impressive season and the season in which he was most underrated. Most of that came from his dominant Martinsville win where he went 6-1, but another quiet highlight was his Sonoma race where he passed Ricky Rudd before being passed by Gordon and nearly getting past Gordon again with a team that hadn't come close to doing anything like that since the Ernie Irvan years. For the most part though this season was about as dull as you think it was.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jeff Gordon1842-351311887.3747.060
Mark Martin1337-2376894.8035.184
Dale Jarrett1530-3332213.3642.721
Rusty Wallace1221-2811222.7082.676
Jeff Burton821-1822432.4662.922
Jeremy Mayfield816-1011221.9341.544
Dale Earnhardt512-1411111.3961.205
Bobby Hamilton49-311111.3491.010
Bobby Labonte912-1122111.1890.777
Terry Labonte49-712011.0101.090
Mike Skinner36-600110.6870.676
Sterling Marlin67-600100.6320.874
Ernie Irvan38-1000100.6320.854
Johnny Benson, Jr.56-401000.5840.324
Ward Burton45-801010.4800.416
Kenny Irwin, Jr.15-400110.4670.445
Ricky Rudd25-511010.4440.610
Kenny Wallace11-300000.3000.180
Chad Little12-301000.2530.206
Bill Elliott22-400000.2060.109
Ken Schrader11-400000.2000.222
Jimmy Spencer22-700000.1430.423
John Andretti23-600000.1140.318
Geoff Bodine11-200000.0990.102
Todd Bodine13-300000.0920.144
Ricky Craven11-300000.0440.059
Derrike Cope11-400000.0300.062
Brett Bodine00-100000.0000.076
Rick Mast00-100000.0000.159
Joe Nemechek00-100000.0000.161
Darrell Waltrip00-100000.0000.097


Jeff Gordon was the most dominant driver by all lead change stats except for number of races led for the first time since 1996, but he was far too inconsistent to really be championship-caliber, and his 47-57 lead change record was his first negative record since 1994, indicating he and not merely his team were not as strong as before. However, much of that stems from the fact that he was starting to have much more competition from the entry of new drivers like Tony Stewart, who managed to score the best lead change percentage in his rookie season, a feat previously unheard of. The addition of Stewart to the Joe Gibbs Racing stable clearly brought the team to new heights as Bobby Labonte led more races than any other driver, but didn't even approach Stewart's lead change percentage. Although Labonte was lucky to win five races when he was only the TNL three times, he did have more lead shares than CRL meaning that he seemed to be lucky in terms of winning races but fairly unlucky in terms of losing the lead via unnatural means earlier in the race. However, considering Labonte had never had a lead change percentage better than one lead change over .500 before, this was a considerable improvement for him. While Dale Jarrett's consistency was astounding, his season was overrated from a passing perspective and not as good as his 1997. With 4.3 cumulative races led to 3.2 lead shares, it's clear the improvements in the #88 team were likely the major contributor to Jarrett's improved consistency. Although Jeff Burton led the points for a while and nearly won as many races as Gordon (and led the most laps in as many races as Gordon), he was nowhere near as impressive as Gordon in terms of leading statistics as he won two more races than he was the TNL, and he led the most laps in two more races than the number of races in which he had the most lead shares. Jeremy Mayfield and Terry Labonte had fairly underrated seasons as they both had over a half more lead shares than CRL, although for Labonte, the vast majority of that difference will be the Bristol night race where he was the TNL and lead share leader but failed to win. Most drivers had fairly similar numbers across each category more than in most other years, but the ranking here is still quite a bit different from the points standings.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jeff Gordon2047-5777655.295.394
Bobby Labonte2150-4753344.4953.919
Tony Stewart1427-1633533.2583.256
Dale Jarrett1532-2644443.1944.336
Jeff Burton1134-2564643.1143.187
Rusty Wallace1022-2512542.7003.011
Mark Martin1630-3421112.0672.234
Dale Earnhardt720-1533141.7400.923
Jeremy Mayfield918-1401011.6920.929
Terry Labonte59-712121.4530.944
Mike Skinner1116-1600201.2251.462
Ward Burton813-1500001.1890.839
John Andretti66-512010.8200.809
Joe Nemechek33-611010.4630.444
Steve Park15-900000.2630.478
Michael Waltrip35-500000.2260.227
Jimmy Spencer11-101000.1820.194
Bill Elliott12-300000.1780.070
Kyle Petty11-200000.1110.024
Kenny Wallace11-100000.0830.112
Sterling Marlin23-500000.0750.191
Rick Mast11-300000.0360.103
Kevin Lepage12-300000.0350.067
Ted Musgrave11-100000.0280.018
Wally Dallenbach, Jr.22-300000.0270.080
Ernie Irvan11-100000.0220.039
Ricky Rudd22-300000.0180.114
Ken Schrader11-400000.0050.033
Geoff Bodine00-100000.0000.038
David Green00-100000.0000.026
Kenny Irwin, Jr.00-100000.0000.104


The same three drivers dominated in all advanced leader metrics in 2000, but none of them were the champion. Jeff Burton, Rusty Wallace, and Tony Stewart were the most dominant drivers in 2000 by most metrics but in terms of lead shares Burton stood alone with a fairly large lead despite Rusty Wallace having nearly 2 more CRL than him. Clearly Wallace was getting lucky to lead as often as he did mainly because of how many pole positions he won and perhaps his team's pit strategy as well. Burton obviously gained a tremendous amount by his leading every lap of the fall race of Loudon, but that doesn't actually play any role in his lead shares to CRL difference since he was the only driver to take the lead on track in that race giving him a full lead share and also the only driver to lead any laps giving him a full cumulative race led as well. Even without the Loudon race however Burton was the most impressive driver from a leading perspective as he would still be leading in lead shares without it. He was particularly strong versus his Roush Racing teammates, as he had more than twice as many lead shares by himself as the rest of the Roush drivers had combined. It's no wonder he was probably most people's preseason favorite to win the championship in 2001 after a season like that, even if Stewart won the most races (and once again had one of the best lead change percentages), Wallace and Stewart had the most TNL, and Wallace alone led the most laps the most times. Burton however scored the most lead shares most often and that played the difference here. He also led the most races and you can tell NASCAR was getting substantially more competitive at this point because this is the first time since 1992 that as few races led naturally as 16 topped the list in that category. It was also the first time since 1992 that the champion actually had a losing lead change record, but Labonte certainly did an excellent job of making passes for the lead late in the race when it mattered as he managed to have nearly twice as many lead shares as cumulative races led (particularly in the Brickyard 400 where he trailed Wallace nearly the whole way before a pass near the end; the way he stalked Wallace in a race-long duel before finally making his move late may have actually made it the best race of his career). Although Jeremy Mayfield's season was one of the most unbalanced in Cup history, his stats across all the advanced leading statistics were astonishingly balanced. Ricky Rudd's 16-6 lead change record looks fairly shocking considering he failed to win a race and most of his other stats don't look that hot either, but despite being considered to have a conservative style, he (like fellow conservative driver Mark Martin) did manage to each lead in lead change percentage in three different years. On-track passing clearly appears to be one of Rudd's strengths in his heyday, perhaps because he was best on road courses and short tracks, which don't tend to have as much passing and repassing as the superspeedways, allowing him to hold the lead longer than superspeedway specialists often can. Jerry Nadeau's season looked more balanced and less underrated than I was expecting, probably because the vast majority of his lead changes came in a handful of Atlanta and Charlotte races where he was dominant, but he was rather lackluster in a lot of other races. Ward Burton had a tremendously overrated season as he had a very poor 6-14 record and a half more CRL than lead shares. Many would argue this is understandable considering the weakness of the Bill Davis equipment, but I would expect him to be higher than 14th in lead shares in a year he was in the top ten in points the entire season.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jeff Burton1630-2144564.9823.698
Rusty Wallace1533-3145643.6985.233
Tony Stewart1021-1265443.3333.455
Bobby Labonte1221-2344152.9551.642
Jeremy Mayfield1227-2723322.6092.620
Dale Jarrett912-1222331.9941.504
Jeff Gordon919-2533221.9931.440
Ricky Rudd816-600101.5951.352
Dale Earnhardt1021-2121011.4961.109
Mark Martin1020-1710101.4141.867
Jerry Nadeau715-711111.2541.057
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.717-1222221.2021.421
Mike Skinner713-1701111.1411.135
Ward Burton46-1411111.0361.533
Matt Kenseth46-411110.5350.597
Geoff Bodine11-001010.5000.073
Steve Park23-610100.3381.198
Johnny Benson, Jr.23-400000.3330.305
Ricky Craven11-100000.3330.233
Bill Elliott34-500100.3240.586
John Andretti33-200000.3240.046
Jimmy Spencer35-500000.2000.182
Bobby Hamilton24-300000.1870.188
Terry Labonte22-300000.1520.095
Ken Schrader11-200000.0350.091
Kevin Lepage11-300000.0190.127
Scott Pruett11-100000.0130.128
Dave Marcis11-100000.0020.045
Dave Blaney00-100000.0000.010
Mike Bliss00-100000.0000.021
Kenny Wallace00-100000.0000.146
Scott Wimmer00-100000.0000.028
Joe Nemechek00-200000.0000.025
Sterling Marlin00-300000.0000.409
Robert Pressley00-300000.0000.053


While this season was the beginning of the three-year period that was clearly the most competitive in NASCAR Cup history, the season in general was no contest as champion Jeff Gordon led in every leading metric except (as usual) lead change record, which continued to remain a weakness for him. However, he factored in so many more races than anyone else and dominated many more races than anyone else to the point it ended up not mattering. Tony Stewart only ranked 9th with 7 races led naturally, which would be his career low all the way until 2013, and his 17-14 lead change record was worse than most seasons in his prime. However, Stewart was extremely impressive in the races he did lead, earning the most lead shares in four races despite only leading the most laps in a race once, giving him about twice as many lead changes as CRL and ultimately resulting in his being ranked second in lead shares as well as the championship. Chip Ganassi's purchase of the SABCO team and the team's switch to Dodge revitalized Sterling Marlin's career and finally gave him cars capable of winning again, and he was impressive all year long actually posting the second highest total of races led (something I don't think most fans remembering this season would expect.) Although he was no longer the amazing duelist he was in the mid-'90s and also posted a mere .500 record, he also had four races where he scored the most lead shares despite only leading the most laps twice, placing third in this ranking as well as the championship, and none of the other Dodge drivers were even close. Despite being a championship contender throughout the first half of the season, Dale Jarrett actually had a losing lead change record, but like Stewart also posted four races where he had the most lead shares despite only leading the most laps in one race. While he doesn't gain as substantially as Stewart did, his season was fairly underrated from a leading perspective although since he ended up winning four races and finishing fifth in the points, his leading stats about what you'd expect based on his overall series performance. Despite how competitive this season was, it's astonishing how close this ranking came to the actual points standings (as opposed to 1998, where the ranking came even closer to matching the points standings, but nobody really viewed that season as very competitive at all compared to the surrounding seasons.) Sure, Jarrett and Ricky Rudd may have been Gordon's closest challengers in the points standings for most of the season, but they did decline late and it really doesn't look based on this that Stewart and Marlin's eventual second and third place points finishes were undeserved. This was clearly Dale Earnhardt, Inc.'s breakout season as the three regular drivers combined for an impressive 48-33 lead change record (59.3%), and perhaps surprisingly, Steve Park came out as the season's best duelist. Despite missing the last third of the season due to his Darlington Busch Series crash, he was still seventh overall in lead shares, which shows some sign of how impressive his dominance was. In addition to his Rockingham win, he was quite dominant at Darlington before being beaten by Jarrett out of the pits, and indeed losing that Darlington race marks the main difference between him having one win and two races in each of the other categories, as he led the most laps, earned the most lead shares, and was the TNL at Darlington (although his other race where he led the most laps actually at Indianapolis, not at Rockingham.) I know at the time I was more impressed with Park and thought he would have more staying power than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. I was wrong, even at the time, as this was clearly Junior's breakout and he looked a lot more balanced. However, it's clear that at this time Park's season was underrated as he had .6 more lead shares than CRL, while Junior's was a bit overrated with .5 more CRL than lead shares. Having said that, the most overrated season once again belonged to Rusty Wallace who led the most laps four times but only had one race in each of the other categories, and accumulated an entire lead share more than his number of CRL. Although Wallace won one race after this, this is largely the end of his relevant career, and it seems one can come to the conclusion looking at his career in general that it was for the most part overrated, particularly in his peak seasons. Kevin Harvick's season was very similar to Park's as he also had one more TNL than win (due to his cut tire at Bristol that gave Elliott Sadler the win) and also had substantially more lead shares than CRL, even to a greater degree than Park did, and his lead change record was right up there with Park's as well. Bobby Labonte was actually underrated this year despite lucking into the fall Atlanta race when Jerry Nadeau ran out of fuel as he had twice as many lead shares as cumulative races led and was clearly leading more than he should have been based on the speed of his cars and/or strength of his teams in general (as Stewart had a very similar ratio between lead shares and cumulative races led as well, this does not seem like it was a good year for the team in general, but the drivers succeeded in spite of it.)

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jeff Gordon2050-50671196.0147.821
Tony Stewart717-1433142.8431.461
Sterling Marlin1432-3222242.6712.020
Dale Jarrett919-2143142.6131.820
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.1030-2533432.4302.980
Ricky Rudd1218-1622012.3271.876
Steve Park612-512222.2241.592
Rusty Wallace915-1211412.0243.126
Kevin Harvick914-823211.9111.147
Bobby Labonte912-1021011.5230.726
Jerry Nadeau48-502020.9410.599
Bill Elliott69-1011110.8860.801
Jeff Burton45-1021300.8551.306
Joe Nemechek24-411110.6510.623
Ward Burton512-1311100.6280.587
Jimmy Spencer45-400010.6240.786
Bobby Hamilton39-811100.5540.535
Robby Gordon22-210000.5280.380
Jeremy Mayfield44-200000.4930.177
John Andretti23-301010.4090.108
Ricky Craven46-410100.4030.401
Michael Waltrip46-311000.3560.456
Johnny Benson, Jr.33-800000.3110.397
Todd Bodine57-800000.2730.394
Mike Wallace22-200000.2490.177
Mark Martin33-1200100.2300.588
Kurt Busch23-600000.2250.409
Kenny Wallace11-200000.1900.266
Mike Skinner37-700000.1490.198
Dale Earnhardt14-400000.1040.085
Ron Hornaday, Jr.22-200000.0900.077
Dave Blaney22-100000.0790.268
Casey Atwood11-400000.0560.468
Ken Schrader23-200000.0490.049
Matt Kenseth11-400000.0450.364
Andy Houston11-100000.0240.005
Jason Leffler11-300000.0200.065
Ron Fellows00-100000.0000.212
Ryan Newman00-100000.0000.044
Elliott Sadler00-110000.0000.293
Stacy Compton00-300000.0000.058


As already cited, this was the most competitive year in NASCAR history. Despite this season having 36 races, no single driver led more than 14 races naturally and there were different contenders almost every week, even in the points standings. Hardly anyone could string even three consecutive good weeks together, making this a very interesting and exciting season to watch and also making it easy to understand why this was essentially NASCAR's peak in popularity as well. It further helped that the three biggest stars and arguably the three most popular drivers both in 2002 and 2003, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Tony Stewart, and Jeff Gordon, were the top three drivers in lead shares in that order both years. This was the only season in Cup history where the champion (Stewart), most consistent driver (Mark Martin), most dominant driver (Earnhardt, Jr.), driver who won the most races (Matt Kenseth), and driver who led the points standings for most of the season (Sterling Marlin) were all different drivers, and the same diversity existed in the leading categories as well. Even though he finished a mere 11th in points, that hardly reflected how Junior ran and in general he was the most dominant driver throughout the year. This was greatly aided by his absurd dominance on the restrictor plate tracks of course, but while that could and does carry him far, it's certainly not everything, as Michael Waltrip isn't near the top of any of these lists. Junior didn't even lead either Daytona race naturally this year so his number of natural races led without the plate tracks would be twelve, still tied for the most with Stewart and (surprisingly) Ryan Newman. People who want to reduce Junior as just a restrictor plate specialist are wrong, just as people who want to reduce Marlin like that. They may have been best on those tracks, but they weren't slouches elsewhere. Waltrip I think is another story. While Junior in general was the most dominant driver with the most races led, lead shares, and cumulative races led, this season was so competitive that not only did he not lead any of the five other categories, they were all led by different drivers! Stewart was only not the best duelist this year because Rusty Wallace (shockingly, in his first winless season since 1985, especially considering the low lead change records he had in a lot of his best years) had the best lead change record with a relatively small sample size. However, in general, it's clear that in this portion of the career Stewart was the best duelist, and in a year where the field was so deep that nobody had the capacity to be consistent for many weeks in a row (and all the teams were well-funded enough that pretty much anyone, even the mediocre drivers could have a dominant run out of nowhere), that might have been enough to carry him to the championship. Stewart's six TNL do indicate that he was unlucky to only win three races and make a far stronger case for him being championship caliber. In all three races he was the TNL but did not win he was beaten out of the pits (by Kenseth at Texas, by teammate Bobby Labonte at Martinsville in his only short track win, and by rookie Jimmie Johnson at Dover), indicating he didn't choke any of those races or anything. Stewart is only barely behind Junior in lead shares and again has one more lead share than cumulative races led, but was somewhat more diverse in his dominance, considering Stewart was better on the short tracks and road courses than Junior was. Gordon was nearly tied with Junior and Stewart in lead shares this year as well, and while he like the other two also had more lead shares than CRL indicating an underrated season, one of the races where Gordon was TNL and did not win was the Daytona 500, where his block of Marlin was arguably his fault. Although his record in general looks almost identical to Stewart's in every way possible, I've got to rate Stewart higher than Gordon also as he had more TNL than wins, and none of Stewart's additional TNL races in which he did not convert to wins were his fault; not to mention that Stewart ended up ahead of Gordon in lead shares despite being a half a cumulative race led down to him. Despite winning a series-leading five races, Kenseth was extremely lucky and benefited from pit strategy early and often, and his number of lead shares and statistics in all the other categories are tremendously disappointing, particularly his 12-21 record. Despite winning the most races that year, Kenseth's real breakout came later. Marlin's points lead for most of the season may have been more justified than most people now think it was. Despite only leading seven races naturally all season in the 28 races he started before his Kansas crash effectively ended his relevant career, he was the lead share leader in six of them! This was more than any other driver managed for the entire season despite not starting all the races. Admittedly, four of those races were among the first five races (Daytona, Rockingham, Las Vegas, and Darlington), so one can likely accuse Marlin of stroking after that point. Once he had a solid points lead after Darlington, solely because he was one of the only drivers to manage to string five consecutive top tens together at almost any time all season, he probably got complacent and protected his points lead too much, but that must be laid at the feet of Bob Latford and the perverse incentives his points system created, rather than Marlin himself. Marlin knew that was likely the first and last time he would ever have a legitimate shot as a championship so he probably took it easy in a lot of races he could have fought harder to protect his points lead. Marlin's season certainly looks better than I thought it would and while I don't think based on these data that he would have deserved a championship over Stewart, his leading the points standings for so long indeed seems to have been almost justified. Newman might have had the most impressive season of his career as he was second in races led behind only Junior despite being a mere rookie, but unlike his future teammate/boss Stewart in his rookie season, he was a surprisingly weak duelist for his level of dominance at 16-24, and this is a trend that would stay with him for his entire career. In every single season of his career, even the good ones, Newman would have a negative lead change record. Yet he is still considered the hardest to pass, when nobody seems to say that about the driver who actually was the hardest to pass, which was Stewart.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.1434-3123333.7703.475
Tony Stewart1225-1536453.6702.551
Jeff Gordon1225-1635553.6273.113
Kurt Busch1227-2343332.8103.158
Sterling Marlin711-1123262.6971.879
Ryan Newman1316-2412322.2862.753
Jimmie Johnson812-1033322.0842.360
Matt Kenseth912-2152221.6142.138
Bill Elliott710-922121.6011.353
Ricky Rudd68-612121.4341.144
Dale Jarrett910-1321201.2501.613
Rusty Wallace77-400001.0540.631
Ricky Craven57-800000.8670.918
Johnny Benson, Jr.33-411000.7530.402
Jimmy Spencer35-300010.6550.464
Mark Martin47-810100.6061.047
Joe Nemechek23-500110.5790.703
Jeff Green35-600000.5090.308
Ward Burton45-621200.4860.906
Bobby Labonte12-310010.4670.311
Kevin Harvick56-710100.4500.693
Robby Gordon22-000000.4130.356
Jeff Burton44-700000.3900.518
Bobby Hamilton24-300010.3740.162
Jamie McMurray11-111100.3330.290
Michael Waltrip46-511100.2840.974
Jerry Nadeau22-300000.1710.404
Terry Labonte12-200000.1520.022
Ken Schrader12-100000.1450.230
Greg Biffle11-000000.1430.030
Elliott Sadler22-200000.1320.104
John Andretti11-200000.0730.170
Jeremy Mayfield23-400000.0610.186
Steve Park11-200000.0480.142
Mike Skinner11-100000.0110.006
Geoff Bodine00-100000.0000.010
Todd Bodine00-100000.0000.075
Frank Kimmel00-100000.0000.015
Dave Blaney00-300000.0000.207


In many ways this was a virtual replay of 2002 with the same three drivers, the biggest stars of the time, once again being the most consistently dominant in advanced leader statistics, with a continuation of the trends of numerous winners, different contenders at each race, and pretty much every driver being able to contend at some point during the season. However there are several differences. The main difference between 2002 and 2003 is that 2002 seems to have been the last gasp for a lot of the veteran drivers: Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace, and the like would never be truly relevant again, while this year would be the last hurrah for Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte completely fell off the map after this season (despite somehow getting one of the most undeserved top ten points finishes in history in this season and backing into a Southern 500 win to bookend his career, Terry Labonte was already irrelevant, as he was only 29th in lead shares.) Although NASCAR was still at or near its popularity peak at this point, it was beginning to come off it slightly and the effects of the 2001 recession likely led to a reduction in sponsorship among the backmarker teams, which likely led to a consolidation among the premier teams, so the most dominant drivers were a bit more dominant, but there still didn't seem to be an obvious standout if you were actually watching the races. But there was. Too many fans have sneered at Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for too long (he led in lead shares and races led in 2002 despite having a mid-season concussion!) While Junior may have been great/elite for a rather short period, in that period he was greater than I think most people think, and not just on the plate tracks. He was extremely unlucky this season as he was the TNL 5 times (tied with Ryan Newman for the most) and earned the most lead shares in a race seven times, substantially more than anyone else. You can see how underrated Junior's season was just by looking at the difference between lead shares and CRL. Despite having only 3.5 cumulative races led he managed to accumulate six lead shares. In terms of the difference between lead shares and CRL, this is the most underrated season in Cup history (with Rusty Wallace's 1993 being the most overrated.) It seemed like anyone who was watching in this era did not feel that any one driver was this much above the rest, and probably no one who was watching at the time would have figured it would be Junior either. People continued to focus on his restrictor plate dominance in that period and failed to notice how much he stepped it up everywhere else solely because he wasn't winning often outside the plate tracks. Once again, even if you exclude the plate races, he still had more races led than anyone else (and once again, he didn't even lead the Daytona 500, so he is not leading any of these lists, especially this year, solely or even primarily due to his restrictor plate dominance, which was somewhat less this year than the other years from 2001-04 anyway actually.) Unfortunately, this season is one that I did not watch while it was running, and that is probably one of the main reasons why I underrated Junior. But no longer. The backlash that resulted from him being the most popular driver of his generation but not the most successful caused me and many others to overlook the greatness that did exist. His career honestly looks better than Davey Allison's for sure but nobody will ever argue that because we saw Junior's decline while we did not see Allison's. In addition to his wins at Talladega and Phoenix, Junior's other TNLs came at Daytona (where Greg Biffle beat him on fuel mileage), Pocono (where Ryan Newman did likewise), and even Watkins Glen! (Robby Gordon may have dominated the race, but Junior actually made the only on-track pass for the lead in that race, and if he was strong enough to even earn entire lead shares at the discipline that was arguably his worst, that says something about how impressive he was at this time.) Stewart for the second time posted the best lead change record at 24-11 but led in no other categories, although as usual his lead shares were considerably above his cumulative races led and he was certainly running better than his seventh place points finish would indicate. However, Jeff Gordon's decline apparently begins here, not in 2008 as most think. Although Gordon was ostensibly the most dominant driver of the year with the highest number of cumulative races led, he had over one fewer lead share and led the most laps six times despite only leading in lead shares four times and winning even less often than that. This would become a trend for Gordon throughout 2007 as he would consistently lead more than he would put himself in the lead over the next five seasons, although oddly this began reversing in his down years, as 2008-2011 his lead shares were suddenly above his cumulative races led again pretty consistently. This would lend credence to the argument that actually Gordon's performance was pretty even for almost the entire period from 2003-2011, but he looked better in the earlier years when his teams were stronger, and looked worse in the later years when his teams were weaker. It might not have had anything to do with his Las Vegas 2008 crash at all. Newman certainly had one of the most overrated seasons in history. Despite winning eight races, he had the most lead shares in exactly... zero. This indicates a driver who did not take the lead very often at all except at the end. While he dominated many races at the start due to his qualifying domination, and backed into many races at the end due to pit strategy and fuel mileage, he didn't lead much during the middle of races, and really didn't run nearly as well as any of his basic stats would indicate. Winning eight races to only eleven races led naturally is pretty embarrassing, as is his again negative record 13-18 as is the fact he only led the most laps three times and had five TNLs. Junior and Stewart at least were passing people at all portions of the race. Junior was especially strong at passes in the middle of the race, which are harder to notice when they aren't ultimately the pass for the win, but at least Junior was doing the work himself. Newman was being totally carried by his team. However, the champion Matt Kenseth looked even weaker, leading only six races naturally all season, the lowest total of any year since at the latest Darrell Waltrip's 1985 (but I would guess not since there are many races missing from that season.) Alan Kulwicki in 1992, Terry Labonte in 1996, Brad Keselowski in 2012, and Jimmie Johnson in 2016 all led more races in those championship seasons than did Kenseth in this year. He actually had an additional TNL at the Coca-Cola 600, where Johnson beat him out of the pits and his 9-6 lead change record is pretty good, but that's hard to justify as a championship season. It was almost a lucky coin flip that made Kenseth a champion and Junior not, when Junior so grossly outperformed him this year (although obviously the DEI cars were quite strong as this is Michael Waltrip's greatest performance). I still think Kenseth was likely a better driver than Junior, but now I have to think about it. One can understand based on Kenseth leading almost the entire season despite only ranking tenth in lead shares and tied for 11th in races led why NASCAR would decide to change the points system after this season. Even comparing to vaguely similar recent seasons Kenseth pales. As much as Marlin coasted in 2002, even he was more substantially dominant despite missing the last eight races. However, the Chase did not resolve the issue that allowed people to coast to championships. It just decreased the sample size of races for which points racing was more vital, making it even more likely, not less, that someone would luck into a championship.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.2038-2625476.0163.543
Tony Stewart1224-1123544.6233.208
Jeff Gordon1529-2833643.1084.321
Jimmie Johnson1222-2431212.2632.366
Kurt Busch1015-1344142.1881.920
Bobby Labonte816-2221121.9361.510
Michael Waltrip610-523131.9351.043
Ryan Newman1113-1885301.8403.648
Kevin Harvick1314-2111211.6062.021
Matt Kenseth69-612111.5771.271
Bill Elliott712-712331.5292.027
Rusty Wallace813-1100100.7811.147
Jamie McMurray37-700010.7560.526
Robby Gordon12-421210.6671.227
Elliott Sadler47-1000100.6060.661
Sterling Marlin34-601210.5710.921
Greg Biffle23-211010.4820.683
Mark Martin44-500000.4770.468
Dale Jarrett23-311000.4490.179
Jeff Burton33-500000.4120.410
Joe Nemechek26-411110.4100.504
Ron Fellows11-000000.3330.191
Ricky Craven22-111010.2760.051
Jeremy Mayfield35-600000.2740.499
Ward Burton36-600000.2230.174
Jimmy Spencer12-400000.2000.369
Jason Leffler11-200000.1210.066
Mike Skinner22-200000.1100.023
Terry Labonte22-610000.1100.293
Johnny Benson, Jr.11-200000.0910.095
Brian Vickers11-100000.0180.041
Buckshot Jones11-100000.0090.101
Steve Park11-300000.0040.012
Dave Blaney00-100000.0000.032
Kevin Lepage00-100000.0000.031
Casey Mears00-100000.0000.049
Boris Said00-100000.0000.009
Mike Wallace00-100000.0000.018
Jeff Green00-200000.0000.049


I had nothing particularly interesting to say about Jimmie Johnson's first two seasons, but his ascent to superstardom begins suddenly here as he jumped from having a losing lead change record in 2003 to passing others nearly twice as often as he was passed for the lead in 2004. This jump most resembles that of Mark Martin from 1991 to 1992. Despite finishing fifth and second in points, Johnson was still not taken as seriously as he should have been by many, with many people even saying at the end of 2003 that Ryan Newman was the "real" talent, even though Johnson beat him in points both seasons. While Newman did have more wins and TNLs entering this season, I suspect most of that is solely because Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were regarded as the best drivers at the time, which caused any and all sprint car drivers who show any potential to be overhyped, while the superior drivers from traditional stock car backgrounds, like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., tended not to get as much hype as they actually deserved, and the superior drivers from off-road backgrounds, like Johnson, got even less. Who ever heard of a great NASCAR driver from desert trucks? He would however remain consistently great for the next decade and post a positive lead change record every year of his career except for one, often by large margins, from this point to the present day, even in his recent fading seasons. Gordon may have led one more race and may have dominated more races, with Gordon leading the most laps 7 races to Johnson's 3, and also posting almost an entire additional CRL than did Johnson, but Johnson easily outperformed Gordon more than most people thought at the time. For all the talk of how much Johnson lucked into race victories, he really didn't (especially when you compare to the drivers who really did like Darrell Waltrip, Ryan Newman, and Joey Logano in particular.) He was merely clutch, better at leading races at the end than he was earlier on, which likely explains why he won so many championships, why his win and TNL totals were usually greater than the number of races where he led the most laps (because he cared about winning them more than he cared about dominating them, which is to his credit.) The only reason why Gordon scored more points than Johnson is because of Johnson's three straight engine failures in the middle of the season, which probably would not have happened had there been no Chase and no reason for Chad Knaus to experiment. Just like in 2003, Gordon may have been the most dominant driver, but he wasn't the best, and both seasons he was dominating more than he was actually leading through his own efforts. It's telling that Johnson beat him for the championship as early as his second season (and was even ahead of him in points for most of his first season.) I can still understand people making arguments that Gordon was the better driver (because of his versatility across track types, particularly how he was better on the short tracks, road courses, and plate tracks than Johnson, which he was), but having said that there should be no question that Johnson was similarly the better racer. Many of Gordon's lead change records simply aren't as impressive as you'd expect, and Johnson corrected that mistake. Especially in an era when fewer and fewer races become more and more important, that continued to more and more play into Johnson's hands and hurt Gordon, just like the increasing number of cautions in this period would likewise do, as better duelists are rewarded more and more the more restarts there are. Johnson's era really begins in this year, not 2006, and although Gordon once in a great while had a better season from this perspective than Johnson (particularly 2011, the most underrated of Gordon's career) even by this point it was already Johnson's team. Junior might have been able to significantly challenge Johnson had he not been injured in the American Le Mans wreck at Sonoma, which definitely does seem to have split Junior's career in two between a period of greatness and a period when he was rather second-tier for most of the rest of his career. Prior to Junior's sports car crash, Johnson had led nine races naturally to Junior and Gordon's eight, so at that point in the season it looked fairly even. Junior still again had an overall underrated season and was certainly better than fifth in points would indicate even counting whatever he lost due to his injury. Gordon, Junior, and Stewart still remained strong as in the previous two seasons when they were in the top three in lead shares, but Johnson had obviously clearly jumped all of them and wouldn't let up for the most part for the next nine years, leading at least one category in all those years except 2011. Kurt Busch's championship season is often considered the worst, but it actually was a banner year for him as he would never lead more races naturally than he did this year (although he led the same number of races in 2007 and 2011.) He also tended to lead late rather than early as he had one more lead share than cumulative race led. He was the only driver who significantly overachieved by this metric (although Junior again came fairly close), and it may have helped him in the championship. Newman as usual had the second most overrated season to Gordon. Kasey Kahne in his rookie season substantially outperformed veteran teammate Jeremy Mayfield in all metrics except for wins and actually scoring points. With performance by almost all other metrics seeming to indicate he should have won 2 races, this is up there with Ricky Rudd's 1988, Alan Kulwicki's 1989, and Ernie Irvan's 1997 as one of the least lucky seasons ever.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jimmie Johnson1747-2587385.6394.261
Jeff Gordon1832-2255744.5185.148
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.1443-3366554.1353.373
Tony Stewart1222-1623543.1553.303
Kurt Busch1423-2333443.1492.110
Ryan Newman714-1922232.3692.891
Kasey Kahne1120-2102212.1462.264
Greg Biffle613-922221.3681.318
Matt Kenseth36-422221.2141.397
Mark Martin514-1210211.1471.608
Rusty Wallace511-1011011.1190.733
Elliott Sadler710-1721011.0860.961
Jamie McMurray57-800000.7050.621
Jeremy Mayfield48-1410200.6641.130
Joe Nemechek78-811000.5980.511
Kevin Harvick48-700000.4990.521
Casey Mears45-1000000.4290.486
Michael Waltrip47-900000.3060.798
Dale Jarrett12-300000.2860.116
Sterling Marlin34-700000.2830.584
Robby Gordon22-1000000.2670.354
Bobby Labonte11-301000.2220.142
Brian Vickers44-700000.1770.293
Carl Edwards11-100000.1430.046
Jeff Burton12-400000.0960.145
Brendan Gaughan11-200000.0950.194
Bill Elliott12-100000.0890.078
Scott Riggs22-200000.0600.074
Ward Burton11-100000.0370.005
Dave Blaney00-100000.0000.020
Shane Hmiel00-100000.0000.016
Scott Pruett00-100000.0000.009
Ricky Rudd00-100000.0000.018
Jimmy Spencer00-100000.0000.063
Terry Labonte00-200000.0000.088
Mike Wallace00-200000.0000.140
Scott Wimmer00-300000.0000.051


Although he was the best duelist of his generation and ranked in the top four in lead shares in each of his first nine seasons, Stewart's second championship season was actually the only time he led in lead shares in his Cup career. He was certainly more dominant than his five mid-season wins imply and even though Greg Biffle led more races, won more races, and had the most TNL I think Stewart did inarguably have the best season of any driver that year as well as his career, particularly when you consider his teammate Bobby Labonte ranked 27th and last among all drivers in lead shares among those who made an on-track pass for the lead (even behind his elder part-time brother), while all the other Roush drivers except for Mark Martin had strong seasons by all leading metrics. Although you can't really say there were any races that Stewart should have won but did not since his five wins were also the only five races he was the terminal natural leader, he significantly factored in many others and also led in lead shares at the spring Richmond race, fall Martinsville, fall Loudon, and fall Talladega. However, in three of those he was simply outdueled (Richmond by Kasey Kahne in his first win, Loudon by Ryan Newman in what might have been his most impressive win, and Talladega by Jamie McMurray and ultimately Dale Jarrett in his final win.) Martinsville is more debatable as Stewart beat Jeff Gordon out of the pits, but it still counted as a natural win for Gordon because he and Biffle traded the lead a couple times afterward. One can argue particularly at Loudon and Talladega that Stewart might have been playing it safe to make sure he finished - perhaps without the chase he would have indeed had a big enough points lead where he wouldn't have worried about being conservative in those races. This year is a good example of the difference between Stewart, who was the best duelist of his generation but not the best at the end of races, and Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, the two drivers who were most clutch at the end. While both Edwards and Johnson led only half the races as Stewart did naturally, they were much more clutch in them only each winning one fewer race even though they led far less often. While Stewart had two more races where he led the most laps than races where he had the most lead shares, the reverse held for Edwards and Johnson, who were clearly punching above their weight, particularly Johnson. For the second consecutive year, Johnson had the highest lead change percentage and he did so in what was probably the most down season for Hendrick between 2000 and 2017. Edwards, whose lead change record was nearly as good as Johnson's, had over one more lead share than CRL winning 4 races and being the TNL 5 times despite only leading nine races and only leading the most laps in one. In addition to his four wins, Edwards was also the TNL at Michigan before Jeremy Mayfield won on fuel mileage and tied Stewart in TNL despite leading far less. Having said that, there is basically no question that Edwards had stronger cars than Stewart, considering where most of his teammates were on the list and where Stewart's weren't. Stewart had a clear advantage in the diversity of where he contended as he won and was the TNL on a plate track, a rough track, both road courses, and an unrestricted superspeedway, and none of the Roush teammates nor Johnson came even close to that. Edwards was only the TNL on unrestricted superspeedways, while Biffle and Johnson at least also were at Dover and Darlington. Kurt Busch clearly had an underrated season as he clearly factored just as much as Edwards did and substantially more than Kenseth or Martin despite finishing behind them in points. Kyle Busch had a truly impressive rookie season given that his ten races led trailed only Stewart, Biffle, and his brother and Kyle Busch even as a rookie managed to lead more races naturally than any of his Hendrick teammates. Martin's 7-14 record is easily the most disappointing considering all his other Roush teammates had positive lead change records and Martin was the only Roush driver to not earn a natural win, as his win at Kansas came when he beat Biffle out of the pits early in the race and was just never passed again. For the most part, this season is what you'd expect and fairly close to the actual points standings, although it seems the Hendrick drivers were better than they looked generally while the Roush drivers were clearly inflated by their superspeedway dominance, no doubt resulting from their acquisition of Yates engines in the middle of the 2004 season.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Tony Stewart1854-30551197.1227.196
Greg Biffle2035-2767455.1294.166
Kurt Busch1229-1933553.3033.195
Carl Edwards922-1345132.8851.558
Jimmie Johnson926-1344252.4271.697
Matt Kenseth925-2411322.2162.868
Kyle Busch1016-1022111.7771.170
Jeff Gordon720-1844121.6532.072
Elliott Sadler815-2100111.2291.211
Ryan Newman913-2311001.2101.245
Kevin Harvick614-1511010.9290.848
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.48-811110.8950.543
Brian Vickers79-1300210.8471.211
Mark Martin77-1410100.8011.190
Kasey Kahne47-1211100.6511.315
Michael Waltrip45-900000.5460.656
Joe Nemechek45-400100.5220.577
Ricky Rudd22-400000.3560.208
Casey Mears46-700000.3440.548
Jamie McMurray17-700000.2420.205
Jeremy Mayfield24-510000.2330.378
Rusty Wallace24-700100.2260.665
Dale Jarrett23-311000.1610.020
Sterling Marlin11-200000.1410.061
Travis Kvapil22-300000.0640.106
Terry Labonte11-200000.0550.093
Bobby Labonte11-400000.0380.136
Mike Bliss00-100000.0000.011
Bill Elliott00-100000.0000.033
Randy LaJoie00-100000.0000.008
Morgan Shepherd00-100000.0000.008
Denny Hamlin00-200000.0000.080
Dave Blaney00-300000.0000.072
Scott Riggs00-300000.0000.089
Ken Schrader00-300000.0000.090
Robby Gordon00-400000.0000.075
Scott Wimmer00-500000.0000.167


Here was a season that had much stronger parity than you'd think. I had no idea who would be leading in lead shares before I calculated it, although one could easily reason that it would have likely been Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, or Jimmie Johnson since they tended to be the most dominant drivers of the year, and all showed well leading in various categories. Kenseth, who in 2005 seemed a bit lackluster compared to his Roush teammates in the first two thirds of the season, went on a bit of a tear late and that continued into 2006 even as his teammates started to falter. Kenseth was the TNL at all four races he won as well as the Chicagoland race where Jeff Gordon spun him out of the lead but he really shone in terms of lead shares, earning the most lead shares in seven races despite only leading the most laps in four. Although Stewart was again the most dominant driver of the season in terms of cumulative races led (despite missing the chase), Kenseth's greater performance towards the end of races and greater passing ability were enough to give him a very slight, marginal lead in lead shares over Stewart. While Kenseth was likely unlucky not to win more considering the Chicagoland race and that he had three more races where he led in lead shares than where he led the most laps, Stewart was somewhat lucky to win as often as he did, particularly the vaguely farcical Kansas fuel mileage race, where Johnson was the TNL. Hendrick again didn't really seem to have the strongest cars this year as Kasey Kahne and Kenseth tended to sweep up in terms of wins and TNL on the unrestricted superspeedways but regardless Johnson again for the third consecutive year had the best lead change percentage, which nobody else had ever done to this point in the years recorded. Despite probably not having as strong cars as Kahne did, and leading slightly less often in terms of CRL, he beat Kahne in terms of the number of races with the most lead shares and beat him by almost an entire lead share over the entire season. This likely makes it pretty clear how Johnson and Kahne would fare against each other when they actually became teammates later. Despite winning the most races, Kahne certainly did not have the best season and perhaps didn't even have a top five season given the severe lack of diversity in terms of where he was winning. Although he gets points for being clutch throughout his career when he had a chance of winning (which was always a strength of Kahne's), his main weakness was that he was just a complete non-factor at too many races a year. This was blamed on the lousiness of his equipment by many fans, who likely overrated seasons like this because of Jeremy Mayfield's poor performance, but knowing what we now know about Mayfield's later career, it's possible some other things were going on that we didn't know about at the time that Mayfield look much worse than he should have at the time. This is clearly one of Kevin Harvick's most impressive seasons and he deserved to be a championship factor. Although Jeff Burton began to have a bit of a resurgence at this time, he was still nowhere close to Harvick. Despite the RCR cars being fairly down on horsepower, he managed to win all five of his races naturally at a set of fairly difficult tracks: both Phoenix races, the fall Loudon race, the fall Richmond race, and at Watkins Glen. Comparing the tracks where Harvick had his best runs to the tracks where Kahne and to a lesser degree Kenseth and Johnson were having their best runs, there is a case to be made that Harvick given the equipment he was driving might have actually had the best season, although I'm inclined to say that the championship result favoring Johnson was correct. Greg Biffle had one hell of an underrated season and dominated just as often as he did in 2005 particularly in the earlier portions of the year; however, this tended to be inflated since he usually dominated early rather than late, was not a factor to lead many races towards the end, and had four races where he led the most laps but only two with the most lead shares. His lack of clutch ability in this season, which was likely reflected in him laughably missing the chase, means he certainly didn't have as strong a season as Kenseth, Stewart, Johnson, or Harvick, but it's telling that for what an afterthought Biffle seemed to be that he still led as many races as anybody else. This is not one of the most underrated seasons (along the lines of Rudd's 1988, Kulwicki's 1989, Irvan's 1997, Junior's 2003 and the like) but it was still an underrated season as he came closer to keeping up his 2005 dominance than for instance Carl Edwards did (who took a significant nosedive here and seldom really factored, which is surprising given his results in the surrounding seasons.)

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Matt Kenseth1539-3445473.9863.558
Tony Stewart1532-2154653.9494.046
Jimmie Johnson1329-1856243.5592.368
Kevin Harvick1022-1455353.1372.983
Jeff Gordon1442-3822332.9772.725
Kasey Kahne1026-2566432.7172.463
Greg Biffle1526-2621422.6543.226
Denny Hamlin711-1122221.9351.699
Kyle Busch1024-2111211.8281.756
Jeff Burton1018-1511201.7242.105
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.823-2712221.6421.648
Kurt Busch712-1711110.9451.341
Mark Martin79-1000010.9130.960
Brian Vickers612-1310000.7370.603
Carl Edwards610-1100000.6610.748
Elliott Sadler410-1200000.5270.371
Ryan Newman66-1300000.5130.571
Scott Riggs45-500000.4340.358
Clint Bowyer35-700000.3140.417
J.J. Yeley33-500000.2030.083
Jamie McMurray49-1300100.1550.519
Reed Sorenson11-400000.1330.309
Jeff Green12-100000.1110.048
Tony Raines11-300000.0760.084
Dale Jarrett22-200000.0520.037
Casey Mears22-200000.0410.016
Paul Menard11-100000.0370.009
Bobby Labonte11-100000.0260.152
Jeremy Mayfield11-100000.0150.040
Dave Blaney00-100000.0000.031
David Gilliland00-100000.0000.003
Robby Gordon00-100000.0000.040
Terry Labonte00-100000.0000.174
Joe Nemechek00-100000.0000.047
Ken Schrader00-100000.0000.030
David Stremme00-100000.0000.025
Sterling Marlin00-200000.0000.043
Boris Said00-200000.0000.065
Martin Truex, Jr.00-200000.0000.136


I realize that many fans who care primarily about consistency will disagree with me, but this I believe is a season the chase got right that the Latford points system would have gotten wrong. Jeff Gordon may have become the first driver in the modern era to earn 30 top tens in a single season and he also on the surface was the most dominant leading the most laps in seven races to Jimmie Johnson's two and therefore also leading in cumulative races led, but in terms of passing ability and how much each driver was responsible for their own leading, this was not even close. Jimmie Johnson's advantages over Gordon in terms of driver-induced dominance were in my opinion definitely significant enough to override Gordon's consistency advantage in my evaluation of this season. In a way, this year was a virtual replay of 1996 where Hendrick dominated all season with that dominance almost entirely shared by two drivers, except Gordon was now playing the Terry Labonte role and Johnson was playing the Gordon role. For sure Gordon's 2007 was a better season than Labonte's 1996, but definitely not by as much as you think. The first thing I notice is the staggering difference between their lead change records. While Johnson did not quite lead in lead change percentage for the fourth consecutive season, he was still quite impressive at 43-28 while Gordon actually had the weakest lead change percentage of his career at 23-33 (although his 2012 was close.) Gordon's 2007 clearly rivals Rusty Wallace's 1993 and Ryan Newman's 2003 as being among the most overrated seasons in Cup history. This becomes quite apparent if you recall how Gordon actually won the races he won. Only three of Gordon's six wins were natural. He technically won naturally at Phoenix because he and Tony Stewart exchanged the lead twice after the final restart, but pitting right before a caution came out allowed him to back into the lead. He did win both Talladega races naturally, but many people argue Jamie McMurray should have won the first one because the caution came out too late and he only led one lap in the second. At the spring Pocono race, he was mostly a non-factor until he was handed the lead on a pit sequence while rain ended the race (seconds before it looked like Ryan Newman was going to take the lead from him.) He also took the lead at the spring Darlington race only under caution-flag pit stops and Newman passed him at the fall Charlotte race before Gordon inherited the win with a few laps left when Newman crashed. If Gordon struggled dueling Newman for wins twice, Newman was the worst duelist of his generation among major drivers, and Newman clearly had an inferior car to Gordon that year since Hendrick won half the races, it becomes quickly evident there is something very wrong with Gordon's season. Having only earned the most lead shares in two races despite leading the most laps seven times, and having 1.7 more CRL than lead shares puts this in major perspective. The only reason this year looked overwhelmingly better for Gordon than his surrounding good, but not great, years is because his team was putting him into the lead an unusual lot and he did a decent job of staying there sometimes, but he certainly was not putting himself in the lead to the same degree Johnson was. I realize comparing Gordon's 2007 to Labonte's 1996 may be a low blow, but Labonte had only one fewer TNL, a positive lead change record, only two fewer races led in five fewer races, and the same ranking in lead shares on the 1996 list, so I think it is to some degree justified. Johnson had an underrated season from this perspective. Not only was he much more dominant through his own efforts than he was through his team's (as he led in lead shares eight times despite only leading the most laps twice), he was clutch at the end as well, managing to overachieve even relative to that with ten wins and ten TNLs and he did not luck into his wins. Sure, he won several races where he didn't lead very often, particularly in his four in a row streak, but he didn't really luck into them either. Gordon was lucky. Johnson was clutch. Not only did Gordon not outperform Johnson, it was in my opinion not even close. Did you really think you would see Stewart and Matt Kenseth with more lead shares this year than Gordon? I didn't, even though these results are fairly consistent with 2006 with the same three drivers leading the list, albeit in a different order. Stewart had another strong lead change percentage as usual and also had a very underrated season with one more lead share than CRL and leading seven races in lead shares despite only leading the most laps four times, although he was not so clutch at the end, winning only three times. Despite only leading six races naturally, Carl Edwards managed to win half of them tying everybody besides Johnson and Gordon. This is because Edwards as usual at this point in his career was a strongly efficient passer and led with an 11-5 lead change record. It should be no surprise that when Edwards had faster cars in 2008 and Hendrick's advantage wasn't quite what it was that Edwards suddenly became a dominant force. His season was particularly underrated as was Kenseth's to a lesser degree, which makes some sense considering they had to feast for scraps in the races where Hendrick didn't really contend.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jimmie Johnson1743-281010285.7413.903
Tony Stewart1528-1734474.3923.424
Matt Kenseth1328-2621423.6233.084
Jeff Gordon1323-3364722.7664.440
Kurt Busch1422-1722532.7493.621
Carl Edwards611-533132.1571.535
Kyle Busch818-1712222.0482.014
Denny Hamlin1222-2210321.9422.926
Martin Truex, Jr.711-1112211.4691.836
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.813-1300211.4671.378
Ryan Newman811-1402001.3460.928
Kevin Harvick47-811011.1390.916
Clint Bowyer24-711211.1101.412
Jeff Burton33-211010.8490.211
Kasey Kahne35-800100.5040.844
Juan Pablo Montoya22-111010.4130.111
Jamie McMurray36-711010.4120.452
Robby Gordon34-400100.3370.474
Brian Vickers36-600000.3350.322
Elliott Sadler35-600000.3230.246
Greg Biffle22-211000.2780.375
Mark Martin11-300000.1430.258
Casey Mears22-510000.1150.178
Bobby Labonte13-300000.0670.102
David Ragan11-100000.0530.009
Sterling Marlin15-500000.0470.090
David Stremme11-100000.0470.011
Michael Waltrip12-400000.0440.039
David Reutimann11-100000.0370.015
Tony Raines11-200000.0220.029
Jeff Green11-100000.0210.043
Dave Blaney11-200000.0020.144
John Andretti00-100000.0000.008
Kyle Petty00-100000.0000.049
Scott Riggs00-100000.0000.000
Reed Sorenson00-100000.0000.172
Kenny Wallace00-100000.0000.017
Jeremy Mayfield00-200000.0000.032
Johnny Sauter00-200000.0000.021
J.J. Yeley00-200000.0000.024


Everyone knows that this season was entirely dominated by three drivers: Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, and Kyle Busch. Although Johnson surprisingly had a negative lead change record this season, he led substantially more races naturally than anyone else, and his 22 races led were actually tied with Jeff Gordon's 1997 and Martin Truex, Jr.'s 2017 for the most ever in a season. This was enough to give him a slight advantage over Edwards in lead shares even though Edwards earned one of the best lead change records in NASCAR history at 28-11 (the best since Ricky Rudd's 16-6 in 2000, oddly in a winless season), even improving on his series-leading 2007 lead change percentage despite leading many more races this time. Johnson performed about the same in all statistical categories, which is fairly typical of a driver just narrowly under .500 in lead change percentage. Johnson was a bit lucky this time and not as clutch as usual as he won the spring Phoenix race on fuel mileage after TNL Mark Martin ran out and beat Edwards out of the pits at Kansas, which marked the major difference between Edwards having one more TNL than win and Johnson having one fewer (although Edwards certainly deserves points for his attempted but failed pass on the last lap of that race.) Regardless, I'm not sure I'd say Johnson won the title just because he was slightly luckier. Even if Edwards was one of the most dominant passers ever this season (and I didn't even give him credit for the passes at Las Vegas because he lost 100 points due to an illegal car, which would have made his dominance even more extreme and given him an 11th TNL), it was mostly only on horsepower superspeedways. Eight of Edwards's ten TNL and eight of his nine wins came on horsepower superspeedways, while Johnson was substantially more diverse: his mere six TNL included two short tracks (Martinsville and Richmond), one rough track (Phoenix), one road course (Sonoma), and only two horsepower superspeedways (Indianapolis and Fontana.) I think that remains enough for me to narrowly take Johnson's season. If you only take lead changes on rough tracks, short tracks, and road courses, Edwards's record drops to a suddenly unextraordinary 5-4, about the same as Johnson's 15-13 on those tracks, except that the sheer number of lead changes means that Johnson was obviously much more of a factor on the driver's tracks. Edwards's clear advantage was an equipment advantage on the unrestricted superspeedways, where the driver plays the smallest role, and in those races, he tended to be fairly uncontested (23-7 lead change record, and 26-7 if you count Las Vegas!) How impressive is it to merely make easy passes on the easiest tracks with a demonstrably faster car, so fast that you no longer even really have to duel on the tracks of your specialty? About as impressive as when Bill Elliott was doing it in the '80s I would say. A great performance for sure, but probably not the best one. The right driver won the title. Although Kyle Busch led the series in wins for most of the year, his performance was not even close to Edwards or Johnson and he led no categories. With eight wins to his five TNL, seven races where he led the most laps to four races where he had the most lead shares, and nearly two more CRL than wins, he was nowhere near as dominant as he looked, although still his season was certainly the third best and far better than his ultimate points position would indicate. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was a much bigger threat this season than in the previous few as initially his move to Hendrick seemed like it was going to be as successful as Kyle Busch's move to Gibbs. They factored in about the same number of races, but Junior tended to struggle late while Busch tended to improve late. Junior certainly by far and away had the best season of the rest other than the three main drivers who dominated the season even though some other drivers beat him in some of the other categories. People have the tendency to forget dominance towards the beginning or middle of races and focus only on the end. Junior's dominance at the end of races wasn't that stellar for most of his Hendrick career, but this was a genuinely successful season for him and he was seriously unlucky to win only once when he had the most lead shares four times. However Denny Hamlin was actually the TNL at the spring Richmond race where Busch spun out Junior for the lead (as it was Hamlin's cut tire that set up the battle for the finish between those two.) I have had nothing interesting to say about Hamlin's career at this point, as most years he pretty much did what you expect, but that will change over the next seasons.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jimmie Johnson2246-50761076.5066.584
Carl Edwards1628-119105106.2444.341
Kyle Busch1532-3085744.1905.956
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.1543-3912343.2743.260
Denny Hamlin929-2213122.4082.210
Matt Kenseth915-1401222.2171.995
Tony Stewart923-2012411.9221.958
Greg Biffle813-1622121.9041.375
Jeff Gordon918-2200011.4581.454
Kasey Kahne510-522120.9610.776
Kevin Harvick510-800000.8080.585
Mark Martin23-001100.6330.497
Jeff Burton57-921010.5950.464
Brian Vickers59-1200000.4770.865
Jamie McMurray45-500000.4410.468
Clint Bowyer44-310000.3600.485
David Reutimann11-400100.3330.303
Kurt Busch45-610000.3270.511
Sam Hornish, Jr.11-100000.1330.010
Ryan Newman23-811000.1230.245
Martin Truex, Jr.22-600000.1130.206
Paul Menard24-500000.1100.165
Elliott Sadler24-900000.0940.106
Michael Waltrip33-300000.0880.081
David Stremme12-200000.0710.011
David Gilliland12-200000.0690.013
David Ragan12-300000.0430.125
Juan Pablo Montoya22-200000.0320.082
A.J. Allmendinger11-200000.0280.045
Reed Sorenson11-200000.0160.054
Casey Mears11-100000.0110.308
Travis Kvapil11-200000.0050.077
Aric Almirola11-100000.0030.121
Patrick Carpentier00-100000.0000.036
Bobby Labonte00-100000.0000.009
Joe Nemechek00-100000.0000.009
Boris Said00-100000.0000.012
Scott Riggs00-200000.0000.077


If Jimmie Johnson ever actually had an underrated championship season, this is it. Not only was he the only driver ever to lead every single category on these lead change charts (races led naturally, lead change record, wins, TNL, races leading the most laps, races with the most lead shares, number of lead shares, and cumulative races led) nobody was even close to him in any category. This is probably by all accounts one of the most dominant seasons in Cup history but won't be viewed that way simply because all the competition gimmicks and pot-sweeteners and the massive increase in caution periods in a given race (particularly late in the race) simply artificially make the races closer than they would have been otherwise in previous decades. Couple that with each major team having multiple championship threats most of the time which was not something that existed in previous decades and it would have been pretty impossible for anyone to put up a ten-win season anymore, particularly in the era of double-file restarts, which were introduced in the middle of this season. Regardless, Johnson's lead share total was the fourth highest in this entire period behind only Dale Earnhardt's 1987 and 1990 and (barely) Martin Truex, Jr.'s 2017. One can argue that he was actually unlucky too as he was the TNL in ten races matching his 2007 but only won seven of them, and he had one more lead share than CRL. Johnson dominated and was the TNL at both Michigan races before running out of fuel late allowing Mark Martin and Brian Vickers to inherit the wins. He was also the TNL at the Kansas race albeit mid-race before all future lead changes came in the pits. He even got poor finishes at both Michigan races, but in spite of that he was still dominant enough to lead even in overall points according to the old points system, making this also the only season he led in both chase points, "old-school" points and wins in the same season. Clearly in every regard this was the pinnacle of Johnson's career and no one was even close to him. Mark Martin suddenly returned to form after only winning three races in the previous eight seasons, showing some sign of the dominance of the Hendrick equipment, but he certainly didn't have the second best season with a negative lead change record and only three TNL despite five wins proving he was lucky, especially at Michigan. Even though Jeff Gordon only won once, he at least had a .500 lead change record and actually beat Martin in lead shares and not by a small margin either. Although Tony Stewart led the points standings for quite a while in his debut season as a car owner, he would not have been anything resembling a deserving champion this year. In addition to being the ultimate benefactor of the Kansas race where Johnson was beaten out of the pits (the only thing that prevented Johnson from having a 4-in-a-row winning streak in this year's chase just as he did in 2007), he also beat TNL Carl Edwards out of the pits at Pocono and won. Although a .500 lead change record wouldn't be bad for most drivers, Stewart was the best duelist of his generation and this was a career-worst lead change record for him at the time. Clearly his decline had already started (also evidenced by his final season at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 where many people felt he didn't "really" win his only win of the season, and in a year when Kyle Busch won eight races no less.) Kyle Busch wasn't really that much worse in 2009 than in 2008 in terms of dominance and performance; he had the same number of TNL, barely fewer races led, and barely fewer lead shares. He was just much, much unluckier, particularly in the two Daytona races where he was running away with the Daytona 500 before Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Vickers crashed in front of him and where he crashed on the last lap at the Coke Zero 400, giving him finishes very unrepresentative of how he ran, which caused him to miss the chase in a year he clearly deserved it. Having said that, his teammate Denny Hamlin at this point was clearly in the process of taking control of the Joe Gibbs team from Busch, as he would generally outperform him until Hamlin's injury at Fontana in 2013 with the exception of 2011. Although Hamlin had one more win than TNL and two more races where he led the most laps than races where he had the most lead shares, his raw number of lead shares was basically identical to his raw number of CRL so his dominance this season was far from overrated and he arguably had the second best season. Kurt Busch quietly had one of the best seasons of his career as well. Earning one more lead share than CRL, he actually beat his brother in terms of lead shares despite his brother being more dominant in the races and having faster cars, and Kurt's advantage in general over his team would probably never be as extreme as it was this year. Although his teammates Sam Hornish, Jr. and David Stremme both managed to lead they were complete non-factors, and that may have aided Busch, as he had the entire brunt of his team's focus without having to worry about a strong teammate threatening to take control of the team away from him as Brad Keselowski ultimately would.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jimmie Johnson2151-327109108.2137.280
Denny Hamlin1541-3343644.1504.166
Kurt Busch1324-1622133.6412.536
Kyle Busch1421-1945533.3683.882
Jeff Gordon1728-2812123.2262.423
Mark Martin1014-1753332.0832.513
Tony Stewart1017-1742222.0352.120
Carl Edwards69-603121.1580.709
Kasey Kahne57-722111.1491.026
Brian Vickers45-911011.0600.476
Juan Pablo Montoya815-1500201.0471.646
Matt Kenseth66-1421110.7700.894
Greg Biffle56-900200.6551.733
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.514-1300010.6240.564
Ryan Newman56-1200000.5910.594
Martin Truex, Jr.48-901110.5660.596
Kevin Harvick39-900010.5650.591
Jeff Burton49-800000.3990.359
Jamie McMurray14-411110.1560.173
David Reutimann34-810000.1060.302
Casey Mears22-200000.0860.127
Elliott Sadler23-700000.0820.272
David Stremme12-200000.0690.076
Joey Logano22-310000.0530.123
Marcos Ambrose22-300000.0520.142
Reed Sorenson11-000000.0380.014
Robby Gordon12-200000.0380.060
Brad Keselowski11-210000.0290.046
Sam Hornish, Jr.11-000000.0240.016
David Ragan11-000000.0040.019
Michael Waltrip00-100000.0000.069
Paul Menard00-200000.0000.034
Scott Speed00-200000.0000.091
Clint Bowyer00-400000.0000.173


There was no way in a million years that Jimmie Johnson was going to actually improve on his 2009 and although he would still earn a positive lead change record every year of his career after this point, he would never be close to the top duelist in future years like he generally was from 2004-09 when he became the only driver in this period to set the best lead change record four times among drivers who led five races or more naturally in a given season. Even coming down from a high however he still led in lead shares for the fourth consecutive season, becoming the first driver to do that since Dale Earnhardt led for six consecutive years from 1985-90. This time however Denny Hamlin, who again finished second in lead shares, was a strong match for him and had a pretty much equivalent season that ultimately came down to a coin flip (arguably Hamlin's crash in the season finale at Homestead.) In addition to winning the most races, Hamlin also earned the most TNL, the best lead change record, and the most races with the most lead shares. However, as in 2008, Johnson factored in more races, which was enough for him to slightly lead in lead shares even though another driver was clearly more dominant in the fewer races where that driver contended. Kevin Harvick may have led in Latford-style points for the season, but this was clearly not an especially championship-caliber season for him, unless you think his cars were so bad that that is enough to make up his difference to Johnson and Hamlin. I do not believe that it is since he barely beat teammate Jeff Burton by less than 1/50 of a single lead share. Even though Harvick won three races to Burton's none, they were close in TNL and it seems Harvick was luckier in addition to more clutch than Burton was. Jeff Gordon is the big surprise here. Everybody raves about the greatness of his 2007, which was clearly one of the most overrated Cup seasons in history (although I would say based on what I have uncovered here, Rusty Wallace's 1993 is the most) and spits on his 2008-2010 period when he only won one race, but his performance in those years (except for 2008) wasn't really any worse. In fact, his dueling was better, but he was just unluckier. Although Gordon failed to win any races and since he also failed to earn any TNL one might argue that he shouldn't have, he led the most laps three times and led in lead shares three times, indicating that he was a lot more dominant than most people would realize, just not at the end of the race. The Las Vegas race is not his fault because although Johnson passed him straight up, I tend to think that would not have happened if Steve Letarte had called for four tires instead of two (having said that, Johnson has always been a much better duelist than Gordon, so it's certainly possible Johnson still could have won.) At the summer Pocono race, Greg Biffle won naturally but only had to pass Sam Hornish on a restart (before that caution, Gordon was controlling the race.) Gordon was also controlling the spring Texas race that year before Jeff Burton beat him out of the pits and he crashed shortly after the next restart. It seems obvious that even though all three of those races were won naturally by other drivers that Gordon was a much bigger factor than his lack of wins and lack of TNL would indicate, and this is what proves lead shares to be a vital statistic. Would I say that Gordon had the third best season behind Johnson and Hamlin? No, I would not but this is still definitely one of his most underrated seasons ever, and his performance certainly wasn't declining. He just didn't have the luck he used to have. While Kyle Busch nearly matched Denny Hamlin in dominance with 3.52 CRL to his 3.76, he was nowhere close with regard to being responsible for his own dominance, as Busch's 2.93 lead shares aren't even close to Hamlin's 4.23, but it's hard to say Busch was declining either. Hamlin was just at this point clearly superior. What was clearly the best season of Jamie McMurray's career comes out a lot stronger than you'd think. Although he tended to specialize in battling for the lead in so-called marquee races for whatever reason, he still had a greatly underrated season with almost an entire lead share more than his CRL, particularly indicating that he took the lead late (all three of his wins were natural) in races where he wasn't all that dominant. That to me is more of a sign of McMurray being genuinely clutch than merely lucky, although he was certainly lucky to catch the late caution that allowed him to take the lead over his dominant teammate Juan Pablo Montoya at Indianapolis.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jimmie Johnson2042-3965744.2594.231
Denny Hamlin1644-3187564.1543.760
Jeff Gordon1336-3100332.9552.883
Kyle Busch1637-3432322.9333.522
Jamie McMurray1119-2033022.2311.245
Tony Stewart1021-2123242.1431.875
Kurt Busch1130-3322221.9372.348
Greg Biffle1025-2022221.8521.967
Kevin Harvick932-2833231.7431.291
Jeff Burton1027-2102211.7251.504
Juan Pablo Montoya1121-2611211.5252.187
Carl Edwards510-1222111.0901.407
Clint Bowyer625-2621111.0351.611
Kasey Kahne815-1400210.9321.131
Marcos Ambrose44-201010.8360.492
David Reutimann39-1011010.6520.365
Matt Kenseth610-1300000.4480.434
A.J. Allmendinger37-500000.4190.495
Martin Truex, Jr.46-800000.4050.349
Ryan Newman33-611010.3960.159
Joey Logano47-1100000.3150.194
Mark Martin67-1100100.3070.594
Sam Hornish, Jr.48-900000.3040.264
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.515-1800100.3020.545
Paul Menard22-300000.2630.069
David Ragan37-700000.2280.062
Elliott Sadler411-1300000.1770.170
Regan Smith23-300000.1740.020
Brian Vickers25-400000.1040.110
Brad Keselowski36-900000.0620.122
Scott Speed11-300000.0410.090
Michael Waltrip24-400000.0300.036
Aric Almirola11-100000.0170.011
Robby Gordon11-000000.0040.040
Joe Nemechek11-100000.0000.023
Dave Blaney00-100000.0000.015
Mattias Ekstrom00-100000.0000.064
Michael McDowell00-100000.0000.023
Boris Said00-100000.0000.078
Ken Schrader00-100000.0000.014


This year was one of the last hurrahs for competitive depth in NASCAR, a throwback to years like 2002 and 2003 (or arguably 1991 or 1992 to a lesser degree) when numerous drivers won, nobody came remotely close to having a "dominant" season, smaller teams were generally surprisingly able to fight for wins (although usually only on plate tracks or pit strategy, not on the track, unlike in 2001-03.) This season had more on-track lead changes than any other season recorded in the period and therefore there were more natural leaders than most other seasons and an astonishing number of drivers who led many races. Twelve different drivers led ten or more races naturally and no other season really came close to that. A large part of this no doubt was due to the fact that the tandem drafting races at Daytona and Talladega in this year had an absurd number of lead changes that many people would call artificial, but actually lots of the races you wouldn't expect (the short tracks, rough tracks, and intermediates especially) had more natural lead changes than they often did as well, so this does seem to be more of a trend over the entire season than a trend merely induced by the tandem plate races. No other season since has remotely come close to this level of competition (and competition has been seriously tepid in recent years, which will probably lead to my last season write-ups being much shorter than most of those from the 1990s and 2000s.) This season had so much parity I had no idea who was going to lead in any of the new categories until I calculated it and the diversity in the number of different category leaders (just like in 2002) was very impressive. Although Jeff Gordon was not in general one of the most impressive duelists of his time, this year was a big, big exception and rivals the preceding season as one of the most underrated ever in his career. After Jimmie Johnson's five consecutive titles streak ended, Gordon suddenly looked like the most impressive driver on the team again by every metric even pushing 40. Although he only won three races, he was the TNL in all of them as well as the fall Richmond race where Paul Menard probably intentionally spun to give Kevin Harvick a chance to beat him out of the pits, which he successfully did (why this wasn't investigated as much as Spingate we'll never know.) Gordon's four TNL were tied for the most that season and the six races where he had the most lead shares were enough to give him a slight lead share advantage over quite a few others and his first lead in that category since 2001. With one more lead share than TNL, two more races with the most lead shares than races with the most laps led, and one more TNL than win (the Richmond fiasco), Gordon suddenly had something resembling championship-caliber performance for the first time in ages (and I'm not sure I think 2007 counts.) Gordon's lead change percentage of 32-17 was the only time he would lead in that category in his entire career, and at this point while he may not have been the driver he was years in the past, he may have improved as a racer (his late-race duel with Jimmie Johnson at the Atlanta race was widely cited as his most impressive and exciting win of the decade.) However, Gordon was far from the only driver to lead in a category. One thing I've noticed much to my surprise is that for all Kyle Busch's success and how much he is hyped as one of the most dominant drivers and best racers of our time that he has a surprising lack of red ink on these lists for somebody who has now accrued 43 wins. Although he is in the top five in most leader-related categories quite often, he rarely if ever actually leads them. In fact besides 2011, he has only led one category ever (races leading the most laps in 2017.) This year was an exception to Busch's general trend, as he tied Matt Kenseth for the most races led naturally, overwhelmingly led in cumulative races led, and led in races where the led the most laps. However, this still doesn't make that strong a case for him having the best season even considering that he was suspended for a race and led the full-season points standings entering the chase. Busch's season was still quite overrated as he had 1.64 CRL more than anyone else but only finished 4th in lead shares behind Gordon, Kenseth, and Tony Stewart. It sort of figures that Stewart would have a return to form in dueling ability in a year when it was easier to pass in general, thereby rewarding top duelists like himself and Carl Edwards. Although Stewart only led in wins and in the championship itself, he nearly matched Gordon's lead change record and despite having more wins than TNL, he also had more lead shares than CRL, implying he was still more clutch than lucky. Edwards, also a top duelist up to this point, but a rather weak one after losing this championship, was clearly better than his dominance would imply as he had 3 TNL to 1 win and 3 races where he had the most lead shares to 1 race where he led the most laps. However, it wasn't that underrated as his lead share/CRL difference was not that large, and in fact only Gordon and Kenseth had a large difference. This was the only season between 2004-2013 that Johnson failed to lead in any categories, which no doubt is one reason for the uptick in competitive depth. Although Brad Keselowski broke out this season, winning more races and finishing higher in the points than teammate Kurt Busch, Busch outperformed him in every other category and was much more of a weekly race factor than Keselowski was. Keselowski did not take over the team until after Busch was fired. This year was particularly notable for flukish drivers backing into wins. Paul Menard's win at Indy was actually natural (as he and Jamie McMurray exchanged the lead twice after both stayed out of the pits), but Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 win was not (he only inherited the lead when David Ragan was penalized.) Ragan had TNLs in both Daytona races but was not even a remote factor outside the plate tracks. Regan Smith never took the lead on track in the Southern 500 and like Ragan and Bayne only led naturally on plate tracks. In that sense, this was an overrated season as too much of the supposed competitive depth came from flukish results that weren't really repeatable. Those four drivers combined still had fewer lead shares than the next worse driver Kasey Kahne, so there was little reason to look toward these drivers' results and expect many more wins from any of them. Keselowski was the only real breakout, and while it was a jerky thing to say, one can understand why Kurt Busch would snark that NASCAR had become a joke once Ragan won at Daytona and Menard won at Indy.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jeff Gordon1532-1734463.8702.841
Matt Kenseth1839-4032243.6172.708
Tony Stewart1330-1853443.5163.139
Kyle Busch1838-3543723.3964.853
Carl Edwards1625-1613133.0712.723
Jimmie Johnson1123-2222422.6103.043
Kurt Busch1434-3124332.5113.229
Kevin Harvick1025-2742121.6591.160
Clint Bowyer1036-3912131.5321.172
Greg Biffle912-1201201.3351.365
Ryan Newman1129-3112321.3221.389
Brad Keselowski911-1333011.2701.017
Denny Hamlin1318-1410201.2641.628
Marcos Ambrose45-511010.9120.314
Martin Truex, Jr.721-2301010.8750.494
Kasey Kahne1016-2210200.7881.202
Jamie McMurray716-1800010.6410.340
Paul Menard49-1111010.4300.329
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.58-900000.2230.210
Jeff Burton312-1600000.2110.364
Juan Pablo Montoya46-1100000.1810.562
Dave Blaney38-500000.1640.144
David Ragan49-912000.1470.212
Regan Smith39-910000.1400.174
A.J. Allmendinger35-600000.1070.191
Brian Vickers13-400000.0640.029
Robby Gordon23-300000.0610.090
Trevor Bayne12-210000.0230.055
Joe Nemechek11-100000.0190.017
Casey Mears11-100000.0180.047
Joey Logano12-500000.0130.297
Travis Kvapil11-200000.0070.054
Bobby Labonte11-100000.0040.025
David Gilliland00-100000.0000.023
Terry Labonte00-100000.0000.010
David Reutimann00-100000.0000.030
Scott Wimmer00-100000.0000.005
Landon Cassill00-200000.0000.058
Mark Martin00-600000.0000.292


The 2011 season was such an anomaly that no one could have really expected that kind of parity to continue, particularly since that trend seemed to be mostly confined entirely to that season, as opposed to earlier trends like the early '90s and early '00s parity that built over several years. 2012 by contrast seemed to be a direct reversal to 2009-2010 norms, with Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin once again returning to dominance after weak 2011 seasons as if nothing had happened. The main exceptions to those trends are that Tony Stewart continued being a stellar duelist, having the highest lead change percentage for the third time and matching Ricky Rudd as the only other driver to do that in three separate decades, and that Brad Keselowski's breakout from 2011 continued. That doesn't mean he was the best driver of that season just because he was the title. Just as if it was 2009 or 2010 again, Johnson led all categories except lead change percentage while Hamlin shared the lead in wins and races with the most lead shares while Keselowski only shared the lead in wins. However, Keselowski didn't factor in nearly as many races as Johnson or Hamlin did in general. He certainly made the most of the races in which he did lead with 5 wins and 5 TNL despite only 8 races led naturally, and he also was more dominant than he looked, as he had a half more lead share than CRL (although his season was nowhere near as underrated as Hamlin's, who had almost an entire lead share more than CRL) and considering his #2 team was effectively the entire noteworthy representation for car manufacturer Dodge in its final season, he was still certainly impressive. I would probably take his season over both Gibbs drivers given the context of his equipment, but not over Johnson's. Kyle Busch was the second most dominant driver to Johnson in terms of actually leading despite only winning one race and missing the chase, and with 3 TNL he was certainly unlucky to win only once, as I would argue the Watkins Glen crash was not his fault but the fault of oil on the track, and at Homestead, he was the TNL before Jeff Gordon beat him on fuel mileage. Having said that, as usual he tended to lead more early than late and still for the third time in four years was beaten by Hamlin in most statistical categories despite nearly matching him in dominance or beating him this time. While Busch was always better than his championship positions would indicate, like Rusty Wallace before him; also like Wallace, and sometimes Gordon, his apparent dominance wasn't really what it seemed either as most seasons he seemed to lead more through the efforts of his team than he did through his own efforts. That would change somewhat in more recent seasons after Hamlin's injury and Kenseth's decline made him the legitimate team leader, but he was definitely in a sense overrated at this point, even though he was much, much better than his points finishes would indicate. Carl Edwards had a dismal season by his general standards and his days as a top duelist are pretty much over at this point, as most seasons from here on out he will post negative records, particularly in his JGR period. Michael Waltrip Racing's breakout wasn't nearly as impressive as it originally seemed. Clint Bowyer may have won three races, but he only led four naturally all season and one of them was Talladega. All MWR drivers except Mark Martin (surprisingly, after his 0-6 2011) had higher cumulative races led than lead shares, especially Martin Truex, Jr., who had a very overrated season, probably indicating that MWR's real advantages those years were in the pits and in qualifying (all the MWR drivers qualified much better than they usually do, and in a year when it was suddenly much harder to pass than in 2011, it gave them a big advantage.) The post-2011 seasons generally get more and more predictable from a leading standpoint, and lead change totals go down considerably in the Gen-6 period (although one can easily argue on the flip side that the races were arguably fairer since fewer people were really lucking into race wins at that point as much) and I would say more and more boring, so I doubt I will have nearly as much to say about the later seasons as I did for most of the last 20 years.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jimmie Johnson1529-2356875.8665.628
Denny Hamlin1426-2155574.9163.942
Kyle Busch1422-2313634.1655.190
Brad Keselowski814-1455243.0652.558
Tony Stewart1115-734143.0111.652
Matt Kenseth1121-1732312.1822.177
Greg Biffle1130-2821132.1002.430
Clint Bowyer49-533121.2681.453
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.712-1211111.2671.615
Jeff Gordon710-1422101.2221.423
Kasey Kahne712-1321001.0590.812
Kevin Harvick58-811121.0040.798
Mark Martin45-1000100.7550.724
Marcos Ambrose58-1110000.7350.386
Martin Truex, Jr.56-1001100.7291.525
Aric Almirola33-300000.5120.283
Joey Logano33-311210.4750.594
Carl Edwards23-500100.3540.625
Jamie McMurray19-1000110.3030.331
Brian Vickers33-400000.2780.323
Kurt Busch35-500000.2240.114
Ryan Newman11-310000.1410.101
Casey Mears24-500000.1410.128
Jeff Burton34-300000.1200.178
Juan Pablo Montoya12-300000.0630.152
Regan Smith11-100000.0190.010
Trevor Bayne12-300000.0170.038
Michael Waltrip11-100000.0080.108
A.J. Allmendinger00-100000.0000.277
Terry Labonte00-100000.0000.015
Paul Menard00-100000.0000.124


With this season Jimmie Johnson tied Dale Earnhardt with seven seasons with the most lead shares (assuming Earnhardt really led in 1985, about which I have some doubt, and did not lead in lead shares in his 1980 championship season, for which there will not be enough information available). Even though he still won a title later, this really marks the end of Johnson's power run. I would be extremely surprised if Johnson ever leads in lead shares or most of these other categories again in his career. He is now a 6th-10th place driver, arguably even in his 2016 championship season, not one of the leading championship contenders. Having said that, he was still quite impressive in this season for a kind of last hurrah before his flukish final title. This season is fairly weird in the sense that Johnson and Matt Kenseth split all the categories except lead change percentage between them but surprisingly both still seemed to have overrated seasons in spite of that. The right man did win the title though. Even though Kenseth led more races, won more races, and led the most laps in more races, Johnson was clearly more effective in leading by himself, as he led in TNL, lead shares, and races with the most lead shares. Despite having similar totals in the LML and LSL categories, Johnson still shockingly had 1.4 more cumulative races led than lead shares, indicating this was indeed an overrated season for him, but nowhere near Kenseth, who had 1.9 more cumulative races led than lead shares. They were still the top two drivers of that year clearly, but their dominance was overstated, and perhaps that is not that surprising considering they both clearly fell into decline after this (even if Kenseth did win five races in 2015 in another overrated season.) Indeed, despite Kenseth dominating him in every other category in his debut season for Joe Gibbs Racing, Kyle Busch actually outperformed Kenseth in terms of lead shares, indicating that while he was leading less often, he was leading closer to the end of the race but both of them were inflated by the quality of their JGR pit crews and strategists. None of Kenseth's first four wins were natural, as he beat Kasey Kahne out of the pits once, Jimmie Johnson out of the pits once, trapped TNL Ricky Stenhouse (who was shockingly the only driver to lead naturally at Kansas after making a three-wide pass for the lead of Kenseth and Carl Edwards) a lap down, and inherited the lead at Darlington after Kyle Busch cut a tire. Busch won none of his four races naturally: inheriting the lead when Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano crashed at Fontana (which is debatable since he took the lead before the crash), beat Logano out of the pits once, beat Martin Truex, Jr. out of the pits once, and won at Watkins Glen on strategy after TNL Marcos Ambrose pitted), but Busch did have an additional TNL that he did not win. Clearly as with Wallace and Gordon in the '90s, JGR drivers from here on out are going to be overrated by their pit crews, and you can see that especially when considering after 2013, no JGR driver other than Busch (the last three years) has had a positive lead change record. Their pit crews seem to be faster than their cars are (or maybe their drivers, considering Hamlin and Kenseth started declining after that point.) Kahne, Brad Keselowski, and Logano all had significantly underrated seasons with more TNL than wins and one more lead share than CRL. They were the main drivers who lost for the most part due to Kenseth and Busch's gains in the pits. Hamlin's decline starts here. Hamlin had never had a season with a lead change percentage below .500 prior to this and he has never had one .500 or higher ever since. It's easy to credit that to his Fontana injury, but that actually may not be the cause since he was 2-6 even through the Fontana race, and his lead change percentage after his return was slightly better. It seems most likely however that that is what cleaved Hamlin's career in two parts: one part where he was on the pace to be the best driver to never win a championship, and another part where he had definitely fallen to second tier. Kurt Busch deserves a major shoutout for this season because Furniture Row Racing had only led one race naturally not on a restrictor plate track prior to 2013, but somehow, despite going winless, Busch earned the best lead change record of any driver that year. He was extremely lucky not to have won, and this may have been his best ever season considering the equipment he had (Truex had the same equipment in 2014 and had a miserable season before Cole Pearn made the team great.) Busch's 2013 was actually the first ever season where a driver led in lead change record for a single-car team since Sterling Marlin both in 1993 and 1996. All other years from 1992 to the present day aside from those three the leader in lead change record drove for a multi-car team. That says a lot for Busch, and also a lot for Marlin. Busch's 2013 really is very reminiscent of Marlin's 1993 for the Stavola Brothers team, except that the #78 in 2013 did tend to get better finishes than the #8 in 1993, while the #8 tended not to finish as well as it ran.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Jimmie Johnson1642-2766875.4166.832
Kyle Busch1423-2341424.0204.028
Matt Kenseth1733-2474953.7705.648
Kasey Kahne821-1524453.1332.188
Brad Keselowski1216-1913132.5861.543
Joey Logano811-1112222.2461.373
Kurt Busch811-601111.7121.501
Carl Edwards811-1821101.7051.578
Jeff Gordon79-713021.6101.321
Kevin Harvick59-1043221.2460.984
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.34-401011.1790.143
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.414-1600011.1721.208
Marcos Ambrose33-201111.0830.737
Martin Truex, Jr.45-310110.8061.467
Clint Bowyer69-600000.7390.870
Greg Biffle35-411110.7060.544
Ryan Newman44-710000.6270.613
Brian Vickers11-011010.5000.080
Denny Hamlin46-1711110.4871.138
Tony Stewart11-211000.4000.409
Jamie McMurray33-611000.3830.368
Juan Pablo Montoya22-500000.2220.385
David Ragan11-111000.1430.091
Danica Patrick11-200000.0660.025
Jeff Burton23-600000.0400.064
Aric Almirola11-300000.0030.058
Bobby Labonte00-100000.0000.037
Mark Martin00-100000.0000.352
Paul Menard00-100000.0000.156
Elliott Sadler00-100000.0000.012
Michael Waltrip00-100000.0000.020


Now it starts getting really boring. Competition is really starting to get dire. From this point on, it starts to get more like the '90s or even the '80s where there are a handful of real threats for winning, for the most part just one or two drivers on three or four different teams as if NASCAR is starting to turn into F1 or into its pre-'90s self. What can be said that is good for this period is that most races are won naturally and you rarely see a winner or a TNL or anyone leading in any of these categories for any given races who isn't really capable of winning. The era of flukes is now mostly over, but there are some fans who see excitement in such flukes. In the post tandem drafting period, plate races end up being dominated pretty much by the same drivers as everywhere else. With the departure of Juan Pablo Montoya and Marcos Ambrose, road course races end up being dominated pretty much by the same drivers as everywhere else. No matter the track, it seems each race gets more and more similar with the same people dominating over and over regardless of track type. It may be fairer, but almost the only element of surprise anymore comes down to crashes and lead changes in the pits, particularly when there are so few lead changes in most races that the fastest cars zoom to the front unchallenged for the most part. Take this season for example. Kevin Harvick, who had never led in any advanced leading statistic before, suddenly gets in the fastest car and starts dominating everything. While he certainly deserved more races than he won both in 2014 and 2015, considering he led every statistical category except wins in both years, which is clear proof of either the much-discussed ineptitude of his pit crews or Harvick playing it safe points racing to some degree (he was honestly very similar to Earnhardt throughout his career in the sense that both of them had images as aggressive hotheads but were really mostly conservative drivers who may have left some wins on the table to get the finish; the two of them I believe both have the lowest crash DNF percentages of any Cup champions of this era, perhaps any era.) This year, Brad Keselowski won the most races but he had an overrated season with only four TNL and only two races where he had the most lead shares. That gave him 1.5 more CRL than lead shares, indicating he was dominating more than he should have been through this team's efforts, while his teammate Joey Logano had almost the exact opposite, with over one more lead share than CRL, and three more races with the most lead shares than races where he led the most laps. As you can see, just as there are many years where the champion wasn't the best driver, there are many years where the win leader wasn't the best driver either. You have to look closer. Harvick was the best driver and deserved the title unless you believe consistency should be 80% of it. Jeff Gordon had an excellent season and better than any of his teammates, but was it really that much better than his 2011, except in consistency? I do think Gordon's 2014 was better than his 2007 though, and I'm serious about that. JGR clearly had slower cars this year than it did in previous seasons, and while Kyle Busch and Hamlin both win once, you can see that all three Gibbs drivers were affected, particularly Matt Kenseth, who followed his 2nd best 2013 with an 18-30 record in 2014. Roush's decline starts in a big way here. Although Carl Edwards won two races in 2014, he only led four naturally, and Ricky Stenhouse isn't part of any lead changes this season even though he had a TNL the previous season. Jamie McMurray's 2014 is one of the most surprising seasons I've seen. He led ten races naturally on basically all track types including passes of Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne at both Bristol races (leading the most laps at the Bristol night race), a pass of A.J. Allmendinger at Sonoma, and passes of Kenseth and Gordon at Martinsville. He led a lot more than anyone realized this year because he tended to lead early and only for relative short duration before pit stops, but this was one of the most sneakily impressive seasons I've seen. For all the hype Kyle Larson got in his rookie season, I didn't think it was really any more impressive than most of Juan Pablo Montoya's seasons (or several other rookie seasons from the past 20 years for that matter) and I thought McMurray generally outperformed him and that appears to be true from the data. At the time, I thought Larson was getting too much hype solely because he came from a sprint car background like Gordon and Tony Stewart did and because a lot of the recent rookies that preceded him had badly struggled. Larson's 2016 and 2017 obviously proved me wrong and he now certainly is one of the best drivers of his generation, but his first two seasons were definitely overhyped. Although Harvick may have deserved the championship, Ryan Newman certainly didn't deserve second place. He ranked only 22nd in lead shares this year, rivaling his own 2003 as one of the most overrated seasons ever.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Kevin Harvick2051-32571086.4146.774
Joey Logano1941-3155364.5593.430
Brad Keselowski1740-3764523.4664.969
Jeff Gordon1531-2543433.2543.975
Jimmie Johnson1238-3243643.1313.999
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.920-2144131.8931.439
Kasey Kahne711-912111.4160.896
Matt Kenseth1118-3001121.3221.398
Denny Hamlin820-2511021.3111.178
Kurt Busch912-1311101.1560.986
Kyle Busch1016-2211001.1311.378
Jamie McMurray1012-1100101.0721.023
Carl Edwards47-622020.7830.542
A.J. Allmendinger34-411210.7390.660
Greg Biffle68-1000100.6450.552
Clint Bowyer47-1100000.5980.330
Marcos Ambrose33-300000.5850.328
Tony Stewart45-600010.5440.461
Kyle Larson23-400000.4100.221
Paul Menard34-500000.3050.221
Aric Almirola23-111010.3000.166
Ryan Newman23-800000.2570.186
Brian Vickers24-700000.1860.173
Landon Cassill23-400000.1690.077
Danica Patrick34-200000.1130.078
David Gilliland11-200000.0660.083
Martin Truex, Jr.11-100000.0570.005
Reed Sorenson11-100000.0440.049
Trevor Bayne11-200000.0340.042
David Ragan11-200000.0330.092
Ryan Blaney11-200000.0070.077
Brian Scott00-100000.0000.000
Justin Allgaier00-200000.0000.072
Austin Dillon00-200000.0000.039


Second verse, same as the first. For the second consecutive season, Kevin Harvick was completely dominant no matter what metric you use except for wins. Once again, he factored far more and far more significantly than any other driver that season but snakebitten by a slow pit crew he won far fewer races than he should have despite actually appearing to be slightly more dominant by almost all other metrics except wins in 2015 than he was in 2014. Indeed, even though he had the same number of TNL, one more race where he led the most laps, and one more race where he led in lead shares, he actually won two fewer times. He probably should have had about 15 or 16 race wins in 2014-15 based on the general level of his performance and he only had eight. His pit crews were certainly responsible for most of that, but I honestly think Harvick's conservatism played a role too. This is a guy who has a history of being such a big points racer that he was willing to intentionally cause a wreck at Talladega to advance in the chase this year (well, if bumper cars "worked" for Ryan Newman at Phoenix the previous season...) He certainly deserved to be in the final four and probably to win the title, but after that moment I was certainly ready to root for anyone else. I was probably wrong to rank Kyle Busch over him in my 2015 top 100 list. Although he won more races in fewer starts, he had a lower percentage in all other categories even accounting for the fact that Busch only made 24 starts to Harvick's 36. Busch certainly had the second best season, and probably he deserved a championship for the general dominance of his career, despite the fact that as I already noted, Busch very rarely leads any major statistical category in any given season. Joey Logano's 2015 was the most overrated season of the decade by any driver. Although he led the series with six wins, his season was nowhere near as good as his 2014 and he only really deserved 2-3 wins on performance. He won none of the races in his three in a row streak naturally, taking the lead when Kenseth pitted at Charlotte, punting Kenseth out of the lead at Kansas, and inheriting the lead under caution at the end of regulation at Talladega after Greg Biffle's Hail Mary attempt failed. Although I initially did think he had one of the best four seasons, I am no longer so sure that he even belonged in the final four actually. His consistency and win total would appear to indicate such, but he led nearly as often due to good fortune as his own efforts and his 1.7 difference between his lead shares and CRL is pretty massive. By most metrics other than wins, Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Busch, and Martin Truex, Jr. all outperformed him despite the latter three leading about half as often. Johnson, Busch, and Martin Truex, Jr. all had very underrated seasons, with about 1 more lead share than cumulative race led. If Logano didn't deserve to advance to the Homestead finale, Matt Kenseth certainly didn't either as his 16-25 record and only seven races led indicate he was very, very fortunate to win five races and he would have been even more ridiculously fortunate to win a sixth had he not been wrecked at Kansas; Kenseth deserves credit for fighting for the win in almost every race he contended, but he contended far too rarely, was far too inconsistent, and far too weak a duelist to take seriously as a championship contender. Just like Logano, teammate Brad Keselowski also had an overrated season with a 1.5 difference between his lead shares and CRL, although that likely would have been much, much better had he not been passed Johnson at the end of a Texas race he thoroughly dominated, which probably makes up a good share of the difference between Johnson's underrated season and Keselowski's overrated season. The real travesty seems not to be so much that Kenseth and Logano missed the final four (after their mutual antics, I was not unhappy that both of them missed), but that Jeff Gordon made it instead of Jimmie Johnson. One can say that's payback for Gordon missing in 2014 when he should have made it (which I would agree with, although I also think he had the 4th best season that year, not the best simply because he scored the most overall points.) However, this really was one of the most lackluster seasons of his career, more so than his winless 2008 or 2010 were. 1993 and 2012 were the only seasons Gordon had fewer lead shares than in 2015, and his Martinsville win while fondly nostalgic was fairly farcical because it obviously only came about because pretty much everyone else who could have won the race crashed, but we don't fault plate winners for that, do we? One depressing thing about this season is that only 21 drivers led races naturally, the lowest since 1992 (and that season had seven fewer races, one of which is missing.) That's what I mean about things getting more boring, although I think this season was more interesting than the surrounding few.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Kevin Harvick2146-28371196.3947.791
Jimmie Johnson919-1455253.5642.431
Kyle Busch1220-1654343.3692.564
Martin Truex, Jr.1114-1113423.1212.006
Joey Logano1533-3662322.7304.442
Matt Kenseth716-2554342.5893.054
Kurt Busch1120-1721222.4292.505
Brad Keselowski1020-2112432.3863.839
Carl Edwards1014-1821011.9391.277
Denny Hamlin1219-2022001.8351.520
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.619-1533321.7371.555
Jeff Gordon913-1211111.2421.094
Jamie McMurray34-401010.9900.040
Kasey Kahne44-800000.4700.240
Austin Dillon22-400000.3150.191
Tony Stewart23-400000.2420.075
Clint Bowyer22-300000.1950.066
Kyle Larson11-400000.1900.301
David Ragan11-100000.1430.046
A.J. Allmendinger11-300000.1170.329
Ryan Newman11-200000.0060.075
Casey Mears00-100000.0000.018
Paul Menard00-100000.0000.039
Greg Biffle00-200000.0000.166
Cole Whitt00-200000.0000.036


This is the closest thing you get to a changing of the guard now that there are so many fewer cars capable of leading than there used to be. This year effectively marked the transition between Kevin Harvick, the driver who dominated pretty much every advanced leading statistic in 2014-15 after a number of years of (relative) mediocrity largely because of the dominance of his cars, and Martin Truex, Jr., the driver who dominated pretty much advanced leading statistic in 2017 after a number of years of mediocrity largely because of the dominance of his cars. While drivers suddenly dominating after not showing much evidence of that over an extended period is likely a positive sign towards drivers who haven't yet gotten to drive premier cars, it also may say something about drivers being less of a factor in their own dominance than they were in the past. In previous decades, most drivers tended to have steadier ascents and declines from year to year even upon changing teams, but now these rankings suddenly seem to be more equipment-based than they were in the previous 25 years with few opportunities for anyone outside the premier three or so teams to show anything at all. Yes, there were similar inexplicable jumps in the past (like Sterling Marlin's 2000-2001 for instance) but usually in the past that was due to a change in manufacturer, a specific manufacturer suddenly being more or less dominant in certain years, or moving to a better team. There was little precedent for Truex's ascent to becoming a juggernaut for Furniture Row Racing based on his first year in 2014 other than arguably his Busch Series and IROC results. This year was pretty much just as uncompetitive as 2015 with only 22 drivers leading races naturally and only the top 11 really leading anything approaching often. Harvick was easily the most consistent driver yet again, but Truex was beginning to surpass him in terms of dominance with more TNL, lead shares, and races with the most lead shares. They tied with regard to the number of races led naturally with each leading 17. Although Jimmie Johnson won the championship and won the most races, this was probably the most overrated season in his career because he wasn't even clearly one of the top four drivers indicating maybe him qualifying for the Homestead finale was a bit of a stretch, although after Harvick, Truex, and Busch, I'm not sure who I would pick as the #4 driver for that year. Despite driving for one of the few teams capable of winning, Carl Edwards suddenly declined to a career-worst 19-29 lead change record and had 1 more cumulative race led than lead share. Although one can feel sorry about him not winning the championship considering how dominant he was in the Homestead finale and how a dubious late caution led to him crashing and losing his shot at the championship, he simply did not have championship-caliber performance (even less than Johnson did.) If Edwards retired after this year due to a lack of passion for the sport, it doesn't look like it was solely due to Homestead. For a driver who was one of the top duelists for many years to suddenly decline that badly (without an injury like Denny Hamlin had), it seems like something else was going on. Kyle Larson on the other hand was a lot more impressive than he looked with two lead shares to his one win and four races where he had the most lead shares to two races where he led the most laps, and he did look impressive finally taking over the Ganassi team from Jamie McMurray, who never led at all.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Martin Truex, Jr.1733-2446675.8095.315
Kevin Harvick1739-2045665.0464.467
Kyle Busch1325-2244434.2744.200
Joey Logano1217-1932322.8072.927
Matt Kenseth1116-1823232.5822.896
Jimmie Johnson915-1254322.5712.356
Brad Keselowski926-2543422.4112.715
Denny Hamlin911-1633232.3721.939
Kyle Larson713-1112242.2801.452
Carl Edwards819-2932221.8552.871
Chase Elliott813-1200101.5011.505
Kurt Busch44-611010.7700.805
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.33-300000.5000.209
Alex Bowman11-100100.3000.621
Trevor Bayne15-600010.2750.153
Ryan Blaney12-201000.2030.045
Greg Biffle33-600000.1190.213
Austin Dillon11-500000.1110.076
A.J. Allmendinger11-000000.1000.217
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.11-100000.0520.031
Ryan Newman11-300000.0380.073
Paul Menard11-300000.0220.065
Chris Buescher00-010000.0000.087
Landon Cassill00-100000.0000.040
Brian Scott00-100000.0000.015
Tony Stewart00-110000.0000.256
Michael Waltrip00-100000.0000.052
Danica Patrick00-200000.0000.210


With Kevin Harvick and Stewart-Haas switching to Ford in 2017 and now arguably playing second-fiddle to Penske to an even greater degree than they played second-fiddle to Hendrick in 2014-16, the once-dominant team faltered, and with Carl Edwards's retirement and replacement by rookie Daniel Suarez along with the continuation of Denny Hamlin's and Jimmie Johnson's declines, the stage was set for Martin Truex, Jr. and Kyle Busch to pretty much entirely dominate by themselves and that's precisely what they did. While Harvick led all categories other than wins in 2014-15, Truex led all categories this year except for races leading the most laps. Busch managed to lead the most laps ten times to Truex's nine, but by all other metrics Truex was substantially more dominant, and posted one of the most dominant seasons ever in fact. His 8.33 lead changes actually beat Jimmie Johnson's 2009 (although I would say Johnson faced much greater competition) and trailed only Dale Earnhardt's 1987 and 1990 as the most dominant seasons ever by this metric. Even though Truex had more wins than TNL and more races where he led the most laps than earned the most lead shares, he still had about two thirds of a lead share more than his number of cumulative races led, indicating that when he led in a race, he tended to lead a lot. Busch was pretty close to Truex in terms of dominance, with less than 1 fewer cumulative race led, but he wasn't even close in terms of lead shares, which Truex won by a margin of over two. Kyle Larson had his majro breakout this year and his four wins pretty much by all metrics matched his level of dominance in the races. Brad Keselowski, who had six TNL to his three wins and three races with the most lead shares to two races where he led the most laps, and over one more lead share in total than his number of CRL had a truly underrated season, and it's nice to see the final race contenders nearly match the four most dominant drivers of the year. Despite going winless, Chase Elliott actually outran Jimmie Johnson by most other metrics, as he led in lead shares in four different races (the Daytona 500, fall Martinsville, and both Phoenix races.) Elliott also matched Hut Stricklin as the only driver of this entire period to earn two or more TNL without ever winning (even Mike Skinner only ever had one TNL in his career.) With about 3.5 lead shares and 3.3 CRL, it's clear that Elliott should have about three wins already if he had any luck at all, but it's hard to imagine a win not coming at some point in the near future unless Hendrick declines further, which is certainly possible given the replacement of veteran drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne with rookies like Alex Bowman and William Byron. Ryan Blaney had easily the most impressive season from a leading perspective for the Wood Brothers and the team's first natural win since Dale Jarrett in 1991, but if you consider Blaney's 2017 entry to have the same caliber of equipment as the two full-time Penske cars, it's likely not as impressive. We will see in 2018 if Blaney improves significantly now that he is in an official Penske car instead of an unofficial one. His Daytona performances seem to indicate that it's certainly possible. Although Jimmie Johnson only led five races, he still managed to win three times, proving that he remained incredibly clutch on the increasingly rare occasions he factored for victory. However, he is leading rarely enough it wouldn't surprise me if he goes winless in an upcoming season. The difference between Truex, Busch, and all other JGR-affiliated drivers was stark, as while Truex and Busch both had high lead change percentage, all the other JGR and Furniture Row drivers had negative lead change percentages, clearly implying that the pit crews remain generally stronger than most of the other drivers are, although since Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones were both rookies, it looks likely that both of them should improve in subsequent seasons.

DriverRaces ledRecordWinsTNLLMLLSLLSCRL
Martin Truex, Jr.2252-2687978.3277.698
Kyle Busch2043-31561066.0637.069
Kyle Larson1423-2243544.0764.137
Brad Keselowski1229-1936234.0622.908
Kevin Harvick920-2223332.5852.900
Chase Elliott920-1702142.0531.753
Ryan Blaney816-1211131.7521.130
Denny Hamlin1016-2721211.6302.403
Jimmie Johnson57-533011.5110.642
Matt Kenseth58-1311111.0231.320
Kasey Kahne35-611010.6320.222
Joey Logano46-910100.3861.199
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.25-622010.3390.309
Erik Jones34-1100100.2780.817
Kurt Busch22-410000.2580.057
Daniel Suarez23-600010.2490.303
Ryan Newman22-310000.1560.135
Trevor Bayne22-200000.1330.042
Aric Almirola11-100000.0720.010
Clint Bowyer12-500000.0720.119
A.J. Allmendinger11-100000.0710.052
David Ragan11-100000.0690.025
Ty Dillon11-200000.0660.138
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.22-700000.0660.176
Austin Dillon11-210000.0650.055
Jamie McMurray11-200000.0040.095
Chris Buescher00-100000.0000.040
Brendan Gaughan00-100000.0000.032
Danica Patrick00-100000.0000.018
Cole Whitt00-100000.0000.015
Michael McDowell00-200000.0000.029
Paul Menard00-200000.0000.020
Landon Cassill00-300000.0000.031


When looking at the annual leader statistics data, there are indeed certain drivers who appear more impressive and less impressive as indicated by the baseline stats. For as much hype as he receives, Dale Earnhardt is actually underrated. From 1986-1990 he was the most dominant driver every year, including 1988 and 1989, when he won neither the championship nor the most races. However, he seldom lucked into his dominance and had a career-long trend where he tended to factor significantly in more races than he actually won, indicating along with the difference between his overall lead change percentage and his TNL percentage that Earnhardt actually played it safe and sacrificed many possible wins to help maintain his championship advantage. When considering Earnhardt's entire career, he had the most lead shares in 81 races from 1985 to the present, only one behind Jeff Gordon and ahead of Jimmie Johnson, implying that Earnhardt is actually unlucky to have as few wins as he does, while Gordon especially and to a lesser degree Johnson are lucky to have more wins than Earnhardt. When looking at the late '80s/early '90s period, he looks more impressive while almost every single one of his rivals looks less impressive. Earnhardt is clearly the best NASCAR driver of my lifetime.

Darrell Waltrip is unquestionably overrated. He had seven more wins than TNL in this period, but the trend even looks worse when you extend it to previous seasons, as if you include the races from 1983 and 1984 that also have footage, that rises to eleven. This is not very surprising considering he had a massive difference between his 84 wins and about 64 cumulative races led, indicating he was very lucky to have 84 wins, largely because of how dominant his equipment was, how dominant his pit crews were, and how much his teams cheated, considering DiGard and Junior Johnson were the teams that had the worst legacies of cheating. Rusty Wallace is overrated. While he tended to have better seasons than you'd expect in most of the seasons where he didn't contend for the championship, it's hard to say he was really the best driver in any season as in all four of his peak seasons (1988, 1989, 1993, and 1994) he won and led more often than he probably should have based on how much he was leading through his own efforts. Earnhardt clearly outperformed Wallace in all four of those seasons when you look at more advanced statistics. While Wallace likely deserved a championship based on the overall level of his dominance, it's hard to say he was ever the best driver in any particular season. Jeff Gordon is clearly overrated and his pit crews and the caliber of his teams made him look better than he was in his heyday in 1995-2001. He was never as strong a duelist as you'd expect for how dominant most of those seasons were. While he usually had .500 or greater lead change records, it was only in his very late career, particularly 2011, where he actually seemed like he was one of the best duelists. Kyle Busch is also overrated. While he is one of the leaders in most lead change categories most years, he was the overall leader in surprisingly few categories each year. He never won the most races, he was rarely if ever the most consistent, and much like Rusty Wallace, there's no clear season where he really appeared to have a strong case as the best driver.

Looking at the data in this way, the driver who is probably most underrated is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. To be sure in most of his career after 2004 he was not one of the most dominant threats. However, that overlooks how dominant he was in the 2001-2004 period. As I have already revealed previously that 2002 was the most competitive in Cup history, it is quite impressive that Junior managed to be the most dominant driver both in terms of lead shares as well as cumulative races led, and as I have already discussed, he did not primarily do that due to his restrictor plate dominance as he still would have led the most races naturally in both 2002 and 2003 without even considering the plate races. He managed to lead in lead shares in 2002 despite a concussion indicating his 11th place points finish does not come close to reflecting his talent at the time. In 2003, Junior had the largest difference between lead shares and cumulative races led among any driver in any year in history. His career largely echoes Davey Allison's in many ways, and Allison too led in lead shares in two consecutive seasons, 1991-1992, but I honestly find Junior more impressive because he managed to bring a fledgling DEI team to prominence while the #28 had been regularly winning for years before Allison got there, and also because Junior was honestly a much more impressive short track and even road course duelist than Allison was. He also faced stronger fields, but still NASCAR fans continue to sneer at Junior and act like he is on the Kyle Petty level or something when he was far, far greater than that, and if in his later career he didn't appear so, that may be explained by his several later concussions. Sterling Marlin as usual continues to look underrated as he managed to lead in lead share percentage in both 1993 and 1996, becoming the last driver to lead in this category for a single-car team until Kurt Busch in 2013. Looking at the data on a year-by-year level, Mark Martin looks underrated in his prime from 1992-1998 but overrated outside of that period. Despite never winning a championship, Martin led in lead change percentage in three different years (1992, 1995, and 1998) and in 1993 nearly matched Earnhardt in lead shares, but ended up with only five wins and a distant third place finish in points because Rusty Wallace was much, much luckier. While Ricky Rudd looked disappointing in terms of a lot of the previous advanced stats discussed, on a year-to-year level he looks much more impressive, as he too had the highest lead change percentage in three different years (1988, 1990, and 2000) providing strong evidence of his longevity. Tony Stewart was likely underrated since he ended up with 61 races with the most lead shares to only 49 wins and was a much better duelist for his entire career than people realized. Ernie Irvan as usual came out as underrated, particularly in his post-injury period as his 1996 and 1997 were much more impressive than most people thought they were, with him even leading in lead change percentage in 1997 and earning four TNL but being so unlucky he only won one race (the same thing that happened to Rudd in 1988.) Alan Kulwicki's career is too often reduced to his championship season but he was underrated for his whole career, particularly 1989, when he had three TNL and zero wins and a 14th place points finish, none of which was really his fault since it was due to blown engines and being beaten out of the pits. Martin Truex, Jr. doesn't appear as underrated this time as usual because his period of dominance was really short-lived and few of his earlier seasons indicate anything resembling his current success. Kevin Harvick is probably a little underrated considering he should have had far more wins and perhaps more titles during his power run than he actually did. Some other major drivers including Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Dale Jarrett, and Terry Labonte don't really appear to be overrated or underrated, as their advanced stats more or less seem to be about what most people would expect.

Overall, this year-by-year survey definitely provides a different perspective on which drivers were the most impressive than either the points standings or win counts do. By considering how the races were won (as best reflected by the terminal natural leader) in addition to wins, and by considering how the races were led (as best reflected by lead shares) in addition to mere laps led data, we can now see better which drivers were most responsible for their own dominance and which drivers tended to benefit more due to team-related factors. Even based on my previous analyses, there were some things that I would not have expected such as the level of Junior's dominance at his peak and Rusty Wallace's relative lack of dominance at his peak. I do tend to find that these lists are very predictive. You can tend to predict which drivers are on the rise by looking at which drivers tend to have more lead shares than cumulative races led or more TNL than wins. Right now, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney especially seem to be on the rise. You can also usually tell which drivers are declining based on who used to be especially strong duelists but faded suddenly, like recent Carl Edwards. This provides a perspective that allows you to identify trends that won't usually be found in the points standings. Drivers do tend to become more consistent as they age, but often in exchange for decreased dominance, so drivers in their later career often appear more impressive than they actually were by tending to get better championship finishes than their level of performance in the race would indicate, such as Jeff Gordon's post-2004 period and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s post-2011 period. One of the most interesting surprises was noticing the three drivers who managed to lead in lead change percentage without winning a race: Sterling Marlin in 1993, Ricky Rudd in 2000, and Kurt Busch in 2013. In all three cases, these performances (particularly Marlin's and Busch's for arguably subpar teams) seemed to be fairly predictive of these drivers' later success, as Marlin would go on to have his career peak at Morgan-McClure in 1995, Rudd would have arguably his most championship-caliber performance in the first half of 2001, and Busch had an excellent start to his Stewart-Haas career. Looking at drivers who were dominant passers or had better TNL or lead share totals than their win total, races leading the most laps, or cumulative races led will indicate, as well as those drivers who were ranked higher in lead shares than they were in the championship will give you a good idea who the most underrated drivers are, and among the younger drivers, who is most likely to next break out.

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.