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NASCAR's top 20 driver seasons of century

By Steve Makinen  () 

I continue my series on each sport’s top seasons of the 21st century by looking at the NASCAR Cup Series. The sport has taken center stage since becoming one of the first to return to action in mid-May. We’ve seen nine races in a little over a month, and the betting interest and TV ratings indicate increased interest. It’s a great time to get newbies caught up on the recent history of NASCAR, specifically what the best drivers have accomplished since 2000.

 

NASCAR has become a data-rich sport, and that makes it favorable for bettors. This change really began in the offseason of 2005 when the Cup Series began releasing its popular loop data to the public. Simple performance measures were expanded, and key in-race data enabled vastly improved statistical analysis. This was a huge upgrade for people like me, and it had a major impact in improving my race simulations. Statistics like Driver Rating, Average Running Position and Laps Spent in the Top 15 were previously available only to major media partners. In addition, publishing practice speeds at the track in preparation for races aided bookmakers and bettors.

 

The formula I have used to create these ratings was built from a combination of key statistical rankings I deemed most impactful for that driver in a given season when compared with his competitors. It rewards wins more than any other factor since that is the most definitive separator of a champion from a contender. Simply put, the lowest combined average yearly ranking in these key stats, the better the season.

 

These ratings are 100% statistically based and are not impacted at all by the driver’s eventual accomplishments. Exactly half these drivers, 10, won Cup Series championships, and six others were runners-up. The current playoff format, which has been tweaked several times since its introduction in the 2004 season, has made it a little less automatic in terms of winning a series championship after a dominant regular season. It has become closer to other sports in that playoff success has a greater impact on title runs than regular-season accomplishments. Twelve drivers made this top-20 list, led by Jimmie Johnson, with five of his seven championship seasons included. Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon are the only other drivers with multiple entries, with three each. Kevin Harvick’s current season, in which he is on pace for six wins, 18 top-5s and 27 top-10s, would have him challenging for the top 10. As always, your comments and feedback are welcome.

 

Top 20 NASCAR Seasons of the 21st Century

 

1. Tony Stewart (2005 season). Key stat rank: 1.53

Stats: 5 wins, 17 top-5s, 25 top-10s, avg. finish 9.92

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: Stewart’s only entry on the top-20 list from the 21st century grabs the No. 1 spot. His 2005 season was not so much dominant as it was error-free. He was solid in almost every regard, finishing 35 of the 36 races, winning five and leading the circuit in laps completed, average finish, laps led, top-5s and top-10s. Although he had only five wins, all came as part of an amazing summer run that stands as likely the best 13-race stretch of the century. In that span, he finished no worse than eighth and had an average finish of 3.6. Two checkered flags came at a pair of showcase events, the Pepsi 400 at Daytona and the Brickyard 400 at Indy. Stewart won three Cup series titles, but 2005 was his finest season.

 

2. Jeff Gordon (2001 season). Key stat rank: 1.74

Stats: 6 wins, 18 top-5s, 24 top-10s, avg. finish 10.97

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: Gordon dominated the field in 2001 so much that he won the series title by 349 points, a margin that gave him more than a two-race cushion. He won six times that season, including a pair of back-to-backs in June and August. Gordon also overcame two 30-plus finishes in the first five races, including a 38th at the Daytona 500. Strangely, he also finished 37th in the Daytona summer race. The 2001 season was Gordon’s only title run of the century and the last of his four Cup Series championships, although the current Fox analyst became wildly successful later as car owner for Jimmie Johnson’s seven title runs.

 

3. Kyle Busch (2018 season). Key stat rank: 2.04

Stats: 7 wins, 21 top-5s, 27 top-10s, avg. finish 8.75

Standings: Finished fourth

Season recap: Busch probably would have more Cup Series championships if he had raced in the pre-playoff era. Every year he’s almost a lock for the final championship race, but only twice has he brought home the crown. His best season, which didn’t even result in the title, came in 2018, when he won seven times, including an amazing three straight in April. The highlight win of the season came at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. He spent a series-best 86.6% of his laps in the top 15 and finished in the top 5 in half the 36 series events. He finished fourth in the standings as the three other title contenders in the season finale at Homestead came in at Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

 

4. Bobby Labonte (2000 season). Key stat rank: 2.05

Stats: 4 wins, 19 top-5s, 24 top-10s, avg. finish 7.44

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: Labonte piloted his No. 18 Pontiac to the 2000 championship despite winning just four times and ranking seventh on the circuit in laps led. But he was remarkably consistent, finishing all 36 races and completing 99.9% of the season’s laps. It was the only championship season of his career, but he certainly earned it, beating Dale Earnhardt by a healthy 265-point margin. Remarkably, his worst finish was 26th, and he finished worse than 20th just one other time. He led the series in top-5s with 19 and top-10s with 24, and a win at the Brickyard 400 in August was the most rewarding checkered flag he captured that season.

 

5. Jeff Gordon (2007 season). Key stat rank: 2.15

Stats: 6 wins, 21 top-5s, 30 top-10s, avg. finish 7.33

Standings: Finished second

Season recap: Gordon makes a second appearance on the list before his protege, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, even checks in. Gordon’s 2007 was not a title season, but he ran up front all season long, holding a 20-year high of 30 top-10 finishes. He suffered just one DNF, at Charlotte in May, and besides a three-race stretch in late August finishing 27th, 19th and 22nd, he had no other races worse than 12th. The famous No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet took home back-to-back wins in April and in the playoffs in October. He finished second to Johnson in the title standings.

 

6. Jimmie Johnson (2013 season). Key stat rank: 2.27

Stats: 6 wins, 16 top-5s, 24 top-10s, avg. finish 10.69

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: Johnson has won seven NASCAR titles, and the highest-rated came in 2013, when he won six times and led a series-high 18.8% of the laps turned. The season started in fine fashion as he won the second of his two Daytona 500s. Johnson returned to Daytona nearly five months later and captured the summer race as well. He fought off a stretch of four straight finishes of 28th or worse at the end of the regular season and rebounded to post nine top-10s in the playoffs, highlighted by wins at Dover and Texas.

 

7. Jimmie Johnson (2009 season). Key stat rank: 2.379

Stats: 7 wins, 16 top-5s, 24 top-10s, avg. finish 11.08

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: The 2009 championship was Johnson’s easiest, at least in terms of point gap, as he bested second-place Mark Martin by a comfortable 141 points. This was the fourth of five straight title seasons for the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet driver, and although it was inconsistent by his standards with five finishes of 30th or worse, it was probably his best playoff effort of the run. He won four times in the last nine events — at Dover, California, Charlotte and Phoenix — making the season finale at Homestead nothing more than a coronation. Johnson won three other times that season, the biggest coming at Indy with the Brickyard 400. He also enjoyed a career-best 21.3% of laps led.

 

8. Jimmie Johnson (2006 season). Key stat rank: 2.382

Stats: 5 wins, 13 top-5s, 24 top-10s, avg. finish 9.67

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: Johnson won his first series title in 2006, and it can be argued it was his most careful season. He finished a career-best 35 of the 36 races, and perhaps most importantly, hit his stride at exactly the right time by finishing first or second in five of the last six races. He again put himself in a very comfortable position for the season finale at Homestead. He won only five races, which tied for the fewest of his championship-season efforts, but three came at Daytona, Talladega and Indianapolis in some of the season’s biggest races. Johnson went on to win four more titles in a row after the ’06 season.

 

9. Jimmie Johnson (2008 season). Key stat rank: 2.42

Stats: 7 wins, 15 top-5s, 22 top-10s, avg. finish 10.53

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: If anything stuck out most about Johnson’s 2008 title season, it’s that he captured checkered flags in five of the final 12 races. Coming up biggest in the playoffs is a true sign of a championship-caliber driver. Of those five victories, the one that was most important, and essentially clinched another championship for him, was at Phoenix in the next-to-last event. Johnson swept the two races at Phoenix that season and won the Brickyard 400 at Indy.

 

10. Jeff Gordon (2014 season). Key stat rank: 2.421

Stats: 4 wins, 13 top-5s, 22 top-10s, avg. finish 10.92

Standings: Finished sixth

Season recap: Gordon’s 2014 effort deserved a much higher finish than the sixth place he garnered. He was eliminated in the third round of the playoffs after a 29th at Texas soiled two second-place finishes before and after that race. The event from Texas was memorable as Gordon, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick got into a famous postrace brawl on pit road. Gordon had plenty of right to be upset as his involvement in an on-track incident that day cost him a shot at what would have been a final series title. Even so, the 2014 season was good for the No. 24 Chevrolet driver, who led the circuit in laps completed, average finish and top-10s. He also captured the checkered flag at Indy, a race that comes with one of the highest prize purses each year.

 

11. Carl Edwards (2008 season). Key stat rank: 2.58

Stats: 9 wins, 19 top-5s, 27 top-10s, avg. finish 9.5

Standings: Finished second

Season recap: Edwards stepped away from racing before anyone thought he would, but he gained plenty of fame, not only for winning 28 Cup Series races but for his customary backflip celebration. He was recognized as one of the finest athletes on the circuit, and his best season came in 2008, when he finished 69 points behind champion Jimmie Johnson. He won nine races that season, second only to Johnson’s 10 in 2007 for most this century. This included victories in three of the final four events, which nowadays would bring a title. But Johnson had built a big enough lead that even a race win at Homestead didn’t give Edwards a shot. He swept the races at Texas, and his biggest win of the season came in the Bristol night race in August. The driver of the No. 99 Ford was best on the circuit in fastest laps, top-15 laps, average finish, wins, top-5s and top-10s, but Johnson still took home the series title.

 

12. Greg Biffle (2005 season). Key stat rank: 2.63

Stats: 6 wins, 15 top-5s, 21 top-10s, avg. finish 11.89

Standings: Finished second

Season recap: Had Tony Stewart not enjoyed such a brilliant 2005 season, Biffle quite easily might have won a title and moved up higher than No. 12 on this list. In fact, Biffle won more races than Stewart did in ’05 with six, but the latter was simply more consistent and better in longer stretches than the No. 16 Roush Ford driver. In his 14-year Cup Series career, Biffle won 19 races, nearly one-third coming in his ’05 breakout season. The highlight win came at the season finale in Homestead, but he won at six tracks, a testament to how well his team was clicking.

 

13. Brad Keselowski (2014 season). Key stat rank: 2.65

Stats: 6 wins, 17 top-5s, 20 top-10s, avg. finish 12.64

Standings: Finished fifth

Season recap: Although Keselowski won the 2012 series championship in his No. 2 Penske Dodge, his 2014 season was actually better statistically. He won six races, as compared to five, led the circuit in top-5s and was the best qualifying driver that season. Keselowski was a force out of the gate, finishing third, third and first in the opening three races of the season. He enjoyed several other elite stretches, including three straight top-3s in June, wins in two of three races in July, back-to-back victories in September and an average finish of 3.3 in the final three events. His streaky nature cost him any shot at the title, however, as he mixed in six finishes of 30th or worse to negate that same number of checkered flags.

 

14. Martin Truex (2017 season). Key stat rank: 2.77

Stats: 8 wins, 19 top-5s, 26 top-10s, avg. finish 9.42

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: Since the Average Running Position statistic was introduced to the public in ’06, the driver who holds the record at an amazing 6.83 is Truex in his 2017 championship season. It is the only title of Truex’s career to this point, but he was certainly deserving, a winner of eight races and series leader in a host of other key stats. These included fastest laps, top-15 laps, laps led, top-5s and top-10s. Besides the final race and championship win, the No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota driver won three other playoff races. He was also the undisputed king of 1.5-mile tracks, winning six times at those facilities, including a season sweep at Kansas.

 

15. Jimmie Johnson (2007 season). Key stat rank: 2.848

Stats: 10 wins, 20 top-5s, 24 top-10s, avg. finish 10.75

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: Johnson’s final entry on our top-20 list is his 2007 championship effort, a season highlighted by a century- and career-best 10 wins for the seven-time champ. You would think that 10 victories would have made this Johnson’s finest season, but he offset it with five finishes of 37th or worse. It was almost like a win-or-bust season, as his victory total matched his other top-5 finishes. Other drivers in ’07 beat him in races finished, completed laps, average finish, top-5s and top-10s. Still, the highlight-laden title campaign included wins at eight tracks, with sweeps at Martinsville and Atlanta.

 

16. Kyle Busch (2019 season). Key stat rank: 2.85

Stats: 5 wins, 17 top-5s, 27 top-10s, avg. finish 8.94

Standings: Won Cup Series championship

Season recap: Busch essentially backed into the 2019 season finale at Homestead after a late-season swoon nearly derailed his title bid. He was dominant in the regular season, winning four of the first 14 races. He then went on a 21-race winless binge until finally picking it up in the 36th race and capturing the checkered flag to win the season crown. His overall stats were still impressive. He led the circuit in average running position, fastest laps, top-15 laps, laps led and average finish, so he was a deserving champion. But at points throughout the playoffs, he didn’t seem destined for that lofty distinction. This was Busch’s second championship and the second entry of three on this list.

 

17. Joey Logano (2015 season). Key stat rank: 3.00

Stats: 6 wins, 22 top-5s, 28 top-10s, avg. finish 9.17

Standings: Finished sixth

Season recap: Logano won the 2018 title, but his best statistical season was 2015, when he finished sixth in the standings. That year he won six races as compared to three, and he had nine more top-5s and two more top-10s than he did in the title season. In fact, Logano was so good in 2015 that his 22 top-5s were the second most this century. He had just two bad races in the final 26, and he picked the exact wrong time to have them — they were the first two races in the third round of the playoffs, and he was eliminated from title contention. His season was highlighted by a win at the Daytona 500 and an amazing three-race sweep in the second round of the playoffs.

 

18. Kevin Harvick (2015 season). Key stat rank: 3.23

Stats: 3 wins, 23 top-5s, 28 top-10s, avg. finish 8.67

Standings: Finished second

Season recap: Perhaps you’re wondering … with Harvick and Joey Logano making the 2015 top-20 list but neither winning a title, who did win? Well, that was Kyle Busch’s first championship, but it can easily be argued that Logano and Harvick had better seasons. Harvick’s was very impressive and the best of his career. He led the circuit in average running position, fastest laps, top-15 laps, laps led and top-5s. In fact, he holds 20-year highs for fastest laps (13.24%), top-15 laps (91.2%), led laps (22%) and top-5s (23). Then why isn’t he higher on the list? The driver of the Stewart-Haas No. 4 Ford won only three races, the lowest total of anyone on this list. He was Mr. Runner-Up, finishing second 13 times. Fittingly, that is the exact position he wound up in the final standings.

 

19. Kyle Busch (2017 season). Key stat rank: 3.27

Stats: 5 wins, 14 top-5s, 22 top-10s, avg. finish 11.53

Standings: Finished second

Season recap: Busch was the series runner-up in 2017, but only because Martin Truex was a little better all season long and a little better on the final day at Homestead. Busch finished second to Truex in one of the more dramatic championship races we have seen in the playoff format. For the season Busch won five races, all in the final 16 events, so he picked a great time to get hot. He won back-to-back races in the playoffs at New Hampshire and Dover, and he claimed the Bristol night race as well. He was second in almost every key stat category to Truex and finished where he deserved.

 

20. Matt Kenseth (2006 season). Key stat rank: 3.50

Stats: 4 wins, 15 top-5s, 21 top-10s, avg. finish 9.81

Standings: Finished second

Season recap: Kenseth, who came out of retirement to pilot the Chip Ganassi No. 42 machine for the rest of this season, grabs the final spot in our rankings of top seasons from NASCAR since 2000. The 2006 season was Kenseth’s best, although he finished second in the standings to Jimmie Johnson. Aside from his title season of 2003, in which he won just one race, Kenseth seems to have always been stuck in the shadow of a more elite driver. His 2006 season included four wins, highlighted by a back-to-back that culminated at the Bristol summer night race. He failed to record a top-3 finish in the playoffs, however, and averaged 10.7, thus never really threatening for the title.

 

I’ll finish this series next week with a look at the remaining sports I’ve covered for the last 20 years — the WNBA, CFL and Arena Football League.

 

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