Cami Starr · Wednesday April 19, 2006
Now that we’ve covered the lower half of the driver bracket, it’s time to heat things up and find out who’s been hot over the first decade of this Century. This list includes past champions, record setters, and legends in the making. Where will your favorite driver wind up? Read ahead to find out in Part Three of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not: Drivers of the Decade.
Jeff Burton: Burton started off the decade hot with Roush Racing, before moving to RCR midway through the 2004 season. While his results at RCR haven’t been setting the world on fire, Burton is still quietly one of the most consistent drivers out there. With a DNF rate of less than 10%, he’s one of the best at taking care of his equipment and being there when it counts.
Dale Jarrett: The 1999 Cup Champ remained in the Top 10 in the standings until a big drop off in 2003, when he finished the year in 26th place. He hasn’t gotten back to the Top 10 since, but that doesn’t diminish his overall performance in the past six plus years. When you look at all of Jarrett’s statistics for the decade, he ranks in the Top 10 in wins, Top 5’s and Top 10’s, showing he can still turn up the heat. Currently 11th in the points, DJ looks to be once again heading in the right direction.
Bobby Labonte: Labonte started off the decade as hot as you can get by winning his first Cup title. He remained competitive for several years, finishing in the Top 10 in points twice more before sliding back to a disappointing 24th place finish in 2005. Now with a new team, Labonte hopes to add to his solid stats, which include a near 40% Top 10 finish rate.
Kevin Harvick: The pressure was high for Harvick after taking over the seat of a legend, Dale Earnhardt, in 2001. He looked to be up to the challenge early on, winning in only his third start and finishing 9th in points that year despite missing the first race of the season. With four finishes in the Top 15 of the standings since then, Harvick has been good and steady, but nowhere near as blistering hot.
Ryan Newman: For as many Bud Pole awards as he has taken home in his career, you would think Newman would be perfect for the Budweiser sponsorship. In number of poles won this decade, Newman is clearly the qualifying King. With 35 Pole Positions to his credit since his career began in 2001, he’s been at the head of the class in 22% of the races he’s run. While qualifying is certainly his strong suit, he’s not too bad on race day: His 15.9 average finish and 12 wins put him in the Top 10 in both categories.
Greg Biffle: This one might come as a bit of a shocker given his cold spell this year, but looking at his overall performance, Biffle is no slouch. His winning percentage of 7.4 is the sixth best of the decade, and when he’s not winning races, he’s leading laps. His total of 2,230 laps led is 8th best among current drivers, which is more impressive considering he’s run 100 races fewer than many of the drivers ahead of him (Biffle’s Cup career began in full in 2003).
Jamie McMurray: Like Harvick, McMurray won very early on in hus Cup career, setting the bar of expectations high. While he only has that one win on his resume, he has put in enough strong runs to keep him on the warm side. Fifty Top 10s (41%) has kept him close to the Top 10 in the standings, with his worst full-time season being 12th in 2003. If he doesn’t step up at Roush Racing soon, though, he won’t be in the same position on this list a few years down the road.
Kurt Busch: While he wouldn’t be on the hot list of many popularity contests, Busch’s on track results capped by his 2004 Championship put him on the hot list with no problem. His 15 wins are the 5th highest of the decade, and he’s nearly as impressive in the Top 5 and Top 10 categories. It may take him a while to acclimate himself at Penske Racing, but as much as many hate to admit it, he does have the talent to keep up his early hot pace.
Mark Martin: As of right now, Martin is the Dan Marino of NASCAR, one of the best in his sport without winning the Big One. Martin’s stat sheet is the definition of consistency. His average finish of 14.9 is 4th highest of the decade and is backed up with 56 Top 5’s and 106 Top 10’s, almost a 50% ratio. While all that hard work hasn’t paid off with a championship, Martin is usually near the fight for the top spot. Only twice this decade he failed to finish the season in the Top 10 in points, upping his total to an astonishing 16 Top 10 points finishes in 18 years with Roush. You can’t get much hotter than that.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Despite all the talk of Junior’s demise last season, his numbers show that he is far from a has been. His 16 wins put him 4th on the list this decade, and his Top 5 and Top 10 numbers are just as striking. Not only can he win races, he can take them over, too, as his 4,642 laps led is topped by only three other men. While he hasn’t had the championship results his Dad had, nobody will see an 8th championship for the Earnhardt family as a surprise.
Matt Kenseth: Like his Roush teammate Mark Martin, Kenseth has been quiet in building up his resume. He’s not flashy nor in Victory Lane every other week, but he has endurance and the ability to be there at the end when it counts. He won his 2003 title with only 1 victory, a testament to how he runs up front and stays on the track. Kenseth has shown that while consistency might not be as sexy as racking up a bunch of wins, it’s very effective.
Jimmie Johnson: In just over five years, Johnson has put together some very impressive stats. He ranks first in winning percentage, taking home the trophy in nearly 13% of the races he has entered. He also ranks in the Top 5 in every other major statistical category: number of wins, laps led, Top 5 percentage and Top 10 percentage. That doesn’t make it hard to believe Johnson has finished in the Top 5 in the standings each season he’s run. Currently the point leader, he still has plenty of work ahead of him this year to finally seal the deal.
Jeff Gordon: While he’s come up short in his Drive for Five the past four years, you can’t say Gordon has fallen off his game. Granted, last year was a disappointment, but only because he has set expectations so high. Gordon holds the top spot in wins (24) and laps led (7199) this decade, and is in the Top 3 in each other main category. He may be one of the "elder statesmen" of the sport now, but don’t let that give you the impression that he’s slowing down. Look for him to be on the hot list for many years to come.
Hottest of the Hot
Tony Stewart: With two championships and a laundry list of top notch stats, Stewart wins the award for hottest of the hot for the decade so far. He leads the series with an amazing 12.5 average finish, as well as Top 5 finishes (85) and Top 10’s (132). And if things go his way this year, he’ll take over the top spot in wins and laps led by the end of the season. With no finish outside the Top 7 in the final standings this decade, nobody has been as hot as Smoke.
So, there you have it…the hot (and not so hot) drivers of the decade. Of course, we’re only in 2006…who knows how much the list will change by the time the decade is out. Which of the young drivers will perform well enough to make the next list, and which of the veterans will perform their way from the front of the pack all the way back into a deep freeze? There’s plenty of racing still ahead, and I look forward to watching another few years to find out.
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