The Frontstretch: Going By the Numbers: The Worst Reigning Champ? Not Anymore by Kevin Rutherford -- Tuesday October 15, 2013

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Going By the Numbers: The Worst Reigning Champ? Not Anymore

Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday October 15, 2013


It took a bit, but Brad Keselowski is a winner in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013.

At Sunday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Keselowski drove to the front, and after taking the lead with just nine laps to go, took the checkered flag for the first time in 2013.

It must have felt like an eternity to Brad Keselowski since he last entered Victory Lane. That’s because it nearly was.

Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be major news. Drivers take a long time to win their first race in a season all the time; many don’t even win at all. But Keselowski’s circumstances were, understandably, different. Being the defending Sprint Cup champion will do that to you.

All told, it took Brad Keselowski 31 races to win again after being crowned the series champ. That’s a long time. An incredibly long time. In fact, it’s the longest stretch for a reigning champ since 1993 and also the most sizable amount of races since 1964, when the season was at 55 races total, not 36.

Since NASCAR’s inception, the defending champion has won at least one race more often than not. In the sport’s 65 years, a champ hasn’t followed his title year with a win only seven times, more than half of those coming in NASCAR’s Modern Era. Even then, special circumstances sometimes limited champions’ opportunities to win. Red Byron, for instance, ran only four races in 1950, while Bill Rexford also made limited appearances in 1951 and Ned Jarrett in 1966 prior to his retirement. Joe Weatherly and Alan Kulwicki were killed just races into the seasons following their championships in 1964 and 1993, respectively.

The remaining two seasons during which that occurred? Benny Parsons in 1974 and Dale Earnhardt in 1981. These are the only two champions who followed winning seasons with a zero-win effort, while running full time. That’s the company Brad Keselowski would have been joining had he not finally rattled off a win at Charlotte last weekend.

Keselowski’s drought was extraordinary even halfway through the season, let alone near its end. The majority of Sprint Cup champions follow up their title years with a win in the first 10 races, a feat accomplished by the nine champs preceding Keselowski. Tony Stewart was the last driver to take longer than eight races to win his first race as a defending series champion, winning the 14th race of 2003 after his 2002 title. Jeff Gordon came before with a sizable drought, finally winning race 24 in 2002.

Prior to Keselowski, Terry Labonte held the record (non-winners not included) for longest streak before winning in the Modern Era, taking a win in the 29th race of the 1997 season after winning his second title the previous year. Outside the Modern Era, it was Richard Petty, who followed his first career title in 1964 with a lackluster 1965, dodging victory lane until race 35 of 55. Even then, that race was at the end of July, meaning as far as months go, Keselowski’s winless streak went even longer.

One last example of just how uncharacteristic of a new champ Keselowski’s drought ended up becoming? Not including the seven seasons during which the defending champion didn’t win the following year, the average number of races for the series champion to win a race the next season is 7.5, meaning it tends to happen in either about the seventh or eighth race.

So, hey, maybe Brad Keselowski’s had a tough year. Perhaps that’s the driver’s fault, and perhaps the team is to blame.

But while his drought was substantial, at least he didn’t join an elite club of two drivers who followed up championship years with full-time efforts that resulted in no wins. Though Earnhardt’s membership in that group was followed by six more championships, so maybe it wouldn’t have been such a bad omen after all.

Longest Win Droughts in Following Season for Defending Cup Champion

Whole Season: Red Byron (1950), Bill Rexford (1951), Joe Weatherly (1964), Ned Jarrett (1966), Benny Parsons (1974), Dale Earnhardt (1981), Alan Kulwicki (1993)
35th Race: Richard Petty (1965)
31st Race: Brad Keselowski (2013)
29th Race: Terry Labonte (1997)
24th Race: Jeff Gordon (2002)

Drivers Winning First Race of Season as Defending Champion: Herb Thomas (1954), Lee Petty (1955), Tim Flock (1956), Richard Petty (1972), Cale Yarborough (1978), Jeff Gordon (1999), Dale Jarrett (2000)

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10/15/2013 08:24 AM

Kevin, you can not put Kulwicki and Weatherly in the “worst reigning champion” catorgory since they could not defend. Need to adjust the listing of your statistics. Alan Kulwicki only raced in 5 races in 1993 before his untimely death. That would not be considered a “whole season” by any means. You can NOT include him and Joe Weatherly (oddly, also five races) in the same catorgory as the other drivers. It is unfair and amateur to not separate them out. They are not comparable. Keselowski’s streak can also not be compared to Kulwicki’s. Keslowski race in all the races, Kulwicki did not.

10/15/2013 10:33 AM

Wow, what a waste of a column! the link is wrong in my e-mail since I planned to read the “narrow focus” column, not this one.

Carl D.
10/15/2013 04:23 PM

Meaningless statistics. Unless you’re using them to write a meaningless column.

10/15/2013 06:47 PM

Yeah, what EBSNASCAR said.