The Frontstretch: Happy Hour’s Best Five Drivers In The Sport by Kurt Smith -- Friday June 19, 2009

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Happy Hour’s Best Five Drivers In The Sport

Kurt Smith · Friday June 19, 2009

 

As is often said, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

But in the past two weeks, I couldn’t rely simply on my own judgment in deciding who should be ranked as the 15th through 11th and then the 10th through 6th drivers in the sport. I had ideas that I thought were worthy for the most part…I have been watching for a while. But then a look at the numbers would cause changes in where drivers were ranked on the list.

Nowhere did a look at the statistics change the order where I ranked drivers more than it did in the top five. Before perusing the stats, the order of the top five that seemed right was this:

5) Jimmie Johnson
4) Jeff Gordon
3) Kyle Busch
2) Mark Martin
1) Tony Stewart

As it turned out, only one of those looks correct now. And I’ll bet it’s the last one you’d suspect.

So here is Happy Hour’s top five drivers in the sport, as opined by the Official Columnist of NASCAR, based on observation and some, but not a great deal of, research. As with the last two lists, after each driver is named there is an explanation of why he is where he is. Feel free to dispute anything you like—but remember, you may learn, as I did, that perception isn’t always reality.

5) Kyle Busch

Rowdy has more raw ability than any driver I’ve ever seen race, and yes, that includes Dale Earnhardt. (Relax, let me finish.) What keeps Kyle from topping this list is that, at the moment, that ability is still just a little bit raw. Kyle Busch is like Sandy Koufax in a way. Koufax was wild as anything early in his career—but once he learned just a hair of control, he became one of the all-time greatest. No doubt Kyle is similarly destined. He is great to watch busting through a field, but he still beats himself on occasion—such as earlier this year in a stupid tangle with John Andretti that caused him to cut a tire.

He isn’t there yet. Still, when Jeff Gordon says that there’s no catching him when his car is right, that’s probably worth some points. Busch races all-out all the time and when he isn’t at the front, you know he’s probably on his way there, daring everyone on the track to try and stop him. If another driver wins a battle with Kyle, you can bet his car was probably better.

Kyle Busch not only won at Darlington last year, he hit the wall enough times in that race that the winning car looked like it was headed for a scrap heap. He’s won at Dover and Atlanta and swept the road courses last season. He won the inaugural CoT race at Bristol, willing the car to victory lane just so he could publicly blast the new design. At most of the tracks where the driver arguably matters the most—places like Darlington, Dover, Bristol, Martinsville, Watkins Glen—Kyle has scored a win or multiple top 5 finishes. Only Pocono seems to be an Achilles heel for him.

Rowdy is usually the top performing Gibbs driver on race day, which isn’t a knock on Denny Hamlin. And we know he has a lot to do with the car’s success himself from his equivalent prowess in a Billy Ballew truck.

4) Tony Stewart

Stewart gets ranked very high on the list for one major reason. Smoke took over a car that last year—with the same Hendrick engines—couldn’t even qualify for many races. It isn’t just his being behind the wheel that has turned that car into the current points leader, but you can definitely bet that that wouldn’t have happened with Johnny Sauter there. Many drivers are talked about as being able to get a good finish with a subpar ride. Tony Stewart has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s one of the best at it.

And let’s not forget the considerable success in the 20: 33 wins, two titles, only one season out of the top 10 in points…and without a Chase, he’d have certainly been there. 13 top 5 finishes at Bristol and Martinsville. A nearly unmatched record at Loudon and Dover, with 10 top 5 finishes at both venues.

Only Jeff Gordon has more road course wins among active drivers, with Smoke scoring four at the Glen and one at Sonoma. I did take Stewart down a notch for not winning at Darlington, although he did finish third there this year. In Stewart’s one-win season last year, he finished fifth at Martinsville, second and fourth at Richmond, and second at Pocono and Watkins Glen.

Stewart scores fourth only because he does on occasion make race-losing mistakes, especially when his notorious temper flares. A speeding penalty on pit road at Sonoma after a row with Boris Said comes to mind, as does being penalized a lap at Pocono following a run-in with Clint Bowyer (a race where he still finished seventh).

But Stewart definitely gets props for moving from a great team to a team that was, to put it nicely, mediocre and turning it into a great team. And remember, they ran Hendrick engines last season too.

Jimmie Johnson is one of the most consistent racers in the Cup Series today, ranking him among the top three best drivers in the sport.

3) Jimmie Johnson

Some will argue that Jimmie is ranked too low here. Others will say he’s ranked too high. It is difficult to determine just how good Jimmie is, because he has driven for the same great team and genius crew chief for his entire career (although he did win two races while Chad Knaus was suspended), so it’s hard to know how well he’d do otherwise. He wasn’t a world-beater in a Busch car, but considering that his team folded while he was racing for them, I don’t know that he was doing so badly.

So let’s look at the other criteria. Consistent? Check. Wins on track battles? Almost always. Takes care of his equipment? Check. Diagnoses the car well? Yep. Good at, say, Martinsville or Darlington? Swept Darlington in 2004 and has owned Martinsville like few drivers have, winning five of the last six events and only once in his career finishing out of the top 10. Races well at every type of track? Just about. He hasn’t mastered the road course and only recently scored his third top 5 in 15 Bristol races, which keeps him out of the top spot here. But otherwise he does just fine, including four wins at Dover and at least one win almost everywhere else on the circuit. Good compared to his teammates? Check. He held off his mentor in the famous Martinsville battle, and that isn’t just done with great equipment.

Johnson very rarely beats himself, Michigan being an anomaly. He demonstrated superb car control in the two races best known in recent history for tires inadequate to new paving: Charlotte 2005 and Indianapolis 2008. All of the drivers were doing all they could to hold on in both events. Guess who won them.

So yes, Jimmie Johnson is a great driver and even underrated in a sense, since his team and crew chief are often given credit for his success—much as with his mentor. While the claim is not without merit, there’s a pretty skilled guy in the driver’s seat of the 48 car, too.

2) Mark Martin

And of course, Martin is second. I got one right.

To say that Mark Martin is the best NASCAR driver in history to not win a championship doesn’t tell the full story. Mark Martin is also a better driver than many who did win one. I’d rank Martin over Rusty Wallace, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Bobby Labonte or Dale Jarrett without reservation. Kurt Busch may have slightly outperformed Martin as a Roush teammate, but I doubt he would have challenged for wins in a Ginn car.

Martin took a part time ride on a two-car team that was just about nowhere and wheeling and dealing to stay alive, and not only challenged for wins, but even took over the point lead for a time. It’s that performance that gets him this high on the list. In his first 11 races for Ginn (later DEI), Martin scored four top 5s and seven top 10s. He sat out a race while leading the points.

Martin’s had a long career, but most guys could race twice as long as Martin and not have 17 top 5s at Darlington, 21 at Dover, 15 at Bristol, 11 at Martinsville, and 19 at Pocono. And Martin is as good at the road courses as anyone except for possibly Stewart and Jeff Gordon: four wins and 19 top 5s in 37 road course races. Martin hasn’t won at Pocono or Indianapolis, but he’s won at just about every other track.

Fortunately, Martin is making this ranking look very good this season. He is driving a car that managed just five top 10s and one top 5 last year, and he’s won three races—as many as his three superstar teammates combined—and is currently eighth in the points standings with two 40th place finishes to blown engines and a 43rd getting caught up in a big one at Talladega. Without the blown engines, he’d probably be leading the points right now. He put on a clinic at Darlington that was so effective that Jimmie Johnson didn’t even bother trying to battle him. Martin’s winning car was in stark contrast to Kyle Busch’s one year before—it didn’t have a scratch on it. Now that is car control. And it’s doubtful that we need to question whether Martin beats himself on the racetrack. No need.

That Martin is one of the most well-liked, well-respected, and popular drivers in the sport, and that I’m a huge fan of his means nothing to me on this list. He is where he is here because he’s that damn good.

#1) Jeff Gordon

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

Name the track and Jeff Gordon has won on it…with the exception of Homestead, which is an aero-dependent track and hardly a measure of a great driver. In particular, the more difficult the track, the better Jeff Gordon gets. Seven wins at Darlington; lest you think Wonderboy has lost anything on the track, consider that Gordon also hasn’t finished lower than third in his last five races there. And Martinsville? Just one finish lower than sixth and four wins in the last 12 races. In one of the wins, he was three laps down, earning two of his laps back without using the free pass. That was one of the most impressive displays of racing this columnist has seen.

And on the road course, Gordon is the undisputed king, with five wins at Infineon and four at Watkins Glen.

Aside from no wins at Homestead, there are only four tracks on the current Cup circuit where Gordon doesn’t have multiple wins: Chicago, Texas, Phoenix, and Vegas. None of them were on the schedule when Gordon started his Cup career.

Having just one win in the last 51 races has distracted from how strong his runs have really been in that period. At both Bristol and Martinsville he has finished out of the top five just once. Nothing lower than ninth at Richmond. Fifth and seventh at Dover last season. Fourth at Pocono this year.

Like Mark Martin, Gordon rarely loses races to mistakes—the wheel-hop at Watkins Glen does come to mind, if only because you don’t see that often from the driver of the 24. If Gordon has a weakness, it’s that he may not be the best at diagnosing a car, although he is very good at getting the car contending at the end of a race. As Jimmie Johnson once said, Gordon’s weaknesses are only so weak. He did seem to fade at the end more than some of the other drivers in my top five, especially when compared to his teammate in the 48. But given how often he’s finished in the top 5, I’d say maybe that perception isn’t correct.

I can’t think of any driver who has scored the most points over a whole season with three different crew chiefs, too…so it can’t all be put on one smart crew chief. Jimmie Johnson has always had Chad Knaus. Jeff Gordon has won or challenged for titles with Ray Evernham, Robbie Loomis, and Steve Letarte on the pit box. Crew chief changes don’t often go so smoothly, although all three are more than capable head wrenches. Gordon’s entire team got turned over at the end of 1999, and two years later he was holding another Winston Cup in the air.

The difficult tracks, the versatility, the generally mistake-free racing and the adaptability. It’s all there. After considering everything, Jeff Gordon’s the guy I want behind the wheel.

Well just a few more words—thanks for staying with me well beyond the 2,000 word point. You may have noticed that my top three drivers all race for Hendrick Motorsports, and the fourth drives for a “satellite” of HMS. And you’d be right in questioning whether their equipment is the reason for their high placement.

Fair enough. I have two thoughts about this. The first is, yes, the top four guys have benefited from very good equipment. But anyone who has watched a few NASCAR races isn’t going to dispute the abilities of any of these four drivers. Seriously.

The second point is that Rick Hendrick is a consummate team owner, as anyone who works for him can tell you. He clearly excels at getting the right people to build engines, change tires, and make calls in the pits. In that regard, why shouldn’t his judgment be trusted in choosing drivers, too? I doubt he would spend the money he does to build great racecars and then just put whoever comes along in the driver’s seat.

So I’m okay with this list, even if it didn’t turn out as expected.

But if you’re not, feel free to let me know.

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Tom
06/19/2009 04:18 AM
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Can’t add anything other than to say you’re right! I might move Jimmie to #2 only because he’s got the hardware and I think he’s more aggressive than Mark, but Mark’s no slouch. Gordon’s an obvious #1. He’s earned the most Cup points, I think, 6 times, only one time behind Petty and Earnhardt. Good article.

Gordon82Wins
06/19/2009 07:59 AM
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Even with Gordon as my favorite driver, I might have conceded that either Tony Stewart or Jimmie Johnson was better, but you make a pretty good case here Kurt. Now I can show this to all my friends who are Stewart fans!

Skip
06/19/2009 09:04 AM
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The thing about Gordon, and this is not really a knock on him, is that you can say that he always gets 100% out of a car, and nothing really more. If he’s got the 10th best car out there, barring fuel mileage or other pit strategy wackiness, or wrecks of better cars, at best he’s going to bring it in 9th. But at worst it will probably be 11th. He gets everything out of it that’s reasonable.

Compare that to Kyle, who, if you give him the 10th best car, will probably overdrive the heck out of it and get it up into the top 5 and in contention, but a good fraction of the time he’ll pay the price and come in 30th.

So from a points perspective, you probably want the guy who gets consistently the most out of his equipment, but man the other guy is a lot more fun to watch racing.

wcfan
06/19/2009 09:28 AM
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Do not see how you put Mark ahead of Smoke and Jimmie if this is career ranking, Both are multi- time champions. Smoke has 34 wins in 371 starts, Jimmie has 42 wins in 270 starts, while Mark has 38 wins in 737 starts and no championships. Which is what they are really racing for.(stats from racing-reference.info)

Marilyn
06/19/2009 09:35 AM
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First, I am not a Jimmy Johnson fan but, How can you put Mark Martin ahead of Jimmy when he has 3 Championships and Mark has none???? I think you are way off base with this one. Even Tony has Championships and look where you have him, don’t make sense to me.

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/19/2009 09:40 AM
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That’s a fair thing to dispute, wcfan. I’ll try and answer it.

Martin hasn’t won the big prize, but he has come as close as a driver possibly can, finishing second four times, third four times, and fourth three times. In most of those seasons a driver’s ranking was measured over an entire season, not just the last ten races. Consistency over a long period of time means a lot in evaluating a driver. Johnson had great all-around seasons from 2006-2008, but he only scored the most points over 36 races in one of those years.

I ranked Martin ahead of Stewart because he is a little bit better at places like Darlington and Dover, and also for how well he did driving for DEI/Ginn, and for the fact that I can’t recall any incident where Martin took himself out of a race. I ranked him ahead of Johnson because head to head, driving for the same team this season, Martin outsmarted Johnson at Michigan and flat outdrove him in Darlington. Two races isn’t the best sample I admit, but it’s what I worked with.

But your objection is noted.

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/19/2009 09:52 AM
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Actually upon further review, maybe Dover wasn’t a good example…Mark and Tony both about equally good there, as they are on road courses as well. So scratch Dover. But at Darlington Martin clearly has the edge. That suggests to me that Martin has a little bit better car control.

don mei
06/19/2009 10:38 AM
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Realistically, the skill level of your top five is so close that ranking them in any order works. Any one of them is capable of beating the others on any given day.

Steven
06/19/2009 10:48 AM
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“Aside from no wins at Homestead, there are only four tracks on the current Cup circuit where Gordon doesn’t have multiple wins: Chicago, Texas, Phoenix, and Vegas. None of them were on the schedule when Gordon started his Cup career.”

Phoenix was definitely around and on the Cup schedule when Gordon started, having hosted Cup since 1988. He’s still a fine choice for number one though, even without the extra accolade.

The only major point I’d dispute on the list is Martin being in second, for many of the same reasons listed above. He’s good, but I can’t help but feel it’s perception —- not the results —- that got him to number two. Martin has a stack of great points results, but his average finish (full seasons only) is 6.2 to Stewart’s 5.3. He’s good, but he’s just not number two good by any statistical measure.

wcfan
06/19/2009 10:50 AM
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Kurt, I did not remember Mark being in that many Championship races, until you put his stats up. After reading your reply I went and looked them up and discovered that 3 times prior to the chase and 2 times while in the chase was Mark within 1 race points wise of catching the Champ. If we used the old points (consistency as you said) Mark would only have been within 150 points(roughly 1 race) of the Champ 4 times and probaly lost 2 of his 3 top 4 point finishes. Mark is a good driver, but I believe he has settled for top 5 finishes instead of racing for the win many times and that is what cost him Championships

Steven
06/19/2009 10:52 AM
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That should read season finish, not to be confused with race finishes.

Melissa
06/19/2009 11:11 AM
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IMO but I would switch Tony to where Mark is. And the reason for that besides the 2 Championships is what Mark has said about Tony. And that is, ““I don’t believe the trophy makes the man. Tony Stewart, in my eyes, is the greatest race car driver I’ve watched drive in this era. A.J. Foyt might have been that when I was a little boy, but Tony Stewart is my driving hero.”

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/19/2009 11:15 AM
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Steven, you’re right about Phoenix, that was a bit of falling short on my part. I will add though that Phoenix did not host two races a year until 2005, so hopefully that mitigates my error some.

wcfan, yes Martin probably would have lost two fourth place finishes. But even that said, he still finishes third four times. By not going for the win and taking the points? Maybe, but the guy that knows when to take the points will win the title more often than not.

A couple of breaks here and there and a different ruling on the 1990 penalty and Mark could easily be a three or even four time champion. I know winning the title certainly matters, but I don’t know that you can base a driver’s skills entirely on that. That Martin has been so close so many times counts for something.

Still, good points and you’re definitely doing your homework.

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/19/2009 11:29 AM
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Melissa, I don’t want you to think for a second that I don’t value what Mark says, but I will add—and I left it out of the article—that Jeff Gordon once said that next to Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin was his toughest opponent on the racetrack.

wcfan
06/19/2009 12:17 PM
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Kurt, I keep hearing about the 1990 penalty(if I’m not mistaken) it was 25 points in the 3rd race of the season, should have been plenty of time to make that up. There are many drivers in the CUP series that with a couple of breaks could have been Champ, Mark is not the only one. I get tired of hearing Mark is the best nascar driver never to win a championship, while I believe Mark is a good driver, I would never label him a Great Driver. This is what is so great about racing, we can agree to disagree on many different subjects while still “enjoying” the racing. ( this will be my last post on Mark) Kurt keep up the good work.

Danny
06/19/2009 03:14 PM
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Great series of articles Mr. Smith. Really enjoyed them. Keep up the good work!

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/19/2009 03:28 PM
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Well thanks Danny.

And thanks to all who took the time to read and comment.

Sean
06/19/2009 06:20 PM
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Earnhardt won titles with four different crew chiefs.

1980: “Suitcase” Jake Elder was his crew chief at the start of the season, but was replaced by a kid named Doug Richert mid-season (yeah, that Doug Richert.)

1986, 1987, 1990, 1991: Kirk Shelmerdine

1993-1994: Andy Petree

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/20/2009 09:19 AM
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Sean, I should have clarified…I was focusing on active drivers. I did know that Dale won with two different teams…also a fairly uncommon achievement. But thanks for the information.

Ty
06/20/2009 10:36 AM
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Kurt as a Martin Fan for years I ‘am delighted in your #2 Placement. Personally I would rate Mark in the current Top Four. Pretty tough separating Johnson ,Smoke and Mark ! Grudingly I agree with Gordo as #1 lol . Keep up the Great Articles Kurt !

Kurt Smith - Frontstretch Staff
06/20/2009 02:40 PM
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Indeed it is difficult to separate the four Ty. Thanks for the kudos.

Sandy
06/23/2009 12:00 AM
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You are so totally right about Jeff Gordon being #1! How could anyone doubt that for a minute? Your reasons were so right-on,too. You made me think about Martin. I had never really thought of him as the best after Jeff, but he looks really good now. It is funny the top two are “gentlemen” on the track and off, too. Both have a lot of class in their treatment of others and the things they say about others. Jeff is the total package as a sportsman. Great competitor, gracious almost to a fault, and humble. We met him and he is no different that he looks on TV. A great guy. He has shown he can win and run up front with a different of crew chiefs. It is a shame that the chase came along or we would have seen him have 6 championships as he certainly earned them throughout the whole season not the ten-race championship. Thank you for a fantastic write-up about a fantastic man!

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