The Frontstretch: Going By The Numbers: Do Lame Duck Drivers Really Win More? by Summer Bedgood -- Tuesday July 30, 2013

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Going By The Numbers: Do Lame Duck Drivers Really Win More?

Going By the Numbers · Summer Bedgood · Tuesday July 30, 2013


Darkhorses have been a part of sports as long as professional sports have existed, and NASCAR is no different. What is dubbed “Silly Season” by NASCAR media types used to occur mostly during the offseason, with drivers, crew chiefs, and sponsors swapping and dropping teams like a fast-paced game of cards. Now, there is no break from the constant discussion of contract extensions and expiration dates. Drivers announce their departures long before the end of the year and, more often than not, we know where they’ll be racing before the series ends at Homestead.

Was Newman’s herculean effort at Indy just a show for the scouts?

While we don’t yet know Ryan Newman’s future after this year, we do know that his tenure at Stewart-Haas Racing is coming to an end by November. Despite his win at Indianapolis last weekend, Kevin Harvick will be replacing him at season’s end and the team just doesn’t have the room, resources, or funding for a fourth team. As a result, Newman becomes the odd man out.

Since the post-race shows began after Indianapolis, I’ve heard many racing pundits make the claim that this “lame duck” success is a trend in racing. A driver is told that, at the end of the season, he is going to be out of a ride and suddenly the driver experiences a burst of motivation, popping off a couple of wins in order to prove himself to scouting team owners.

As I sat and thought about it, though, I wondered how true that was. Sure there are a few examples of drivers who have won in their last year with their team, but is it really a phenomenon?

I took a look at the numbers to find out.

One of the most successful and prolific transferred drivers of the season has been Matt Kenseth. After competing for Roush Fenway Racing for the first 13 years of his Sprint Cup Series career, Kenseth left the team for Joe Gibbs Racing beginning this season. His success has only been matched by Jimmie Johnson, with four wins and 11 top 10s in 20 races this season. Despite some of the lack of consistency — all but one of Kenseth’s top-5 finishes were his wins — that team is still one of the strongest on the circuit right now.

The reality is that Kenseth knew he was leaving at the end of the season and it was, for the most part, his choice. Joe Gibbs Racing was interested, Joey Logano was leaving, and it seemed like the perfect fit.

Still, though, did the knowledge that he was leaving at the end of the year spell success for Kenseth’s No. 17 team in his final tenure with that organization?

Well … just look at the numbers. Three wins, 13 top fives, 19 top 10s and a seventh-place spot in the standings. Here’s what’s even more surprising; two of those three wins came at the end of the season, long after the announcement had been made that he would be leaving following the Homestead season finale. When you consider the motivation it took for Kenseth to win those last races, I do recall an emotional sentiment behind his final win with the team at Kansas and they even talked about how important it was for them to get to Victory Lane before Kenseth left. In that sense, you can make a point that “lame duck” status worked as a motivator for him.

However, he is just one driver. Just because Kenseth had extra motivation to win doesn’t mean that it worked for others.

Let’s look at Kenseth’s replacement, Joey Logano. Logano, despite his heralded entrance into the sport, has very limited success in the Sprint Cup Series. He’s got only two wins in the series as a whole, one of which was a rain-shortened event that many don’t consider to be a “real” victory.

Oh, but wait. When did that other win come?

In his final season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

And it was no rain or fuel mileage win, either. A little bump and run on Mark Martin gave Logano a highly deserved win in Pocono, a much-needed one in terms of a future for him. Despite the fact that Logano didn’t yet know where he would be racing in 2013 — at least publicly — it’s another mark in the “lame duck status us a heck of a motivation” column.

At the same time, that was one of few bright spots during Logano’s schedule. He only had one other top five all season and finished an unimpressive 17th in points. You can decide for yourself whether the win was significant enough to show a certain amount of motivation for a driver in need of a ride.

But why should we just look at last year’s wheelmen? There is one other “lame duck” driver in the process of working through his final season with a longtime team, and it just so happens to be Newman’s replacement at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Kevin Harvick has been with Richard Childress a very long time. 13 years, in fact. However, one of the worst kept secrets in the NASCAR garage area since last season has been that Harvick would race for SHR beginning in 2014. Finally, they made the announcement earlier this year, and that officially put everyone on “Harvick watch” to see what he’d accomplish during his final tenure with RCR.

“Happy” hasn’t disappointed. Two wins, five top fives, 11 top 10s, and fourth in points leaves him in excellent position 20 races into the schedule. Additionally, both Childress and Harvick have spoken about how important it is for them to be successful in the final stages of their business relationship; Harvick has had nothing but high praise for the team he races for.

On the other end of the spectrum, however, is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. If you were a NASCAR fan around the years 2007 and 2008, you remember the shocking, breaking, tremendously important news that Earnhardt would be leaving his father’s team — Dale Earnhardt, Inc. — and eventually announced he would be driving for (gasp!) Hendrick Motorsports.

Time tends to heal all wounds, if you will, and the shock has since died down. However, Earnhardt’s final season with the team was anything less than great. He had zero wins, paired with an average finish of 18.6. Though his stats weren’t terrible (seven top fives and 12 top 10s), he didn’t get that significant victory that all of the other drivers we’ve profiled did, even though he did win a race with Hendrick Motorsports the following season.

However, Earnhardt is a very large exception. Even Clint Bowyer, whose potential was largely not being met at RCR, won a race in 2011 before jumping ship to Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012, much to the surprise of literally anyone else.

I’ll have to admit, I wasn’t a believer in the claim that “lame duck” drivers tend to make it to Victory Lane when previously they had not. However, the numbers and statistics line up behind them for a driver in desperate need of a ride or wanting to create some more memories with a team they are leaving behind at season’s end.

Despite my reservations about this sort of phenomenon actually existing, the theory does hold water when you’re going by the numbers.

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07/30/2013 11:37 AM

Give up Newman to get Harvick? Bad move, Tony.

07/30/2013 12:21 PM

This is nothing new…and it happens in all types of sports.

Remember Logano suddenlly driving hard and getting top 10’s when his seat started getting hot?

One can look back at the last 10-15 years at drivers who were losing or about to lose their seat and see the results.

Fact is, there are too many “ride-around” drivers in the field and once they are there it’s hard for new up-and-coming drivers to get a shot in the cup series.

dyno dave
07/30/2013 12:36 PM

DonMei: I suspect that Tony didn’t give up Newman to get Harvick – he gave up Newman to get Budweiser…