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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour’s Best 5 Drivers in the Sport

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 sixth 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 Busch from topping this list is that, at the moment, that ability is still just a little bit raw. 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.

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-five 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. 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 No. 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-five finishes at Bristol and Martinsville. A nearly unmatched record at Loudon and Dover, with 10 top-five finishes at both venues.

Only 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.

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 five 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, 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 No. 48 car, too.

2) Mark Martin

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

To say that Martin is the best NASCAR driver in history to not win a championship doesn’t tell the full story. 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 points 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 fives 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 fives 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 Gordon: four wins and 19 top fives 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 five 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 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 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 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 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 No. 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 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 No. 48. But given how often he’s finished in the top five, 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. Johnson has always had Chad Knaus. 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 OK 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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