NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Full Throttle: The Good Ol’ Days Might Not Have Been So Good

After Kyle Busch won his 50th NASCAR national touring series race on his 24th birthday back in May, he made the comment that he would like to win 200 races in the top-three divisions of NASCAR. Though Kyle acknowledged it would not equal the accomplishment of Richard Petty winning 200 Cup level races, many people felt it was a veiled assault on the King’s record. And while it would not be 200 Cup wins, to pull such a feat off in the competition of today’s NASCAR might actually make it an even more impressive accomplishment. Looking back at the list of Petty’s victories revealed some very interesting statistics.

Petty began racing in NASCAR in 1958 at the age of 21, making him five years older than Busch was when he started his career, although Kyle was put on hold for two years after his entry at 16 resulted in NASCAR instituting a minimum age of 18. Petty didn’t win a race until 1960 when he was 23. During the 1963 season, when Petty won 14 races, he won a 35-lap race at Bridgehampton, N.Y. that had seven cars on the lead lap. From that race until the Firecracker 400 at Dayona in 1977, he never won a race with more than four cars on the lead lap. That is 14 years and 162 victories where Petty was never challenged at the end of a race by enough drivers to have to be counted on two hands.

Cup racing was different in the ’60s and early ’70s. From 1961 until ’72 there were at least 48 races a year with a high of 62 events in 1964. Races were held on dirt during those years, and Petty won 30 of those. The last Cup dirt race was held in Raleigh, N.C. on the State Fairgrounds racetrack on September 30th, 1970. With races being held more than once a week, fields were not as big as they are now. Petty won some races with 40 or more cars in the race, but he also won a race in 1961 that only had 12 cars entered.

Looking at Petty’s career statistics, he won 91 races where he was the only car running on the lead lap at the end of the race. He won another 66 races with only one other car on the lead lap. Add to that 25 races with three cars on the lead lap, and you have 182 of Petty’s wins coming with only enough cars on the lead lap at the end of the race to fill a podium. That means 91% of Petty’s victories came with three or fewer cars on the lead lap when the checkered flag flew. The other amazing statistic is that he won two races with more than seven cars on the lead lap. The most cars he faced at the finish of a race was 12 cars at Michigan in 1981 for his 195th victory. Petty won eight races where he led every lap of the race and 24 with no one within two laps of him.

When it comes to cars leading laps, Petty again didn’t face much stiff competition. On top of the eight races that he led wire-to-wire, there were 36 events where only one other driver led a lap. There were 47 races with two other leaders, 38 races with three and 20 races with four other drivers leading a lap. That is three quarters of the races that Petty won only having five cars, including himself, leading laps.

Mind you, the sport was different for many of the years of Petty’s career. For a majority of his wins, he was driving an unsponsored, family-owned car. He did receive some factory support but their name was not on the car.

However, the sport is far more competitive these days. There are races where 30 or more cars end up on the lead lap. On any given day, whether in the Cup, Nationwide or Truck series, there are 10 or more cars capable of winning. When Petty was racing early on, there were seldom more than three or four cars capable of winning on a given day, and one of those was another Petty Enterprises car. Were it not for guys like David Pearson, Bobby Isaac and Cale Yarborough, he probably would have won far more than 200 races.

So when Kyle Busch sets out to win 200 races in the top-three series of NASCAR, it is a lofty goal and will take a superhuman effort to accomplish. But, if he is able to pull it off, even if there is an asterisk next to the record, in the grand scheme of things it will probably be a more impressive accomplishment.

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