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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Up to Speed: Who Remembers Early Season Winners?

Saturday night at Richmond Raceway, something happened in NASCAR’s Cup Series that has not happened in quite a while.  Kyle Busch’s victory made him the second driver to win at least three races in the season’s first nine events.  Busch’s three consecutive victories put him atop the win column with Kevin Harvick, who has three consecutive wins of his own in 2018.  Sure, Harvick’s victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway does not count for playoff purposes, but the win is official, however controversial.

Having two drivers win at least three times in the first nine races is rarer than you might think.  This season is the first time it has happened in the playoff era.  Before this weekend, no two drivers had accomplished the feat since Davey Allison and Bill Elliott in 1992.  Elliott actually earned four consecutive wins in races two through five that year, while Allison picked up three wins, including the Daytona 500.

The two drivers with at least three wins in nine races scenario happened three other times in the Winston era.  Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace dominated the win column early in 1989 with three victories each.  The only other occurrences were two consecutive years in the 1970s.  In 1973, David Pearson scored four victories in nine races with Richard Petty taking three.  Petty earned three victories once again in the nine opening races of 1974, with Cale Yarborough taking four of his own.

In the early going, all of those seasons probably felt like 2018 feels right now: a little too predictable at times.  Harvick and Busch have quickly established themselves as the drivers to beat this year.  Busch has eight top 10s to Harvick’s seven, and both drivers have led about 500 laps.  Nobody else has more than one win, and Ryan Blaney is the only other driver to have led more than 300 laps.

But there is the good news for fans wishing for more parity.  Of the four previous years with two dominant winners in the early season, only 1974 produced a runaway championship battle.  Speaking more broadly, none of those seasons are remembered today for being predictable in the long run.  They are best remembered for underdog championship wins, changing the career trajectory of drivers and even accelerating a procedural change that made NASCAR better in the future.

In 1992, for instance, nobody remembers the early dominance of Elliott or Allison because of the legendary championship battle that went all the way to the season’s final race.  Both Elliott and Allison were title contenders that year, but several other drivers were within striking distance when the Cup Series rolled into Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Elliott wound up winning the race, his first since his four in a row earlier in the season.  But the championship went to Alan Kulwicki, who completed an impressive comeback in the season’s closing weeks.  Kulwicki maintained his 10-point lead over Elliott by finishing second while leading the most laps, equaling Elliott’s point total in the final race.  If Elliott had been able to lead one additional lap at Kulwicki’s expense, he would have been the one hoisting the championship trophy.  Allison, meanwhile, went into the race as the point leader but got tangled up in an accident with Ernie Irvan.

As for 1989, the most memorable moment involving Waltrip and Wallace was the controversial finish to that year’s All-Star Race.  With just a few laps to go, Wallace spun Waltrip while racing for the lead.  Wallace went on to win, but a scuffle erupted on pit road between Wallace’s and Waltrip’s crews.

Wallace would capture three more wins that year and ultimately the championship, but it did not come easily.  He spent most of the summer chipping away at Dale Earnhardt’s point lead, finally surpassing the Intimidator with four races to go.  While Earnhardt came storming back to win the season finale at Atlanta, Wallace held on by 12 points to win the title.  The championship helped Wallace to land a new sponsorship deal with Miller Genuine Draft, and in 1991 he joined forces with Roger Penske.  The pairing of Wallace and Penske would produce another 37 wins over the next 15 seasons.

Finally, the significance of the 1973 and 1974 seasons is best understood together.  NASCAR tested two new point systems in both years.  The 1973 version was based on awarding points for the number of laps completed.  While Pearson and Petty were both strong throughout the season, the point format worked against them.  Pearson and the Wood Brothers had their greatest season together, winning 11 times in 18 starts.  However, the part-time campaign kept Pearson from seriously contending for the championship.  Petty ran all 28 races in the season and won an impressive six times, but he also had 10 DNFs, the second most of all drivers who placed in the top 10 in points.

While Petty had an outside chance at the title late in the season, the real battle was between Benny Parsons, Yarborough and independents Cecil Gordon and James Hylton.  Parsons wound up crashing in the season finale at Rockingham, but he was able to run just enough laps to beat Yarborough for the championship.  While winning the title was great for Parsons’ career, NASCAR went back to the drawing board to come up with a new point system.

The format for 1974 proved to be even more confusing.  The goal was to award points in direct relation to the amount of money drivers won.  While the core concept made sense, NASCAR did not take into account the relatively larger purse of the Daytona 500, especially for the top finishers.  NASCAR got lucky that Petty and Yarborough, the drivers who finished 1-2 in the Great American Race, went on to claim 10 victories each in the 30-race season, with Petty winning the title.  Pearson was the only other driver who scored more than two wins.  In the case of 1974, early season success was highly indicative of the outcome.

However, the real legacy of the convoluted mid-70s point systems was the new format that NASCAR introduced in 1975.  Designed by public relations official Bob Latford, the system was based strictly on finishing position, with a few bonus points for running up front.  Every race was weighted equally, but top 10 positions were weighted more heavily per race.  The Latford system would receive only minor modifications for the next 35 years, and it remains the most beloved point system among many longtime fans today.

So, what does all that mean for 2018, in the era of the playoffs?  Much like their predecessors who won early and often in the season, Harvick and Busch will probably be championship contenders.  But they will not be the only ones, and neither should be considered a shoo-in for the title at this point.  Even though Harvick and Busch should carry a lot of playoff points into the postseason, the point resets and eliminations of the playoffs will keep the rest of the field reasonably close.  And, if there is one certainty that we know about the playoff era, it is that level of performance at the end of the season is more important than level of performance at the beginning.

The 2018 season may be lacking in surprises, but other years that turned out quite surprising have as well.  Chances are, we will not be looking back on 2018 one day as the year when Harvick and Busch won everything.

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About Bryan Gable

Bryan Gable
Bryan returns to Frontstretch in 2018 for his third season. As a longtime race fan, he brings 20 years of insight and passion to his motorsports analysis. Bryan is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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One comment

  1. The Latford system was fatally flawed in giving NO premium to winning races. The difference between first and second was deemed to be equal to the difference between 5th and 6th and that is ludicrous on its face. After several years of undeserving champions, Matt Kenseth’s one-win championship in 2003 was the last straw. However, in an equally ludicrous bid to compete with the NFL, NASCAR chose to fix things by throwing the baby out with the bathwater and the Chase era ensued. All NASCAR really needed to do was add a significant points premium to the winner, say 10 bonus points, and the system could have gone on for years.