The end of Saturday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway marks the halfway point in the 2018 season. After 17 races of the 36-race schedule, we’ve seen just six different winners, the fewest in four decades. Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have 10 of those wins between them, with five apiece. Martin Truex Jr. has three and Clint Bowyer a pair, leaving Joey Logano and Austin Dillon as the only other drivers to crack Victory Lane this year.
While it’s not the first time a driver has had a dominant season, it is unusual in that there are so few others to get a piece of the pie. The question becomes whether the lack of diversity in the winner’s circle is good for NASCAR.
There are a couple different ways to look at it. On one side of the table, the drivers winning aren’t exactly unfamiliar to it, and they’re clearly the best in the game right now. If fans want the best teams to win every week, they’re getting quite a display.
The last time there were so few winners through week 17 was 1978. Through the 17th race at Nashville Speedway, the winners fans saw were Cale Yarborough (five wins), Darrell Waltrip (four), Benny Parsons (three), David Pearson (three) and Bobby Allison (two).
That list is even more stacked than this season’s in terms of accomplishment; every one of those drivers is in the Hall of Fame. Among this season’s winners, it’s safe to say Harvick and Busch are locks, and Truex has a shot as well.
There’s one notable name not on this season’s list: seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. There was one in 1978 as well, then-six-time champion Richard Petty. Petty went that entire season without a win, the first time that had happened since 1959.
The similarities between the two seasons are striking — and 1978 didn’t kill the sport. In fact, many, if not most Americans had barely heard of NASCAR other than a clip here and there. At a time when the sport was growing, a handful of different winners was no hindrance.
But times have changed. NASCAR has changed, and fans want instant gratification. Fans of anyone but the six winners this year aren’t getting any gratification at all. Will they continue to watch if they feel their drivers don’t have a shot?
That’s a particularly tricky question for fans of Chevrolet drivers, because the manufacturer has just one Cup win this season, in the Daytona 500 with Dillon. Since then, only Kyle Larson has been remotely competitive for the manufacturer, and there’s been little improvement. Chevy flagship Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t won a race in nearly a. That’s not a good look, and while fans who root for manufacturers first are dwindling, will fans of Chevrolet or their teams keep watching if they have little hope of seeing a win?
The 1978 season saw just two more winners, Lennie Pond and Donnie Allison, who won just one race apiece on the 30-race schedule.
For the fans of the drivers with the lion’s share of wins, this season is pretty gratifying. But for fans of others, it’s an exercise in frustration. And let’s face it: NASCAR can’t afford to have fans turn away.
But the problem is, there’s really no way to fix it. Gone are the days where NASCAR would tweak the rules for different car makes often. Every time one model got a concession, another would be clamoring for one as well. This led to NASCAR tightening the rules, which hasn’t done what the sanctioning body hoped it would. In fact, it’s done the opposite in some cases. By giving teams few choices in their cars, it may actually take away from the competition. If a driver isn’t comfortable with what’s mandated, there’s little chance for the team to make it better. Maybe next year, but fans don’t want to wait and see if next year will be better.
It may not be simply the number of winners that’s a problem; there have always been standouts, as that 1978 season shows loud and clear. What might be a problem is the lack of ability for teams to work to find something better. Teams can and do improve, and others fall off, but it seems there’s no ebb and flow in who’s on top. Some fans begin to see it as NASCAR playing favorites, and while there’s no reason for that to happen, perception is, to fans, reality.
The number of winners in NASCAR’s playoff era is an interesting conundrum; it’s possible that as many winless drivers will make the cut as those with wins, something NASCAR has wanted desperately to avoid.
The racing itself isn’t harmed by a few drivers winning every week, but the sport as a whole is in a precarious position overall these days. It doesn’t necessarily need 15 winners to make an exciting season, but it needs the illusion that there could be. And that’s decidedly missing.