(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

The Frontstretch 5: NASCAR Drivers Who Haven’t Lived Up To The Hype (Yet)

Last week, we brought you a collection of the most underrated drivers in NASCAR in this space. These were prospects, from Brett Moffitt to Tyler Reddick, who often don’t seem to get the spotlight they deserve.

This week, our staff goes the other direction. We examine some NASCAR veterans who, at least to this point, have shown us more hype than substance. Can the ones who are still active prove us wrong when the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and we go back to racing?

Opinions are of the authors only.

1. Jacques Villeneuve

The 1997 Formula 1 World Champion has made many appearances in NASCAR over the last decade, competing in all three of its top-tier divisions. The 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner had high hopes for his transition to stock car racing.

But Jacques Villeneuve, in a handful of attempts, never did earn a NASCAR victory. In four Cup Series starts, he has a best finish of 21st at Talladega Superspeedway in 2007. The majority of his success has come in the sport’s Xfinity Series, but he still has zero victories. A third-place finish three times in his NXS career driving for one of the elites in NASCAR, Roger Penske, was the best he’s been able to do.

Villenueve raced a full season in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series last year, earning three podium finishes and one pole. He was last seen racing in North America in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series in 2014, where he finished 24th in a one-off at Trois-Rivieres, Quebec. The driver who had a ton of success in Formula 1 just couldn’t follow it up in NASCAR.

I feel Villeneuve wanted to be known as a “Road Course Ringer,” but in the end, he didn’t match up with some of the other crossover talent like Ron Fellows, Boris Said and Alex Tagliani. Villeneuve’s attitude didn’t help his case, either, as he went to battle with Danica Patrick at Road America in 2012. Other NASCAR drivers even tore down the Canadian’s reputation on the sports page of USA Today in 2013, when it was announced he’d run at Sonoma Raceway that season.

Here’s a little video to help prove my point. –Christian Koelle

2. Austin Dillon

Austin Dillon arrived on the Cup Series scene in 2014 at the center of the No. 3 car’s much-heralded return with Richard Childress Racing. He was coming off a year in which he won the then-Nationwide Series championship by just three points over Sam Hornish Jr. without winning a race.

Six full-time seasons later, Dillon still hasn’t scored a seasonal average finish of higher than 15th. While he does have two wins, the first came in the 2017 Coca-Cola 600, which was a fuel-mileage race. The second was far more controversial, where contact with Aric Almirola on the last lap of the 2018 Daytona 500 sent Almirola hard into the wall. Dillon snuck past into the lead and, eventually, victory lane. His two wins have come courtesy a grand total of three laps led.

Observers still debate whether what happened on the final lap was fair play. Regardless, it was still a win at Daytona International Speedway, where even the smallest teams can race their way to the front.

Since then, Dillon has struggled. The last year-plus has brought decidedly non-Dale Earnhardt like numbers with no playoff appearances and just one top-five finish. Overall, he’s scored just 41 top-10 finishes in 233 career Cup starts – less than 20 percent – and just 12 top fives.

Incidents like the Almirola crash have happened a few times throughout Dillon’s career. Last summer, Dillon swung low to block a diving Clint Bowyer in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Bowyer already had the lane when Dillon tried to block him down to the apron, causing a massive pileup that took out approximately 20 cars, ultimately ending the rain-shortened race.

In all but his first season in Cup Series competition, Dillon has posted at least three DNFs. He has yet to post a top-10 points finish and has led no more than 70 laps in a single season (2019).

While he might be a staple in the RCR stable for years to come, Dillon is driving a car that’s forever connected to high expectations. Earnhardt, then Kevin Harvick (running the No. 29) drove this car to six championships and 90 wins. Maybe the comparison is harsh… but it’s there, a mountain Dillon has yet to climb. –Adam Cheek

3. Matt DiBenedetto

Matt DiBenedetto‘s results have improved over the last year or so, and he remains one of the sport’s more popular underdogs. Matty D ran second at Bristol Motor Speedway last year and has impressed thus far in 2020 with Wood Brothers Racing.

But when you look at his career as a whole? There’s still a lot to prove, in my opinion.

In 69 career Xfinity Series starts, DiBenedetto has only led 18 laps and accrued just two top 10s. Granted, many of those races were in underfunded equipment where he start-and-parked. However, he drove for Joe Gibbs Racing in eight events, a prime opportunity to cash in on victory. Instead? He only notched those two top-10 results.

JGR’s Xfinity program has been the home of numerous wins by Kyle Busch, two Championship 4 appearances by Christopher Bell and many more successes. Back in 2009-2010, when DiBenedetto made most of his starts, JGR’s NXS program won a total of 30 times.

DiBenedetto has not driven in top-tier Cup Series equipment a lot either… until 2020. But up to this point, he has not displayed the level of talent which should come with his fandom. He only has 12 top-10 finishes, three of those coming at unpredictable Daytona International Speedway. Two more came at Bristol. That makes him a talented driver at two tracks in particular.

But do two tracks create a star-in-the-making?

DiBenedetto recorded his first three top-five finishes last season. He drove for Leavine Family Racing, which received support from a championship-winning organization in JGR. He posted a career-best 18.3 average finish but only finished 22nd in the final standings. It was the best performance for any driver in LFR’s No. 95 but it also fell far short of playoff contention. Compare that with the worst average finish of any of the other Toyota full-time drivers: Erik Jones’ 16.2.

DiBenedetto has successfully garnered fandom through a likable off-track persona and social media presence. Whether it was he and his wife dancing during a rain delay at Bristol in 2016, his spirited run last year at Bristol or competing in iRacing events in unique apparel, he has gained popularity.

But popularity does not equate success outside of possibly advancing to the sport’s All-Star Race via the fan vote. For Matty D to live up to the hype, he’ll need to take that No. 21 to a place former drivers like David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, Dale Jarrett, Ryan Blaney and Trevor Bayne have been able to go: victory lane. –Mark Kristl

4. Danica Patrick

I think it’s pretty clear now that Danica Patrick really wasn’t that good of a racecar driver once you get past the surface of her being a woman in a male-dominated sport. But I don’t think people realize just how bad she was.

NASCAR stat guru David Smith of The Athletic created a statistic called Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER), which is designed to take equipment out of the picture when comparing drivers.

As per Smith’s website, Motorsportsanalytics.com, in Patrick’s six seasons qualifying for a PEER rating (2012-2017), she ranked dead last among all drivers in all but one: 2014. While teammate Kevin Harvick was zooming off to his first series championship, Patrick was able to rank 49th out of 51 drivers, edging out rookie Brett Moffitt and Brian Scott.

And that’s not all as far as PEER! Patrick’s NASCAR Xfinity Series career wasn’t that bad statistically, but in PEER it wasn’t good at all.

DANICA PATRICK PEER RANKINGS

2010: 66th out of 68

2011: 22nd out of 59

2012: 31st out of 67

In 191 Cup starts, Patrick had seven top-10 finishes. SEVEN. Trevor Bayne is generally regarded as a one-hit-wonder and a flop at the Cup level, but he still had over double (16) Patrick’s number of career top 10s. Bayne compiled that track record in four less Cup starts and his resume also includes a Daytona 500 win (2011).

As for Patrick? Her career highlight is winning the pole for the 2013 Daytona 500, which, as a superspeedway pole, is significantly more about a team’s engineers than it is about the driver.

Patrick’s best points finish was 24th twice, far short of Sara Christian’s record for a woman at the Cup level (13th in 1949). And because Patrick never had a top-five finish at the Cup level, she fell short of Christian’s record for best single-race finish. Her fifth-place result at a track in Pittsburgh, back in 1949, still stands as a NASCAR best.

For such an important pioneer to women in racing, Patrick fell spectacularly short of the two most important NASCAR records. And she had plenty of time, five-plus seasons, in which to try and achieve them.

It’s great that women coming up in racing view Patrick as a role model and entered the sport based off her example. She certainly faced a fair amount of sexism in her career. But to compare her to, say, another NASCAR diversity pioneer like Wendell Scott is laughable.

Patrick had the resources of a championship-caliber race team at her disposal. Scott built racecars with his kids in the backyard and faced way more hardships as a black man in a white Southern sport in the 1960s. He also never had a major sponsor that backed him. Danica, who came along in the 2010s, years after already breaking barriers in INDYCAR, was a multi-million dollar marketing machine.

For the amount of media hype Patrick got throughout her career, she never lived up to the hype. –Michael Finley

5. Joe Graf Jr.

Joe Graf Jr.’s NASCAR career has been brief. But his history on the racetrack thus far still leaves him with plenty to prove.

The 21-year-old New Jersey native came onto the stock car racing scene virtually out of nowhere in 2018. He made his ARCA Menards Series debut at the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, finishing six laps down in 16th. Two races later, at Talladega Superspeedway, he would be part of the closest finish in series history, losing by just 0.0029 seconds to Zane Smith.

Graf would soon overcome this bitter loss by getting his first and only ARCA win at Berlin Raceway, albeit under controversial circumstances. Graf would spin race leader Chandler Smith on the initial white-flag lap, then shoved his way past Smith on the single-lap overtime attempt to take the win.

There are pros and cons of winning races through contact. While it may show your determination and grit behind the wheel, it may cost you respect from fans and fellow competitors. It may also make people question the legitimacy of your driving style.

Nonetheless, Graf was called up to race part-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for Richard Childress Racing in 2019. It was a unique driver/employee partnership; he also became employed as a marketing & communications intern.

Graf was scheduled to run five races in the series, but infamously failed to qualify for two of them. Once, he DNQ’d at Michigan International Speedway, driving for RCR. He followed that up with a DNQ in a one-off for Kaulig Racing at Bristol Motor Speedway. Missing the field in top-tier equipment was a rather inauspicious debut.

Despite that questionable track record, Graf was then tabbed by SS Green Light Racing for the full 2020 Xfinity Series season, taking over the No. 08 Chevrolet previously driven by Gray Gaulding. Gaulding ended the 2019 season with a 13th-place points finish, one top five, four top-10 finishes and zero DNFs. However, Gaulding could not come up with enough sufficient funding to remain in the car.

That’s where Graf’s off-track marketing acumen made a big difference. But four races into 2020, it seems this move by SS Green Light hasn’t paid off. Graf’s 2020 stats come nowhere close to Gaulding’s from 2019, leaving him 29th in driver standings. He’s collected two DNFs in four starts, crashing out twice. His average finish sits at 29.5 with a season-best finish of 20th coming at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

So let’s review. In seven total Xfinity starts, Graf has zero lead-lap finishes. He’s posted an average finish of 24.9 and three DNFs due to wrecks with at least middle-tier equipment. A two-year, controversial ARCA stint led to just one victory and a bit of a reputation.

The NXS season is still in its early stages; Graf does have time to pick up the pieces and change the narrative. But for this 21-year-old, there’s plenty of work to do. –Jesse Johnston

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8 comments

  1. Avatar

    I wish I would have had that information a few years ago when I’d get into debates with Patrick fans that argued how great she was. They always had a list of excuses for her inability to live up to the equipment she was given.
    As for Dillon, we all know how he got his ride and why has kept it and will continue to keep it no matter how many times he under achieves.

  2. Avatar

    Danica was a joke and diminished the sport while Nascar promoted her shamelessly. That’s just the truth. The worst thing was that she was arrogant and actually believed the media hype. The heavily promoted Danica Double made her a lot of money and the results were just dismal. Her and that jerk Rodgers make a good pair. Her little boy body apparently appeals to him. That won’t last.

  3. Avatar

    I don’t know why it was such a surprise that Danica couldn’t drive. A quick look at her time in Indy Car, revealed her lack of talent. In a career that spanned close to 20 years, and included almost 500 professional starts, in multiple series, and usually in top tier equipment, she only ever recorder one victory. Her lone victory came in an Indy Car race at Twin Ring Motegi, when on a gas mileage gamble, she led the last three laps.

    I’m not sure it’s fair to include Villeneuve or Graf on this list, considering the comparatively short careers of both drivers. Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suarez are both far more deserving, considering their number starts and the quality of equipment they’ve had. Other current drivers that could be included are Ty Dillon (maybe more so than Austin), and Michael McDowell, who a lot of people were high on, when he first showed up.

  4. Avatar

    Actually winning the Daytona 500 pole was less about engineering and more about whom NASCAR gave the “special” plate to be the storyline entering the season.

  5. Avatar

    The only relevant names on this column are Matty D and Dillon. I like Matt but he has to win some. Dillon? Ha Rick pegged him when he said “ if he wasn’t Richards grandson he’d be in the grandstand”. Where is Bubba ? I’m glad Ryan Newman is ok but his last win?

    • Avatar

      Damn auto spell. Harvick

    • Avatar

      Drivers know how talented the other drivers are. That’s why I believe Benny when he says Curtis Turner was the best he’d ever seen. But since I never saw him so for me its between Bobby and David.

  6. Avatar

    Dnaica had top notch cars
    Look what Janet Guthrie faced ..Nascar closing down inspections, a crew chief who wouldn’t set the car to her liking.
    She finished 15th at the 600 first time a stock car of any type.
    She deserves more credit!!