Statistically ranking the Winston Cup drivers

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   Looking around one of our local bookstores, I noticed several major racing magazines had NASCAR driver rankings going into the 2003 season. Most of those rankings were based on the opinions of each publication's staff.
   What I tried to do was to delve into the statistics, not merely opinions, to fairly analyze how an all-star ensemble of 40 veteran drivers in the Winston Cup Series ranks. Over the next few days leading up to the Daytona 500, we will look over those rankings.
   The system for ranking the best drivers in the sport is based on three major categories - Wins over the last 3 seasons, winning percentage with their current or most recent team, and percentage of career top ten finishes.
   To make it as far a judge of talent as possible, the only drivers eligible were those with at least two years of Winston Cup experience. The reason I left out 2002 super rookies Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson is not to reward themfor stepping into great rides their first season without seeing how they might handle the adversity of the dreaded sophomore slump.
   On the other hand, they would have been penalized in the category of wins over the last 3 seasons, having only one year to count for them.
   If Johnson and Newman had been included the mix using this system which does place a high value on wins and also factor in that Johnson finished ahead of Newman in the overall Winston Cup standings, he would have been rewarded with 2002 Rookie of the Year honors. The final result would also have been different two years earlier as Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would have edged out Matt Kenseth for the 2000 Rookie award using this system.
   We also gave bonus points for four other categories - Winston Cup championships over the last 3 years, leading the series in wins over that time period, the top career average finishes in the Winston Cup point standings and drivers who posted impressive streaks of consecutive winning seasons.
   With each category, the key was to be fair. That's why I shied away from categories like career wins. That statistic potentially would rank too highly a driver who was successful fifteen years ago, but might have struggled in recent years.
   On the other hand, I didn't want to handicap the veteran drivers either and that's a valid reason to not put in a category like career winning percentage. It wouldn't be fair to take a driver like Ricky Rudd and count what he did in the early years of his career driving for independent race teams and then compare his winning percentage with that of a Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. who came into the sport in top rides.
   Counting winning percentage with a driver's most recent race team does seem fair. That way it gives a veteran driver like Rudd the opportunity of being with a good team and equal footing with the young drivers of today.
   One career stat I did count was the percentage of top ten finishes. Take into consideration with this stat, 10-15 years ago some of the veteran drivers weren't in great cars, but in those days, there were only 15 to 20 competitive cars in the field, compared to 25 to 30 nowadays.
   So, that's how I arrived at the ranking these 40 drivers. Keep in mind, when looking down this listing it's not a slight at anyone in the Winston Cup Series. From top to bottom, you have to stay it's the best collection of driving talent of anywhere in the world.
   Don't take my word for it. The statistics back it up. Thirty of the 43 drivers in the NASCAR's top series have won a championship in another series outside of Winston Cup. Eight others are either former local track champions or Rookie of the Year in another racing series. Of the five who don't fit into either category, they include former Winston Cup champions Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott and the defending Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton.
   No other series, not even the highly-touted Formula One boasts those kinds of numbers. So, that's the level of talent that each driver competes against on a weekly basis in the Winston Cup Series. If you want to take it a step further, look at how well the drivers in the series perform when they enter non-Cup events and it will show just how good these guys are.
   At the end of the series, you can go to the online edition of the STAR to look at the statistics used in the ranking process. For now, we begin this four part series with the drivers who ranked 40-35.
   40. Buckshot Jones (2 points)
   Jones has the dubious honor of ranking last place on the list, but I wouldn't suggest totally giving up on Buckshot. He has proven to be a talented race driver in the Busch Series, particularly on the flat tracks.
   Jones has wins at Milwaukee and New Hampshire and is the owner of three Busch Series poles.
   Thus far in Winston Cup, his best career finish is an eighth at Dover, while driving for the Stavola Brothers team back in 1998. Still expect Jones, who boasts a Most Popular Driver Award in the Busch Series on his resume, and is someone who a company can always base an effective marketing campaign around to get another opportunity at the big time.
   39. Casey Atwood (3 points)
   While Atwood hasn't lived up to the hype as the sport's next Jeff Gordon, he very well could become the next Mark Martin. What do I mean by that? Martin was a talented young race driver showing flashes of brilliance, but struggled when he first broke into the Winston Cup ranks. Six years later, he reemerged with four ASA titles under the Roush Racing banner and the rest is history.
   If Atwood uses a sabbatical from Winston Cup to regain his confidence, there is a good chance he could have similar success.
   Besides his background of three Tennessee state go-kart titles, he has proven to be a great stock car driver in every series outside of Winston Cup.
   Atwood is a two-time winner in the Busch Series and has six poles in that division. If he's totally committed to that series this coming year, he will be an instant title contender.
   Also, take into consideration the No. 19 Dodge was running very well at the end of 2001, before Casey was switched over to the No. 7 team. He dominated at Phoenix, a race where he had won the pole position, before suffering mechanical problems. Then Atwood backed it up by nearly winning at Homestead.
   It's also of note that despite his early rough going Atwood is only 22-years old and should get another shot at a good ride. In three years, how many other promising drivers at his age will be available with two years of Cup experience under their belts?
   38. Hut Stricklin (5 points)
   Hut comes far down on the countdown after only posting no top ten finishes in the No. 23 Hills Brothers Dodge that served as a teammate to the Daytona 500 winning machine. It was Hut's best opportunity to make a splash in the sport after driving for some solid, but not spectacular race teams. The image
   Hut will be most remembered for in 2002 was getting out of the car and angrily applauding Jeremy Mayfield after their contact in the Bristol night race.
   Stricklin's Cup career has been highlighted by two second place finishes. The first occurred at Michigan in 1991, when he finished behind good friend Davey Allison, while driving the Bobby Allison-owned Raybestos Buick. His second one was more impressive leading the Southern 500 in the No. 8 Stavola Bros. car until the late stages when Jeff Gordon scooted on by for the win. He also won the pole for the fall Rockingham race in 1995.
   Prior to his arrival on NASCAR's top circuit, Hut's biggest accomplishment has to be considered winning nine of 17 races and ten poles in walking away with the 1986 NASCAR Dash Series crown. He is also an honorary member of the famed Alabama Gang and the son-in-law of racing legend Donnie Allison.
   37. Jeff Green (6 points)
   This is Green's second real foray into Winston Cup racing as he left the series after a forgettable stint in Felix Sabates' cars. This time around with Richard Childress Racing, Green has looked like he might finally break into the Winston Cup winners club.
   First, there was winning his first career pole at Bristol in the fall of 2001 and then was an outstanding second place drive in the first New Hampshire race of 2002. Overall, Green scored four top five finishes in the 2002 campaign.
   He, along with older brother David, is in the record books as the only brother tandem to each win Busch Series titles and Jeff's 616-point margin of victory over second place Jason Keller in 2000 is the biggest blowout in series history. He won two Busch Series races this past season, upping his career total to 20. Another note about the Green family, if you include middle brother Mark, they hold the record for most career starts for a trio of brothers in the Busch Series.