Statistically ranking Cup drivers

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   It's time for the elite eight. Over the past week, we have counted down from No. 40 to No. 9 in a statistical ranking of veteran Winston Cup drivers.
   Over the next two days, we will get to the top of the charts. Today, we close in on the top of the list by showing positions 8 through 4. We will repeat once again if you want to see the previous lists go to our online edition or look at papers from earlier this week. If you go back to part one of this series, it will show the formula used to come up with the rankings.
   8. Matt Kenseth (71 points)
   After a woeful season the year before when he failed to win a race, Kenseth paced the series with five wins in 2002. It is a natural step for Kenseth, who prior to last season, always moved forward in his racing performance.
   He dominated the Wisconsin short tracks winning multiple track titles, before moving up to the ASA circuit. Matt then migrated south, where he and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. have enjoyed a tremendous rivalry. With second and third place results in the Busch standings in consecutive years, Kenseth moved up to Cup and captured 2000 Rookie of the Year. That season, he scored a first win in the Coca-Cola 600.
   Although shut out of WC victory lane in 2001, he did win a Busch Series race at Bristol to up his career total to 12. Back to form in the premier series, his 2002 season wins ranged from Rockingham to Texas to Michigan to Richmond to Phoenix. One advantage Matt is now enjoying is having the most dominant pit crew in the sport in the last 10 years.
   Kenseth will no doubt try to turn the focus a little away from individual race wins and more toward a series championship. A handful of bad races relegated him to eighth place in the 2002 standings. Theoretically that could be one area of concern. Despite all his success, Matt has never won a major touring series title.
   7. Jeff Burton (73 points)
   Jeff Burton burst into the series in 1994 taking the Rookie of the Year award over a talented class of drivers that included two former Busch Series champions.
   He may have struggled this past season in Winston Cup as the only winless Roush Racing driver, but he has been the organization's best performer over the past five seasons, winning an impressive 17 races and 2 poles.
   Onto the Busch side, there was no one better than Burton in 2002, winning a tour high five races despite running a limited schedule. Overall, he has 20 wins on that circuit and has taken over the role previously held by team mate Mark Martin as the best of the Winston Cup interlopers.
   6. Mark Martin (76 points)
   Three years ago Bobby Hamilton went on record in an area sports publication, declaring Mark the best driver in NASCAR. Some would agree as Martin has finished in the top ten of the point standings an incredible 13 of the last 14 seasons. If you count restrictor-plate tracks as a separate entity from the other superspeedways, then he and Jeff Gordon are the only drivers in the series to score wins on all four types of race tracks.
   Mark was the sentimental choice to win the 2002 Cup championship, the one big prize that has always eluded him. It would round out a career nicely that includes four IROC championships, four ASA crowns and being the all-time career win leader in the Busch Series with 45 victories. He has career numbers of 33 Winston Cup wins, 41 poles and 315 top ten finishes which leads all active drivers.
   Martin was winless in two seasons before taking the win in this past year's Coca-Cola 600. Now with a career revived, Mark looks to have at least one more good shot of winning the championship battle where he has placed second on four separate occasions.
   5. Bobby Labonte (81 points)
   Winston Cup champions only from here on out, starting with the first title holder of the new millennium. That is one of three major series titles on Labonte's resume'. Bobby is the only driver to own both Busch Series and Cup titles and he is also an IROC champion. His 2001 win in the IROC series deciding race at Indianapolis along with his win the next day in the Brickyard 400 made him the first driver to own wins in two different major racing series at the World's Most Famous Speedway.
   More history, Bobby is one half of the only brother combo with Terry to win Winston Cup titles and along with Bobby and Al Unser, Sr. the only brother combos to win IROC championships. Another interesting note about Bobby is that his first Winston Cup title actually came as a pit crew member, working for Terry's team back in 1984.
   2002 was not Labonte's best of seasons, but he did capture a win at Martinsville, a track where he had previously never even posted a top five. His final point position was 15th, and the season marked the end of a long crew chief/driver association between himself and Jimmy Makar. It opens the door for a new teaming with Michael "Fatback" McSwaim, looked at as one of the best wrenches in the Winston Cup garage.
   Bobby excels at the intermediate tracks with Michigan, Charlotte and especially Atlanta being places where he has enjoyed great success. He has wins in three of the four so-called major races, the Coca-Cola 600, Brickyard 400 and Southern 500 with only the Daytona 500 needed to complete the sweep.
   His greatest struggles have come on the road courses, but Labonte can show an overall record of 19 career wins and 21 poles in ten full seasons as a Winston Cup driver.
   4. Rusty Wallace (83 points)
   In 2002, Rusty Wallace's streak of winning races came to end two years shy of tying Richard Petty's mark of 18 consecutive winning seasons. It was a shame on two fronts. First, Wallace has to be considered one of the dozen best drivers ever to race a stock car, but he has no mark of his own in the NASCAR record books. Secondly it happened under the tenure of new crew chief Billy Wilburn, under whom the team actually improved their overall competitiveness from the season before.
   Wallace's 54 career wins are 8th best all-time. Although the record has faded some in recent years, he still is one of the best on the short tracks and road courses. He has much improved restrictor-plate performance, but is yet to nab that first win at either Daytona or Talladega.
   The other thing looking over Rusty's record that stands out is his lack of wins in the major races, scoring only a triumph in the Coca-Cola 600. His best finish in the Daytona 500 is a third in 2001 and he has two runner-up finishes in the Southern 500. There is also the Brickyard 400, where he has been the runner-up on four occasions including this past season.
   However he has made up for it on the short tracks, where his 24 career wins more than doubles the next best active driver's total. He is also the owner of 36 career pole positions.
   Rusty's background includes ASA and IROC titles as well as the 1989 Winston Cup.
   You can't overlook the age factor. While still a top driver, it would be hard to argue the 2002 version of Rusty Wallace could beat the 1993 version. The move to Dodge looks to be a good one and judging by their past history, changing car makes is something that should not hurt performance.