Top 40 countdown ends with Jarrett, Stewart, Gordon

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR Staff
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   As the green flag has fallen on the start of the 2003 Winston Cup season, the checkered flag falls on this series of articles which statistically ranks 40 veterans drivers. It's time to reveal the top three with the actual statistics used to come up with the rankings posted on our online edition.
   You can also look back on the online edition to get a run-down of positions 40-4 as well as an explanation of how we arrived with this ranking. For me, it has been a lot of fun doing the research and working on this project. I also want to take the time to wish each driver and all those associated with the sport a safe 2003 season.
   3. Dale Jarrett (85 points)
   There are those who have underrated Jarrett's ability, looking back to the days in the late 80's when he was a struggling Busch Series and WC driver. A stint with the Wood Brothers team in the early 90's accelerated his racing education, and since that time Jarrett has consistently ranked near the top of the sport. With Rusty Wallace's streak of winning a race in 16 seasons ended, Jarrett now has the best active record, scoring a victory in each of the past 10 seasons.
   Although a second-generation racer, Dale didn't start driving until he was 20 years old, ancient by today's standards. A great high school athlete, excelling in football, basketball and golf, one of Jarrett's strengths taken from other sports is lightning fast reflexes.
   Only the Southern 500 is missing from an otherwise complete Winston Cup resume'. Dale has career numbers of 30 wins and 16 pole positions, as well as 11 wins in the Busch Series. He has the 1999 Winston Cup title, three Daytona 500 wins, two Brickyard 400 wins, a win in the Coca-Cola 600 and even a win in the Bristol night race, considered a major among many of the drivers.
   Jarrett does enjoy the advantage of the most lucrative sponsorship deal in all of NASCAR and Robert Yates Racing still builds legendary powerplants.
   But, it's time to give the driver credit he has earned over the years. Dale has scored wins on all types of tracks other than road courses, but even on those serpentine tracks, he has done reasonably well, scoring top fives at both Sears Point and Watkins Glen.
   2. Tony Stewart (105 points)
   He roared into the series with a bang in 1999 winning three races and Rookie of the Year and has stepped it up a notch every year since, finally winning the Winston Cup championship this past season.
   Clearly when you combine all elements of the package, driver, team and equipment, Stewart is at the top of the sport right now. If we did a similar statistical breakdown featuring crew chiefs, Tony's pit boss Greg Zippadelli would easily rank number one in the series.
   Back to Stewart, he led the series in wins his sophomore year and has already scored 15 wins and six poles in only four seasons. The off-track stuff aside, this is all about naming the best guy behind the wheel of the race car and Stewart comes very close to that top spot.
   He doesn't make many mistakes behind the wheel although a knock has been his performance when the car is junk. However, his best race of the 2002 season may have been the fall Rockingham race with that exact scenario.
   Stewart stepped up and got a decent top-20 finish out of a day which potentially could have cost him the lead in the series championship.
   Six DNF's and two missed opportunities to win races at Darlington and Martinsville when he clearly had the dominant car would have been enough in most years to end title hopes. But, 2002 certainly wasn't most years. Tony did win three races at Atlanta in March, Richmond in May and Watkins Glen in August. Stewart is strong on all types of tracks, although he's yet to score in one of the major events.
   What is his single best asset? You have to say versatility. The Winston Cup was the ninth major racing title, Stewart has won in his career and he is the first driver to win titles in both Indy Cars and stock cars. He also has won in Midgets, Sprints, Dwarf cars and go-karts. Particularly impressive is his ability to step out of the full-bodied cars seemingly at will and win big open wheel races like the Chili Bowl in Oklahoma and Turkey Night in California like he has done the past two years.
   1. Jeff Gordon (107 points)
   Statistically speaking there's no one better than Gordon. He's constantly rebuffed any true criticisms about reasons he's winning.
   Anyone who has looked at Gordon's numbers even before coming to NASCAR (over 600 checkered flags) knows that he wins at an incredible rate.
   Glance at his Winston Cup credentials, 61 career wins, 42 poles and the leader in just about every other major statistical category among active drivers. Six times over the course of his short career he has led the series in wins, a feat only topped by Richard Petty who led the series in wins seven times, and he is one of only three drivers to have won more than three Winston Cup Championships.
   Gordon dominates the major events, two Daytona 500 wins, three Brickyard 400's, three Coca-Cola 600's, five Southern 500's (tied for first all-time), three wins in The Winston all-star race and finally in 2002, he added the Bristol night race. Even when his team was not performing at their usual high standards this past season, consistently losing positions in the pits every weekend, Gordon was hanging in the championship hunt.
   That muted the argument of a couple of years ago that Gordon only won races because of crew chief Ray Evernham and the Rainbow Warriors pit crew. After both left the team, guess who during the last 3 1/3 years has won more races than any other driver? That's right, it's Gordon. Loose car, tight car, restrictor-plate track, short track, intermediate, it doesn't matter, this is the first guy to beat every weekend. In his short career, he already has the all-time record with seven road course wins.
   That leads to the recent Race of Champions overseas, where Gordon made a terrific account of himself, despite no prior experience in that type of race car. In fact, he and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson led Team USA to a world championship win. His pre-Cup career was highlighted by Midget, Silver Crown and quarter midget championships. By the way, Jeff was a pretty talented Busch Series driver too, winning Rookie of the Year in 1991, setting a single season record in 1992 that still stands today by winning 11 poles and scoring a total of five wins in his short stint on the tour.
   2002 did show Gordon to be human. He made a couple of high-profile driving mistakes, spinning out all by himself at Bristol and also spinning out as he entered the pits at Pocono. However, this season low by his standards with wins at Bristol, Darlington and Kansas exceeds expectations of almost everyone else in the series.
   There you have it, a statistical ranking of 40 of the top drivers in stock car racing. I'm sure many of you disagree or would like to see your favorite driver place higher. Like I said at the beginning, this was done strictly on the numbers, trying to base the rankings on facts and figures instead of opinions from myself or any so called expert.
   However, the statistics did end up validating the opinions of most of those experts in the press box, that Gordon is the top driver in the sport with Stewart, a close second. Once again, it's been a pleasure doing this series of articles and I hope you have enjoyed them.