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Curator's Corner / Historic Moments

Weighing Wins Vs. Championships

The numbers are shocking: Just because a driver leads the field in race victories doesn’t mean he’s about to be crowned champion.

With the 2021 NASCAR premier series championship hunt going at full tilt, we thought it would be fun to compare who won the most races in any given year vs. who was the champion that year.

The results, to put it bluntly, were startling.

Since the NASCAR Strictly Stock Division (now premier series) began racing in 1949, the driver who won the most races or was tied for most race wins only won that season’s championship a little more than half the time. It’s a pattern that dates back to the early days of NASCAR.

So here are some unexpected stats for you:

A single race win was enough to earn the 1950 championship for Bill Rexford. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

The Second Season

Hall of Famer Curtis Turner (2016) led the premier series with four victories in the 19-race 1950 season, yet he finished fourth in points behind champion Bill Rexford, Fireball Roberts (2014) and Lee Petty (2011). It would be the start of a repeating pattern. Footnote: Rexford, who ran just 36 races in his career, is the only eligible premier series champion not inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The Fabulous Hudson Hornet went out in a blaze of glory with driver Herb Thomas in 1954. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Fabulous Farewell

The 1954 season was the last for Herb Thomas (2013) behind the wheel of the legendary Fabulous Hudson Hornet. And a great year it was, with Thomas wheeling his iconic Hudson to a series-high 12 victories. In the process he became the first driver in NASCAR to post double-digit wins and not take the championship, as he lost the title to Lee Petty, who won seven races in 1954.

In 1961, Ned Jarrett (No. 11) became NASCAR’s second one-win premier series champion. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

The First Blowout

Ned Jarrett (2011) captured his first of two premier series titles in 1961, a season in which his only victory came in June during the Southland 200 at Fairgrounds Raceway in Birmingham, Alabama. Joe Weatherly (2015), meanwhile, won a series-high nine races, but finished a distant fourth in points. The difference was that Jarrett competed in 46 of the 52 races that year, while Weatherly only entered 25 races.

Although he didn’t win often in 1963, Joe Weatherly (No.8) amassed enough points for his second consecutive title. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Role Reversal

The 1963 season saw Joe Weatherly win his second straight premier series title while winning only three of the 53 racers he entered. Meanwhile, second-place points finisher Richard Petty (2010) won a whopping 14 races but wouldn’t take his first of a record seven titles until the following season.

Polesitter David Pearson and outside front-row starter Richard Petty combined to win two-thirds of the premier series races in 1968. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Most Wins, No Title

Here’s the craziest stat of all: The all-time record for most wins in a season without a championship was broken three years in a row. In 1968, Richard Petty won 16 races, but finished third in points to David Pearson (2011), who also won 16 races, which means in the 48-race season, Petty won exactly one-third of the races, Pearson won exactly one-third of the races and the remaining one-third were won by a total of seven other drivers.

The following season, Bobby Isaac led with 17 victories but finished sixth in points behind Pearson, who took his second consecutive title and third overall in 1969, as he triumphed in 11 races.

Petty, meanwhile, set the all-tine single-season record for most wins without a championship in 1970, when he won 18 races and finished fourth in points, as Isaac’s 11 victories gave him his only title.

David Pearson and his Wood Brothers Racing Mercury were the car to beat in 1973, when the team won an astonishing 60 percent of its starts. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Another Blowout

The most lopsided numbers from the 1970s came from the year 1973, when former Detroit taxi driver Benny Parsons (2017) parlayed a single race victory into his only premier series championship. But the leader on track that year was David Pearson, who scored a series-high 11 races wins in the No. 21 Mercury owned by Glen Wood (2012) and prepared by crew chief Leonard Wood (2013). The math is simple: Parsons competed – and earned points – in all 28 races, while Pearson only entered 18.

In 1984, Darrell Waltrip (No. 11) won more races than any other driver, but Terry Labonte (No. 44) won the championship. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

Twice As Nice

Texan Terry Labonte is a two-time premier series champion, having claimed titles in both 1984 and 1996. In neither of his championship seasons did Labonte win the most races. Darrell Waltrip (2012) won seven races to Labonte’s two in ‘84, while Jeff Gordon (2019) bested Labonte 10-2 in ’96.

The 2000 season saw Bobby Labonte take the premier series title, his first and the first for team owner Joe Gibbs. Photo courtesy of Donald Miralle/Allsport

Brother Act

Terry Labonte’s brother Bobby (2020) also won a premier series title in a year in which he didn’t lead the series in wins. Bobby earned his crown in 2000, when he won four races to six wins for his teammate and series victory leader Tony Stewart (2020). Both Bobby Labonte and Stewart drove for Joe Gibbs (2020) in 2000.

Richard Petty (No. 43) and Dale Earnhardt (No. 2) were both members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s inaugural Class of 2010. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Archives & Research Center via Getty Images

Seven-Time Salute

We all know that the premier series has three seven-time champions – Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jimmie Johnson. But in how many of their seven championship seasons did each driver win the most races? Here you go:

Petty won titles in 1964, ’67, ’71, ‘72, ’74. ’75 and ’79. He won the most races in ’67, ’71, ’74 (tied with Cale Yarborough) and ’75. So Petty had four seasons in which he won the most races and the championship.

Earnhardt’s title years were 1980, ’86, ’87, ’90, ’91, ’93 and ’94. He won the most races in ’87 and ’90, giving him two championship years when he led the series in race wins.

In 2016, Jimmie Johnson (left) joined Richard Petty (right) and Dale Earnhardt at the top of NASCAR’s premier series championship list. Photo courtesy of Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Johnson earned rings in 2006-10, ’13 and ’16. He led the premier series in race victories in ’07, ’09 and his final championship year of ’16. That makes three seasons for Johnson with most wins and a title.

One final note: Since NASCAR adopted its current playoff format in 2014, the only driver to win the championship and the most races in the same season is Martin Truex Jr., who won eight races en route to his 2017 title.

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Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. For more than 25 years, he has been part of the NASCAR media industry.