Weighing Wins Vs. Championships
by Tom Jensen October 11, 2021
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:
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.