Christopher Bell had a great start to the 2018 season by winning the Chili Bowl on Saturday, besting Kyle Larson when Larson had to drop out with 15 laps to go. What followed was a Twitter love fest between Bell and Larson, with Bell calling Larson the “best all-around racer in the world” and Larson calling Bell “the best racer of our time.”
It was a little much, especially maybe Larson’s comment about a guy who hasn’t made a start in Cup racing yet. Give the 22-year-old Bell his credit for winning the Truck Series championship in 2017 and having pretty good undercard success, but come on.
It did get me thinking, though. Who is the best Cup driver in this generation of NASCAR? We all have our favorites and that bias sometimes causes us to skew the answer. Chase Elliott is gaining steam as a fan favorite, but he’s got a lot still to prove. Kyle Larson is making a lot of noise and looks ready to take the mantle of next generation, but is he the best right now? Is it Jimmie Johnson? Ryan Blaney is a media and fan darling, that’s for sure, but how well does that translate on the track?
Let’s look at this strictly from the data. This is not a popularity contest. We’ll take the last 4 seasons, 2014-2017, looking at six categories: wins, poles, top-5 and top-10 finishes, and average start and finish. I’m not going to worry about age because as we all know, some drivers can keep it going past 45, some flame out before 25. And I’m just going to consider Cup and Xfinity racing since they are the two most closely aligned.
In wins, there are two ways to look at it. Straight Cup racing, Jimmie Johnson is the best with 17 victories in 4 seasons. But Johnson only races Cup, while several of the other top drivers race Cup and Xfinity. Doing both throughout the season takes a beast. Doing both successfully is remarkable. And in that category, Kyle Busch takes it hands down. Busch is just behind Johnson in Cup wins with 15, but he also has 28 wins in Xfinity over those same 4 seasons! That’s 42 trips to victory lane. Most impressive was Busch’s 2016 Xfinity season where he had 10 wins in only 17 races run. Rounding out the top five are Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick.
Pole position isn’t the be-all that it once was, but it still speaks to putting your team in the best position to control the race from the get go. It also sets the tone and attitude for your crew. The best from ’14-’17 in Cup alone was Kevin Harvick with 15 poles. Right behind is Kyle Busch with 14, but get this – Busch also had 28 poles in Xfinity. Even the fulltime Xfinity-only drivers aren’t as good. To show that pole doesn’t equal wins, though, Jimmie Johnson only had 3 poles in 4 years.
If you’re going to not only survive, but also be an asset to your team, you’ve got to be competitive week in and out. Meaning even if you don’t win, you gave the effort that could have won, and you finished strong. Kevin Harvick had the most top-5 and top-10 finishes over 4 seasons, 68 and 98 respectively. Joey Logano was a close second with 64 top-5’s and 93 top-10’s. If you factor in Xfinity races, Logano edges Harvick, but not for the top spot. Once again, that goes to Kyle Busch who had a combined 110 top-5 and 137 top-10 finishes. Brad Keselowski was a respectable fourth with a combined 87 top-5 and 129 top-10 finishes.
The last categories look at the average start and finish. Now yes, it would seem obvious that whoever has the most poles (Kyle Busch) would have the best average start, but it is not so. As many great athletes have said in a very cliché way, it’s not always about where you start, but where you finish. Brad Keselowski had the best average start position over the last 4 years in Cup racing at 8.9. He dropped three positions though with an average finish of 11.9. Joey Logano had the next best starting average at 9.3, but he too dropped more than three spots with his average finish of 11.5. Kevin Harvick did the best job of holding his start average to finish average, from 9.5 to 10.6. He does even better in Xfinity by jumping up from a start average of 8.5 to finishing at 6.1. Chase Elliott was also very good at holding position start to finish in both Cup and Xfinity, dropping essentially only one spot in Cup but gaining almost two spots in Xfinity races.
There are intangibles, to be sure, that makes the mark of a great driver. As I said at the start, this is looking strictly at the numbers, the race data that measures success for owners, teams, and sponsors. By those measurements, Kyle Busch is the best driver in NASCAR right now, no question. Is he a fan favorite or media favorite? Hardly. Is he liked among his peers? Probably not. He is consistent and reliable to make quality starts. He is an ironman of racing even though he isn’t the poster child of sweetness, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He just flat out gets it done on the track. Those are stats you can’t argue with.
Here’s your chance to pick who you think is the best driver in NASCAR. Pick your favorite and tell me why I’m wrong.