Determining NASCAR’s all-time best road racer futile task
With the recent NASCAR race weekend at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International now history, the Sprint Cup Series has completed its two-race road-course test for 2016, and the Xfinity Series has completed the first of two-consecutive road-course races and three in four race weekends. So, let’s ponder who is the best road course racer, ever, in NASCAR.
Fans were fortunate to see the two all-time road-course wins leader at the Cup level on Sunday with Tony Stewart running what is, at least now, assumed to be his last Sprint Cup race at The Glen, and for that matter, his last Sprint Cup road-course race. And, based solely on the action and results of Sunday’s race, it may have been easy to forget that Jeff Gordon was in that race, out of retirement and continuing to fill-in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. behind the wheel of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Gordon is the all-time NASCAR Cup wins leader on road courses with nine. Stewart is second on the wins list with eight, with his most recent coming just a couple months ago at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway. That being said, it would be reasonable to consider a debate on NASCAR’s top road-racers as a debate of Gordon vs. Stewart. Sure, Gordon has the most wins, but he only leads Stewart by one, despite having several more starts on the left-and-right track layout. Gordon has 47-career road-course starts to Stewart’s 34. Maybe winning percentage would be a better way to go about this study. If that’s the case here are the numbers: Gordon’s road course winning percentage is just over 19 percent. Stewart’s, meanwhile, is up over 23.5 percent. So, is Gordon NASCAR’s best-ever road-course racer because he has the most wins? But, what about Stewart’s winning percentage? It’s significantly higher that Gordon’s.
But if winning percentage is the fairest way to go, here, there’s at least one other name to throw in the mix. Tim Richmond, anyone? Younger fans may not have been fortunate to watch Richmond race back in the 1980s. But just take my word for it; the guys was perfection on road courses, or at least as close to perfection as any other driver before or since.
Richmond’s road-course wins total pales in comparison to those of Gordon and Stewart, but put that number into contexts. Given Richmond’s abbreviated career, he ran far fewer road-course races than his contemporaries. Richmond claimed five wins in only 16 starts. In case you’re wondering, the works out to a winning percentage of over 31 percent. Put even more simply, that number puts Richmond in the territory of winning in nearly a third of his road-course attempts.
I guess it’s true that statistics can be skewed to support a multitude of stances, even conflicting stance. Is Gordon the greatest in terms of NASCAR road-course racing because he has the most wins? Is Richmond the greatest, based on winning percentage? Do we split the difference, take both into consideration, and declare Stewart the best? Maybe the best is/was some other driver not even considered, here.
If the question of the greatest wasn’t perplexing enough, here’s another monkey wrench to throw into the equation: the time during which each driver raced. That’s not really complicated comparing only Gordon in Stewart. Sure, Gordon got a head-start of a few years, but, for the most part, these two raced the same competition at the same time.
The same can’t be said for Richmond. Quite frankly, Richmond raced back when a lot of the competition didn’t give a proverbial flying-flip for road course racing. Road course races were just something to get through, as unscathed as possible, before getting back to “real” racing next weekend.
NASCAR’s finest take road-course racing much more seriously now, and as a result, hone their skills at turning both left and right. Therefore, I’m thinking it would be fair to say that Gordon and Stewart have faced tougher road-course competition that Richmond did.
But, then again, who’s to say that Richmond wouldn’t have still won those five road-course races had his competition taken those races more seriously? That’s something we’ll never know.
Maybe I’ll take a break and get myself a Tootsie Row pop for a classic study of how many licks it takes to get to the center. That’s so much more straightforward.