Dr. Diandra: Ranking NASCAR’s all-time best superspeedway racers

Some drivers seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to superspeedway racing. Some drivers, like Denny Hamlin, count superspeedway wins as one component of their portfolio. Others, like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., have only won at superspeedways.

It’s been like that throughout NASCAR history, which led me to think about which drivers were the all-time best superspeedway racers.

I consider only Daytona and Talladega because the superspeedway-like Atlanta belongs in its own class. I also exclude Duels and other qualifying races.

To be eligible, a driver must have run at least seven races between the two tracks and earned at least two wins. Out of the over 3,000 drivers who have run at least one Cup Series race, only 40 drivers satisfy my criteria for inclusion.

Some drivers on the list have run nearly 100 races, while others have only a dozen or two. My ranking criteria take that into account that by using win rate — the percentage of wins relative to total races run — as one primary factor.

The second primary ranking factor is quality of finishes. NASCAR uses a linear scale for awarding points, but I feel that the difference between coming in first versus second is much greater than the difference between coming in 20th versus 21st. I thus use a non-linear scale that rewards drivers much more for top-five and top-10 finishes. Drivers earn no points for finishes of 36th and beyond.

I folded into these numbers the fraction of races each driver finished in the top five and gave drivers who ran a lot of races a small bump as a reward for having sustained excellence. Here’s how the rankings came out.

No. 1: Dale Earnhardt Sr.

No surprise here, even though Earnhardt’s 14.4% win percentage is only fourth highest of all drivers considered. The Intimidator earns the most average points per race of any driver with 49.8 on a scale of zero to 100.

His average is 6.6 points per race more than the next-highest driver. In addition to 13 wins (10 at Talladega and 3 at Daytona), Earnhardt had nine second-place finishes, 13 third-place finishes, and finished in the top five at half of the 90 superspeedway races he ran.

Chase Briscoe’s recent run has the Stewart-Haas Racing driver in a playoff spot.

No. 2: Fireball Roberts

Fireball Roberts comes in second on the survey due to having the highest win percentage. Roberts won 36.4% of all starts — four of the 11 superspeedway races he ran. He earned the third-most average points per race (43.2) and his top-five percentage of 45.4% is the third highest of the contenders.

Roberts’ most impressive statistic is that he won four of the five superspeedway races he finished. Roberts established that record entirely at Daytona, having died in 1964 from injuries sustained on track. Talladega wouldn’t host its first race until 1969.

No. 3: David Pearson

David Pearson racked up 70 superspeedway starts (45 at Daytona and 25 at Talladega) with nine wins and 30 top-five finishes. That adds up to a 12.8% win rate and a 42.8% top-five-finish rate. He earned an average of 42.7 points per race, despite a 37.1% DNF rate (26 races).

No. 4: Cale Yarborough and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran 71 superspeedway races in his career with 10 wins and nine second-place finishes. He won six times at Talladega and four at Daytona. His overall win rate of 14.1% is just three-tenths of a percent less than his father’s win rate. Junior finished in the top five at superspeedway races 35.2% of the time.

Cale Yarborough’s numbers are close, with 11 wins in 82 races: a 13.4% win rate. Yarborough beats Junior in percentage of top-five finishes 37.8 to 35.2; however, Junior scored 2.5 more points on average per race than Yarborough. I listed Yarborough first because Junior had the advantage of more reliable equipment. Junior’s DNF rate due to engine failure is only 4.2% while Yarborough’s is 23.2%.

No. 6: Richard Petty

Richard Petty ran 110 superspeedway races and won 12 of them, giving him a win rate of 10.9%. Petty ran more superspeedway races than anyone else in the top 10. Even given that his performance fell off in his later years, the King still finished in the top five in more than one out of every three superspeedway races he competed.

No. 7: Bobby Allison

Bobby Allison’s name always comes up in discussions of superspeedways, most frequently because of his 1987 Talladega accident was the catalyst for NASCAR instituting the restrictor plate. But that is far from Allison’s only superspeedway claim to fame. His 10 wins in 85 starts (11.8% win rate) and 34.1% top-five rate place him at No. 7 on the list of all-time superspeedway racers.

Ryan Blaney has finished first or second in the last three Talladega races.

No. 8: Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon has a healthy win rate of 13.0%, or 12 of 92 superspeedway races. That win rate is just below Yarborough’s. Gordon isn’t higher on the list because he earned fewer second- and third-place finishes compared to drivers previously mentioned.

Honorable Mentions

Davey Allison’s 17.2% win rate represents five wins in just 29 races. We’ll never know if he could have maintained that rate but anyone with a higher win rate than Dale Earnhardt Sr. demands to be mentioned here.

Pete Hamilton has staggering stats at superspeedways, with three wins in 12 races. That’s a 25% win rate, along with a 50% top-five rate and an average of 43.7 points per superspeedway race. He wins an honorable mention for doing the most in the least time. His two Talladega wins, plus the Daytona 500 all happened in 1970 while driving for Petty Enterprises.

Active drivers

Only two contemporary drivers (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon) made the top of the list, but some drivers are still adding to their stats.

Among drivers still hoping to move up the list, Ryan Blaney has only run 37 superspeedway races so far, but has four wins and a 10.8% win rate. That win rate is the 13th highest on my list and just about the same as Richard Petty. In addition to four wins, Blaney also has four second-place superspeedway finishes. Overall, he ranks 13th on the list.

Denny Hamlin has five wins, one second place and eight third-place finishes in 73 races. His win rate is only 6.84%, but he has a 30.1% top-five finishing rate. That percentage of top five is the highest of all active drivers who qualified for this list and places him 14th overall.

Brad Keselowski has seven superspeedway wins: six at Talladega and one at Daytona. That’s a healthy win rate of 11.7%. He finishes in 20th place, however, because he also fails to finish approximately a third of the races he starts.

Of the remaining active drivers on the list, Jimmie Johnson ranks 21st and Joey Logano fittingly comes in at No. 22. Hendrick drivers Chase Elliott and William Byron are 27th and 28th. Kyle Busch ranks 30th, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. 31st and Austin Dillon rounds out the current drivers in the 36th place.

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