Kasey Kahne. Ryan Newman. Jeff Gordon. Jamie McMurray. Paul Menard.
Those are the five drivers who have led a very specific statistic in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in the last five seasons.
Clearly it has nothing to do with the championship; none of these drivers have won one since 2001 (and Gordon’s the only one who’s got a title at all). It’s not a win, top five or top 10 stat, either, since none of them have ascended to that kind of leaderboard anytime recently, winning occasionally and landing solid finishes but rarely at the pace of some of the sport’s elite.
You can say this about them, though: no one spent more time behind the wheel of a Cup racecar from the green flag to the checkered flag than they did.
Menard, McMurray, Gordon, Newman and Kahne are the drivers who ran the most laps in the Cup Series from 2012 to 2016 (in that order, beginning with Menard in 2012). Some may have won more than they did, and others certainly ran up front in far more races. But once the season wrapped up at Homestead-Miami Speedway, they assumed the distinction of having completed the most laps for that year.
There’s a common thread among these five: none of them are really the poster boys for the best of the best each of those seasons. Gordon was the closest to that in 2014, winning four races and snagging 23 top 10s before eventually ending up sixth in points. Otherwise, there were instances in which the driver who completed the most laps of the season didn’t even make the playoffs, let alone win a race — like Kahne, who finished 17th in points in 2016 despite completing 10,355 laps, seven more than his closest competitor, Kurt Busch.
Let’s get one thing straight, though. For the last five years, the drivers in question have still been part of some of the series’ best teams; Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing are those represented here. Which perhaps makes 2017’s current leader in laps completed all the more impressive.
Through 23 races, no one’s ran more laps in the Cup Series than Michael McDowell.
And really, second place isn’t all that close. McDowell’s completed 6,079 through last weekend’s Michigan International Speedway event, 53 more than Clint Bowyer in second. He’s done so with just one top five and top 10 all season, a fourth-place result at Daytona International Speedway in July.
Think about what running the most laps in a season entails. A large part of it is a lack of mechanical failures and crashes, which are prevalent enough in any racing series. No matter what race, chances are there’s going to be a wreck that takes out a top competitor or a blown engine that ruins another’s chance at a win. One has to keep their nose clean, not just from a damage perspective but also with regards to the inner workings of the car itself. And that’s not always an easy task for anyone out there, regardless of skill level.
But what really ends up impressive about McDowell’s feat is the other side of the coin: the speed of one’s car.
Picture this: a race runs to completion without a single wreck or parts failure that necessitates a caution flag. Before 2017 in the Cup Series, the event might run caution-free as a result, but nowadays, there would instead be two periods of stoppage in between the stages.
If there aren’t other major issues that knock a driver a few laps down or even out of the race entirely, what’s the main cause then for losing a lap? Simply not being fast enough. Whether it’s in relation to the lead car (see: a behemoth of an entry that threatens to lap the entire field) or the horsepower/handling/setup of everyone else, cars lose the lead lap. Sometimes it happens more than once. Shoot, it’s not irregular to see some of the backmarker teams five laps down or more before the end of the race.
And remember, McDowell’s organization, Leavine Family Racing, was once one of those teams. When it came onto the Cup scene in 2011 as Leavine Fenton Racing with driver David Starr, the No. 95 was rarely a roadblock for the leaders but it wasn’t exactly a frontrunner either, occasionally even being forced to start and park rather than complete the full event.
Here’s what you’re looking at now: a team that only started running the full schedule in 2016 with a driver competing in his first full-time Cup season that didn’t involve starting and parking in some capacity. And they’ve ran more laps than anyone else in 2017.
Chalk it up in part to the team’s alliance with Childress, which began in 2016. But there’s more at work here, like McDowell’s ability to keep a car out of trouble (something that may stem from his start-and-park days, when keeping the car spot-free before it pulled into the garage was of utmost importance), or the fact that McDowell has been running at the finish of 22 of the 23 races this season, only failing to finish the spring event at Talladega Superspeedway due to an accident — and hey, 11 others wrecked out of that race, and McDowell was just 23 laps from the finish when it happened.
Thing is, McDowell’s 6,079 number could be even better if he was with one of the teams the drivers who led the stat the previous five years were/are with. Despite Leavine Family Racing’s strides over the last few years, it still oftentimes lags behind the RCRs and Hendricks of the world in overall horsepower, and it shows; McDowell has just nine lead-lap finishes in 2017. But even when he ends up off the lead lap, he’s usually not far from it, finishing either a lap or two laps down in many races — like at Michigan last weekend, when he completed 200 of 202 laps.
All this comes despite McDowell’s overall tepid performance in the point standings. Entering Bristol Motor Speedway, he’s 27th, well outside the cutoff for the playoffs unless he rattles off a win before the regular season ends, and bear in mind that McDowell’s winless in his Cup career.
Assuming he doesn’t make the top 20 of the standings before season’s end, he’d be the first driver to complete the most laps in the season but finish outside the top 20 in points since Juan Pablo Montoya (21st, 2011).
Maybe it isn’t the most important stat in the world, but look, it’s a plus, isn’t it? Especially for a single-car team.
Oh, and for those curious: the last time the champion also completed the most laps of the season was 2005, when Tony Stewart ran 10,670.
About the author
Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.
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Well, say what ya want, but McDowell is 1 spot ahead of Patrick in the points. He with a family run team with diddly for dollars and she with one of the best teams in the sport. That would suggest that one of these teams is punching well above their weight and one isn’t even landing blows.
Clearly Michael is driving with more confidence and success. If you want to be the best you gotta run with the best and hold your own. Seems to me he is improving his position in the sport. He does need a bit more speed but I sure wish he could get better pit performance and not lose time in the pits. Still we are fans and always root for him.