Race Weekend Central

The Frontstretch 5: Top Cup Drivers at ISM Raceway

NASCAR heads to the desert in Phoenix and ISM Raceway this weekend, and with several drivers needing a win to stay alive in the playoffs and others looking to deny them, it’s sure to be an exciting event.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has raced at ISM since 1988, and in that time, a few drivers have separated themselves from the pack. Here, they’re ranked based not just on wins, but also on top finishes, percentage of top finishes and average finish. Lead-lap finishes and laps led were also taken into account as were the number of races run.

The drivers who made this list have over 25 races under their belt, with two notable exceptions. Three of them are active drivers and should do well this weekend.

1. Kevin Harvick

Starts: 33
Top 5s: 16
Top 10s: 22
Poles: 2
Average Finish: 9.3

With wins in more than a quarter of the races he’s run at ISM, it’s hard to argue that Harvick belongs anywhere other than at the top of this list. His nine wins are easily the most of all time, more than double the number of the next driver on the list. He’s maintained a top-10 average finish for 18 years and won four races in a row from 2013-2015.

As if that’s not impressive enough, Harvick’s never failed to finish a race in Phoenix, completing 99.8% of laps in his 33 starts. Oh, and he’s led over nearly 1600 laps, too, over 400 laps more than any other driver in the track’s history. He’s probably a good fantasy pick.

Here’s his ninth Phoenix victory, in the spring of 2018.

2. Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki

Starts: 5
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 3
Top 10s: 3
Poles: 0
Average Finish: 11

Starts: 5
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 3
Top 10s: 4
Poles: 0
Average Finish: 5.2

It’s really hard to separate these two drivers because their numbers are so similar. Kulwicki was the first-ever Cup winner at ISM, winning the inaugural race in 1988. Allison won back-to-back in 1991 and 1992. Their numbers in just five races apiece are certainly impressive.

While it’s hardly an exact science, because of both drivers’ untimely deaths in 1993, only speculation is available. Run their numbers out to 30 races and both easily rank among the top drivers all-time at ISM. Allison’s win total in that scenario eclipses Harvick’s. It’s impossible to say exactly what the numbers would have been, but based on what little we have, these two drivers were as good as anyone on the one-mile track in the desert.

The video is Kulwicki’s win in the first ISM race in 1988.

3. Jimmie Johnson

Starts: 32
Wins: 4
Top 5s: 15
Top 10s: 21
Poles: 3
Average Finish: 10.2

Johnson rates in this conversation about almost any track on the Cup circuit during his career, but his ISM stats are nearly step-for-step with Harvick’s except in the win column, and Johnson ranks second all-time in that category, too. His average finish just outside the top 10 shows consistent strength as well.

Where Johnson falls short of Harvick is in his recent numbers. He hasn’t won at ISM since 2009, though he has two poles and plenty of top fives and top 10s since then, including a top 10 this spring. His 994 laps led rank third all-time, and his 27 lead-lap finishes is second on the list.

Here are all four of Johnson’s Phoenix wins.

4. Mark Martin

Starts: 34
Wins: 2
Top 5s: 12
Top 10s: 21
Poles: 3
Average Finish: 9.6

Like Johnson, Martin comes close to Harvick in top fives and top 10s, and he’s got two wins as well. He’s slightly behind Johnson in wins and top fives but has a slight advantage on average finish. His 34 starts are tied for best all-time with Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman (Newman will break it this weekend provided he takes the green flag), and gets the nod here over Gordon despite very similar numbers based on his stellar average and laps led—his 911 is more than double Gordon’s 446. He also has more lead lap finishes than any other driver and has completed more laps than Gordon.

Below is Martin’s 2009 ISM win, which snapped a 121-race winless drought.

5. Kyle Busch

Starts: 28
Wins: 3
Top 5s: 10
Top 10s: 20
Poles: 3
Average Finish: 11.1

Busch gets the nod here over Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also has three wins, based on his consistency. He’s got five more top-10 runs in two fewer races and his average is four positions better than Earnhardt’s. Busch falls just short of Johnson in wins and average finish, though his percentages are similar.

Busch is the only driver other than Harvick with over 1,000 laps led at 1121. He also has three poles and 24 lead-lap finishes, and two of his three wins have come in the last two races at ISM.

Here’s Busch’s spring 2019 victory, completing a weekend sweep.

About the author

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Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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I wonder what JJ would do if he was leading and Chase was in 2nd near the end of the race?

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