“To finish first, first you must finish.”
It’s an adage that fans and drivers alike know well. No matter how fast his racecar is, a driver can’t contend for a win if he’s sitting in the garage.
But just how important is finishing races in the scheme of things? The driver with the highest finishing percentage hasn’t always won the title, but in general, the sport has evolved to a place where champions are not missing the end of many races, something that was not always the case.
Here we take a closer look at finishing percentage — the percent of races where a driver was running at the finish. It’s an interesting statistic because it doesn’t necessarily corelate to anything else. A driver can finish every race and not win once or fail to finish 10 and win another 10.
Finishing still matters. The last time a driver won the NASCAR Cup Series title with lower than an 83% finishing rate was 1985, when Darrell Waltrip won the championship with an 82.1 finishing percentage, or five DNFs in 29 starts.
It’s worth noting that the finishing percent as calculated here takes into account only races a driver started; a driver may not have run the entire schedule. That wasn’t uncommon in the 1950s and 60s when hardly any drivers raced every race on a schedule that sometimes ballooned over 50 events.
So what can we learn from looking at finishing percentage and how it’s changed over the years in regards to the championship? Only two drivers have won the title while finishing every race they took the green flag for: Cale Yarborough in 1977 and Bobby Labonte in 2000.
Looking at the finishing percentage of champions by decade provides a glimpse into each time period. It’s far from the big picture, but it’s interesting to note some trends and trendsetters.
The ’50s was an inconsistent decade as far as champions finishing a high number of races. (Red Byron won the 1949 title on a .667 percentage but the schedule was just eight races long, of which Byron ran six.)
From 1950-54, the champion finished no more than 78.7% of his races. Bill Rexford’s 1950 title features the lowest finishing percentage in history at .412.
The numbers even out in the second half of the decade, with champions finishing between 80.9-91.2% of their starts.
The early years of the sport featured a variety of surfaces, some of which were hard on equipment. Walls, if there were any, could have been concrete, ARMCO or even wood, any of which could cause more damage than perhaps today’s SAFER barriers. Cars were still mostly stock without specialized parts that might have lasted longer, and they were hard to drive.
The points system in the ’60s meant that a driver could run fewer races if he chose the ones that paid the most points and still win championships or a driver could rack up as many starts as possible — both strategies could be successful.
The attrition rate was higher than it is today, in part due to teams taking risks in gears, suspensions and other areas to find speed, sometimes at the cost of durability. On the other hand, the high number of races meant that a mistake was easier to overcome, so drivers could push their equipment very hard, another risk. Richard Petty won the 1964 title with a .672 finishing percent, the lowest of any champion that decade. Joe Weatherly’s 1963 title came with a .679 finish rate. Meanwhile, Rex White’s 1960 title came with White finishing 92.5% of his starts, the best of the 1960s.
NASCAR’s modern era kicked off in 1972 with a marked drop in the number of races on the docket. It got harder to win a title without starting every race, though not yet the impossibility it would become a decade later.
It also got harder to overcome too many DNFs. Petty’s .750 percentage en route to the ’74 title was the next-to-last time a driver would win a title finishing less than 80% of his starts.
The decade also saw Yarborough finish every race he started in 1977, the first time a champion would pull that off.
The introduction of the Latford point system in the mid-1970s meant that every race was worth the same number of points, and teams were forced to change their philosophies on having to run every week. Winning a title by choosing high point-paying events became a thing of the past, and mistakes were magnified; a DNF was hard to make up for with a point system that didn’t reward any races over others.
This decade saw the finishing numbers creep higher for champions. Risk still meant reward when it came to car setups, and teams still had the freedom to take significant risks. A championship took balancing those risks and making it to the end every week, even if it only meant a small point gain. Waltrip won it all in 1982 with a .733 finish percentage, the last driver to ever win while finishing less than 82% of the time. By 1988, it took finishing 96.5% of the time to secure the title for Bill Elliott.
In the 1990s, NASCAR grew exponentially in popularity, and the cars became more durable. NASCAR began to narrow the areas where teams could make risky decisions. The sport saw new tracks with well-maintained, fast surfaces … and concrete barriers. As mechanical failures started to diminish, crashes were still unforgiving and a wrong move could mean an early exit.
Overall, a driver had to finish week in and week out to have a hope of winning a championship. No driver won a title in this decade while finishing less than 90% of their starts — and they had to start every race to contend.
Three drivers in a row (Dale Earnhardt in 1994, Jeff Gordon in ’95 and Terry Labonte in ’96) won titles on a .903 finishing percentage — the lowest of the decade. The highest was Dale Jarrett’s .970 in 1999.
NASCAR tightened up the rules considerably in the 2000s, and that led to a decline in mechanical failures. And eliminating separate engines for qualifying meant teams had to make sure the power plants would last. Engine failures began to drop dramatically; it’s not uncommon now for a team to go an entire season without losing an engine.
Bobby Labonte kicked the millennium off with a perfect finishing record, the first since Yarborough in ’77. Tony Stewart’s ’02 title came on the lowest of the decade at .833
Winning a championship since 2010 means finishing races. The advent of the current point system in 2014 gives teams wiggle room to take risks during the regular season and even the playoff format allows for overcoming one terrible finish, but drivers ultimately winning championships are still incredibly consistent.
Even Kyle Busch, who won in 2015 after missing 11 races, completed 92% of the races he did start en route to that championship. The lowest finishing percentage of a champion since 2010 is .833 in 2017 when Martin Truex Jr. had six DNFs before sealing his title.
Winning a NASCAR title at its top level has always taken consistency, and part of that is being around at the end to contend for every possible point. It’s become more important as NASCAR has tightened the rules and equipment become more and more durable.
Risk is still worth the reward of a win, but drivers bide their time for the first two-thirds or so of races for a reason: they can’t afford to make mistakes early that will take them out early, especially since teams have only six minutes to attempt to fix damage before being forced by NASCAR to pack it in. It isn’t that they don’t want to race every lap like it’s the last, it’s that that’s a poor strategy for winning championships in the sport today.
An interesting footnote: the evolution of the need to finish every week is hard to track consistently even by decade as the numbers swing pretty wildly within each 10-year span.
But a look at NASCAR’s three seven-time champions tells the tale. Petty finished more than 90% of races in just one of his championship seasons, and it was his last in 1979. His overall percentage in his title years ranged from .672 in 1964 to .903 in 1979.
Earnhardt’s overall finish percent in championship years was higher than Petty’s. Earnhardt ranged from .862 in 1986 to .965 in 1990. His 1986 season percentage was higher than three of Petty’s title years, while five of Earnhardt’s titles had a percentage topping Petty’s best.
The most recent driver with seven titles is Jimmie Johnson, and his lowest winning percentage in a championship year was .889 in 2007, 2010 and 2016. That’s higher than Earnhardt’s low mark, and his .972 also tops Earnhardt’s high mark as well as Petty’s best season. It’s not a huge swing, but it illustrates how close today’s competition is — and the importance of finishing races.
Checkers or wreckers makes for exciting races, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a season championship as a racing philosophy.
About the author
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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