Dr. Diandra: The all-time best drivers at Darlington
The biggest challenge in compiling a list of all-time best drivers at Darlington — or anywhere else — is comparing drivers from different eras. How do you balance the accomplishments of today’s drivers with those of yesterday’s legends?
Today’s drivers race much more reliable cars, but against a more competitive field. Earlier drivers had more races to run each year, but their cars didn’t always make it to the checkered flag.
Any list of all-time best drivers at Darlington must include David Pearson. He holds Darlington records for most wins (10), most poles (12) and most times winning from the pole (four).
Dale Earnhardt is right behind Pearson in all-time wins with nine. But Pearson made 47 starts at Darlington and Earnhardt made 44. Jeff Gordon has seven wins in 36 races.
Here’s my attempt to compare drivers and determine at least a short list for the all-time best drivers at Darlington.
Wins and win rates
I started with a list of all 52 Darlington winners. I eliminated drivers with fewer than seven starts, which only got me down to 48 drivers.
Instead of ranking the drivers in order of wins, I ranked them according to their win rate: number of wins divided by number of starts. The table below summarizes the top-11 drivers’ accomplishments.
I extended the list to 11 in honor of Jimmie Johnson, the final driver named to NASCAR’s just-completed list of 75 top drivers.
Ranking by win rate puts Herb Thomas (three wins in seven Darlington starts) at the top with a win rate of 42.9%. Pearson comes in a distant second, winning at about half Thomas’ rate. Earnhardt is third at 20.4%.
Ranking by win rate rather than straight wins produces a solid distribution of drivers over different eras. Current driver Erik Jones is fourth with two wins in 10 starts, or a win rate of 20.0%.
Poles measure pure speed, but speed doesn’t always reflect race performance. That’s especially true at Darlington, where only 21 of 123 races have been won from the pole.
After Pearson’s 12 poles, Fireball Roberts comes in second with seven Darlington poles. Pole rate, however, tells a different story. Fred Lorenzen won six poles in 16 races, for a 37.5% pole rate. Roberts has a pole rate of 35% and Pearson comes in third with a pole rate of 25.5%. Fonty Flock (2/8) and Kasey Kahe (4/16) round out the top five at 25%.
The only drivers who appear in the top 11 on pole rate and win rate are Pearson and Flock.
Average finish covers all of a driver’s races rather than just the best ones. It’s also one of the few stats available for almost all drivers and races across NASCAR’s 75 years.
The graph below shows all drivers with a career average finishing position at or under 12.0 at Darlington. As before, I include only drivers with seven or more starts.
Denny Hamlin has the best average finish at Darlington of any Cup Series driver since 1950. In fact, four of the 10 best average finishes belong to active drivers.
Of the drivers shown, Kyle Larson, Marvin Panch and Tyler Reddick have not won at Darlington. Larson has not only the second-highest average finish, but he also has finished second at Darlington three times in 10 attempts. No driver has a higher second-place finish rate.
Top-five and top-10 finishes
Top-five and top-10 finishes measure performance consistency. I again use rates to compensate for numbers of races run.
The prevalence of more recent drivers in this list is in part due to increased car reliability. Hamlin has a 7.9% career DNF rate. Pearson’s is 35.6%.
That makes Thomas’ ranking second in top-10 rate and first in top-five rate even more impressive. In seven Darlington races, he finished out of the top 15 only once. Keep in mind, however, that it used to be possible to DNF and finish fourth, as Thomas did in 1953.
Putting it all together
I ranked drivers in each metric compared to all other drivers in the pool and compiled the results. I opted not to include pole stats in my ranking of all-time best drivers at Darlington because of the tiny overlap between drivers who won poles and those who ran well in races.
Regan Smith, Joe Weatherly, Harry Gant, Flock and Johnson fall out of the competition because of too many low rankings. For example, Smith is 75th in both top-five and top-10 finishes. Despite never having won at Darlington, Kyle Larson’s other numbers were so good that I kept him on the list. If he wins a Darlington race, I don’t see how one could not include him.
I’ve added one metric to the final matrix -- the one metric that prevents me from making a conclusive overall ranking: Races Run.
If you look strictly at the four metric rankings, Herb Thomas comes out at No. 1 via sheer consistency.
Pearson comes in a strong second: When he was good at Darlington, he was really, really good. But Pearson didn’t finish 36.2% of the Darlington races he started.
But that wasn’t (with a few exceptions) his fault.
Thomas ran only seven Darlington races. I could pick seven consecutive Pearson races and get numbers that top Thomas.’ I have the same hesitancy to proclaim Jones better than Earnhardt at Darlington. We can gather more data on Jones, Larson and Hamlin, but Thomas died in 2000.
That leaves me wavering between Thomas and Pearson for No. 1.
Which driver do you think is the all-time best Darlington driver? Tell me in the comments, along with your reasoning.