New drivers usually get rewarded with the benefit of the doubt. The arguments for giving a rookie a proper chance to show himself look good on paper.
?He just needs more seat time.? Well, it sounds perfectly logical.
?It takes a while for a driver to get used to the new car.? That makes complete sense.
?Once he visits the track more, he?ll get a better feel for it.? Yes, they make good points indeed.
College football has similar arguments in regards to new football coaches. They usually come in the form of ?Coach X needs time to get his recruits/system/coaching style/change of culture/other miscellaneous idiosyncrasies in.?
But a 2010 college football preview magazine turned their version of the ?one more year theory? on its ears. Lindy?s College Football Preview argued that good coaches can quickly whip their teams into genuine contenders in a heartbeat. With the exception of Mack Brown at Texas (who captured a BCS title in his 8th year at Austin after taking over a four win team in 1998), every national championship winning coach won the shiny football within their first four years of coaching.
So, can the same theory apply to drivers who aren?t quick out of the gate?
I tried to figure out a way to quantitatively measure a driver?s early performances, and how that translates to their entire careers. I struggled to find that single stat which completely reflects performance, so instead I?ll use two markers: race in which they won their first Cup race, and first five consecutive races in which their average finish was 8.0 or better. The first number obviously notes how long it took for them to win, while the latter number attempts to mark the moment where a driver showed that they could consistently run up front.
Of course, racing involves many different variables which aren?t easily measured, and some of those variables are out of the driver?s control. Still, it is also true that a great driver has the ability to minimize the effects that these variables have on performance.
The path a driver takes to get to a winning ride is drastically different today than in years past, so most drivers that I look at will be from recent times. I?ve included the last 7 Cup Champions (Gordon, D. Jarrett, B. Labonte, Stewart, Kenseth, Ku. Busch, and Johnson, as well as drivers who have made the Chase in the last two seasons.
Gordon: 42, 42-46
While 1994 was the year where Gordon actually ran up front consistently, his ?93 campaign proved that Gordon wouldn?t actually be a bust, and really paved the way for his future successes. That year, he:
- Won a Twin 125
- Led 54 laps at Atlanta, his 5th start
- Had finishes of 2nd, 5th, and 7th before suffering three straight engine failures. After those three DNFs, he scored a third
- Had double digit laps led at Dover and Phoenix
On top of that, Hendrick Motorsports didn?t exactly set the world on fire in 1993. Kenny Schrader had a couple of good runs, but was plagued by inconsistency, especially at the beginning of the year. Ricky Rudd had a fuel mileage win at Michigan, but actually had 94 fewer laps led than Gordon. In context, Gordon?s ?93 season was a good year.
D. Jarrett: 129, 125-129
I?ve written a blog about Dale Jarrett?s strange odyssey. And thinking about it a bit more, DJ may have been the last of his kind. He did the ?old school? route to glory: from garbage Sportsman/Busch rides, good Busch rides, to garbage Cup rides, to mediocre Cup rides, to quality Cup rides in a span of a decade and a half. And in each instance before getting to the top, Jarrett never had earth-shattering performances.
After his first Cup win, it would be a season and a half before we won again. That win would be followed by another winless streak that lasted almost two years. After that, he would only win once with a team that had competed for the title the previous season. With the exception of 1993, Jarrett had never consistently ran up front.
And then he completely took off, becoming a genuine championship contender overnight. And not only that, Jarrett was pretty much the only guy that prevented Jeff Gordon from having a complete monopoly. And his 1999 season probably would be talked about more had Jeff Gordon?s 1998 season not existed. Jarrett does provide the best counter to the ?Win Now? theory, but again, it looks as though he represents a bygone era in NASCAR.
B. Labonte: 74, 71-75
These numbers come from his first year with a winning team, after spending two years with the fledgling Bill Davis Cup squad. In his first year at JGR, Labonte won more than Dale Jarrett had done in three years, and improved six points spots from DJ?s ?94 campaign.
Stewart: 25, 9-13
The man who set the bar for rookies at an extremely high level.
Kenseth: 18, 15-19
This was during a relative downturn for Roush. After race 19, Kenseth didn?t really do much else for the next year and a half.
Ku. Busch: 48, 48-52
And for the first year, Kurt Busch did absolutely nothing. Though to be fair, Busch had far less experience in the lower series (less than one Truck season) before making his Cup debut than any other champion. He was also aided by the general upswing of Roush?s garage.
Johnson: 13, 6-10
I might post a bit more about Jimmie Johnson later, but for right now, I have one question. If Johnson?s success is primarily due to Chad Knaus (which some, but not all of the Johnson critics have argued), where is Stacy Compton?
For the rest of the drivers, I?ll just post their numbers, commenting whenever a further explanation may be needed. Most show that quality drivers become competitive fairly quickly in to their Cup careers.
Edwards: 17, 45-49
Hamlin: 25, 21-25
Bowyer: 64, 63-67
The #07 improved a great deal during Bowyer?s first year.
Biffle: 23, 78-82
Ky. Busch: 31, 44-48
Harvick: 3, 23-27
Montoya: 17, 91-95
I do like Montoya, but I don?t think I?d be biased in saying that Montoya might be allowed a bit more time than normal to get up to speed.
Newman: 35, 9-13
Martin: 113(56), 90-94(33-37)
Parenthesis are Martin?s number since joining Roush.
Kahne: 47, 19-23
Vickers: 107, 190-194
J. Burton: 96, 98-102
First two years spent with also-ran Stravola Brothers team.
McMurray: 2, 63-67
Perhaps McMurray simply performs best with no expectations?
Logano: 20*, 69-73
Without that late-season upswing, it would have been hard to justify keeping Logano in the #20. If he gets off to another flat start, I?d say it?s time to end the experiment.
Keselowksi: 5, N/A
Likewise, Keselowski needs to show real signs of improvement to prove he?s at Cup level.
Earnhardt Jr.: 12, 46-50
Take this for what it?s worth.
Reutimann: 75*(117), N/A
Solely looking at the numbers (plus one other number: his age), I can?t say I?d see overwhelming success in Reutimann?s future. But he did noticeably outperform his teammate this year, so it could be argued that the team, and not the driver, has reached a plateau.
Lindy?s noted that ?the powerhouses always have the gravitational force to get things done quickly, no matter how messy things have gotten. All they have to do is find the right coach for the job.? For a powerhouse team in NASCAR, can it be as simple as finding the right driver for the job?
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