I was listening to a fascinating interview with Ervin Brooks, and it got me thinking about things. If you don’t know, Ervin Brooks is the son of Earl Brooks, who raced in the Cup Series in the 1960s and 1970s.
There are 186 NASCAR Strictly Stock/Grand National/Winston Cup Grand National/… race winners. Of those 186, 86 won 2 or fewer races. Of those 86, 62 only won once, and there are hundreds more who finished in the top-3 or top-5 without winning one. Some of these performances are upsets, and others aren’t.
What is an upset, anyway?
əpˈset/: an unexpected result or situation, especially in a sports competition.
This is, anyway, the sporting definition. So, while sometimes a driver’s performance might be unexpected, it’s not necessarily all that special. Sorry, Chris Buescher, but I can’t count your win, impressive as the strategy was, as an upset. How am I defining upset in racing?
əpˈset/: When a team exceeds expectations and performs better than they should, especially when victorious
In team sports, an upset requires a win because there are only two teams competing at any one time; in racing, an upset could be a top-5 or, for exceptionally bad teams, a top-10. By using this definition, we eliminate three factors: rain shortened races, fuel mileage races, and restrictor plate races.
On paper, Alexander Rossi winning the Indianapolis 500 was surprising, but fuel mileage races aren’t on raw speed. Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500 was surprising, but most any competent organization can score a top-10 or top-5 in those races. Parlaying good strategy and rain forecasting is deserving of a win, but again not anything special about a combo of car, driver, and team. Even a bizarre case like 11 cars crashing in front of James Buescher isn’t all that special because, before that madness, he was going to finish only in 12th until then. West coast races are hard to judge because most of those winners were good drivers who just were unfortunate to only win a single race that also counted for (then) Grand National points.
I’m talking about the UNEXPECTED. The car that typically fails to qualifying suddenly finishes in the top-10 or top-5 without the aid of cautions, plates, or rain. Let’s examine the list of drivers who only won a single Cup race and cross out the ones who didn’t have some kind of luck on their side.
What does it all mean? Well, we will see that there were few upsets there. Many drivers were driving for top teams; some were rain or fuel races; many were at big tracks; many were disappointing that it was their only win; several were West series races or won by road ringers on a road course. Left as full upsets were Johnny Allen, Johnny Benson, Bob Burdick, Joe Eubanks, Larry Frank, Jim Hurtubise, Harold Kite, Paul Lewis, Johnny Mantz, Jody Ridley, Leon Sales, Wendell Scott, Regan Smith, and Lake Speed. Jody Ridley could be argued as a last man standing case, but the important factor is that all won on raw speed.
In my memory banks (the 1990s, to tell you my age), there were times where drivers like Dick Trickle, Hut Stricklin, and Steve Grissom could go out on the track, start well, lead 20-60% of the race, and finish in the top-5 WITHOUT fuel, rain, or plates being involved. Drivers like Johnny Allen, Larry Frank, James Hylton, and Lake Speed could do it and even win on raw speed. The days of Alan Kulwicki taking a non-factory car to 2 wins, let alone the title, on raw speed are gone.
On Sunday, there is zero, and I mean ZERO, chance that Michael McDowell, Jeffrey Earnhardt, or Cole Whitt leads 100+ laps and gets a top-5. There’s zero chance of them legitimately making a green flag pass for the lead, let alone leading a sizeable chunk of the race and getting a top-5 on speed. And you can guarantee 25+ cars running at the finish.
And that is why so many people, in spite of modern racing where 20-35 cars are on the lead lap at the end, say racing was more competitive 20, 30, even 60 years ago. Because it was and wasn't.
Unless something changes, the era of the upset is dead.