Half the field with a shot? Not half bad

5/6/2010 - NASCAR

Of the 43 drivers who start every Sprint Cup race, how many have any reasonable shot at winning the event?

When you do the research, the conclusion is a little more than half, give or take a fluke or two.

Seven different drivers have won in the first 10 events this season, which was the same number at this time last year. But only three of those seven are the same as 2009.

Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch ended long losing streaks in the last four weeks. The more guys who go to Victory Lane, the better it is for competition.

Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton and Carl Edwards still are trying to end losing streaks. Winning a race is tough because more drivers have a chance to win than years ago.

"We've been in position to win a lot of races and led a lot of races and haven't found a way to do it," Burton said after his fourth-place finish at Richmond. "We were good [Saturday], but we weren't quite good enough to get it done."

It gets frustrating. Biffle has seven top-10s and two top-5s this season, but no victories.

"We're carrying an anvil around and we're ready to conk someone in the head with it,'' Biffle said last week about his losing streak, which goes back to 2008. "It's tough. We want to win. We'll keep cracking at it. One encouraging thing is that we are close."

No one wants to see the same person win every week, except for the fans of that particular driver. And judging by the collective yawn on Jimmie Johnson's remarkable four consecutive championships, the majority of fans don't want to see the same driver win the title every year.

If more drivers have a realistic chance to win, Johnson's odds of continuing dominance decrease. That's the theory, anyway, although it hasn't stopped him in an era of increased competition.

That's right. Half the field having a chance to win is far better than it was years ago for those of you who look back through rose-colored glasses.

In 1974, only five different drivers won a race all season. Only seven won in 1977 and '78. Cup had fewer than 10 different winners for eight consecutive seasons from 1972 to '79 when Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough were dominating things the way Johnson is now.

But Cup has had 10 or more different winners every season since 1986, and 12 or more in each of Johnson's four title seasons.

Cup had 19 different winners in 2001, the first season of the 36-race schedule. Nineteen winners also happened three times from 1956-61, but that's misleading. The schedule had more than 50 races each of those seasons, so the percentage of winners was far lower.

Having half the field as possible winners is as good as it ever has been. If you're wondering how we arrived at that conclusion, here's the explanation:

The start-and-parkers are out, of course, as are a few teams than run only a partial schedule.

Only 35 drivers have competed in all 10 Cup events this season. Eight of those never have won a Cup race. Four others -- Bobby Labonte, Elliott Sadler, Joe Nemechek and Robby Gordon -- haven't won a Cup race in at least six years.

That leaves 23 drivers who compete each week with some hope of going to Victory Lane.

And a couple of the nonwinners might become winners at some point. AJ Allmendinger is improving, but needs better equipment. Marcos Ambrose always is a threat to win on road courses.

Another way to estimate which drivers have a shot at winning is to look at how many have posted a top-5 finish. So far this season it has been 22 guys, everyone in the top 20 and two others -- Kasey Kahne and David Reutimann.

It doesn't mean they all will win. It means they have a chance to win. And the chances of winning today compared to yesteryear are pretty good.


Speaking of winning, some people are asking if Jeff Gordon can win again after continuing to fall short this season.

The answer is, of course he can, and he will.

Gordon has four top-5s in 10 races, a 40 percent ratio of top-5s. It's a clear indication he will win soon.

In each of the past 13 seasons, every driver who finished in the top 5 around 40 percent of the time won at least one race.

The last time a driver had a 40 percent top-5 ratio and failed to win that year was Mark Martin in 1996 -- 14 top-5s in 31 races. And that's the only time it happened in the last 27 seasons.

Granted, Gordon may not stay at 40 percent top-5s all year, and double-file restarts have been his nemesis, but victories will follow when a guy consistently runs up front.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.