Who is the winningest third-year driver?

Hmmmmm.. Who Is the Winningest Third-Year Driver? And what does Tony Stewart have to do to break the record? ATLANTA (Jan. 31, 2001) - Who is the winningest third-year NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver and should anyone care? Well, Tony Stewart...

Who Is the Winningest Third-Year Driver?
And what does Tony Stewart have to do to break the record?

ATLANTA (Jan. 31, 2001) - Who is the winningest third-year NASCAR Winston Cup Series driver and should anyone care?

Well, Tony Stewart might care. After winning a record three races during his rookie campaign in 1999, Stewart won a record six races during his sophomore year. Entering the 2001 season, Stewart can score racing's version of the hat trick by becoming the winningest third-year Winston Cup driver.

The arcane statistic can be reached if the #20 Home Depot Pontiac driver earns eight wins, nine wins, 12 wins or 15 wins.

Why all the scenarios? Because figuring out who is the winningest third-year Winston Cup driver is a little tricky.

Upon delving into the history books, some questions arise. What defines a third-year Winston Cup driver? Is it the third year after his rookie year, or is it his third full year of Winston Cup racing? Is all of NASCAR's history taken into account, or just its modern era (1972 to present)?

That being said, here are some possible candidates:

Bill Elliott - The Dawsonville, Ga., native's first year in Winston Cup came in 1976 with his family-owned race team. He ran eight races that year, before running 10 races each year in 1977 and 1978. Elliott ran another 10 races with his own team in 1979, but also ran an additional three races for Roger Hamby. An 11-race season followed by a 13-race season with Elliott Racing took place in 1980 and 1981 before Elliott teamed with Harry Melling in 1982. Twenty-one races were credited to Elliott before he became a full-time Winston Cup driver in 1983. Elliott scored one win in 1983, three wins in 1984 and an astounding 11 wins in 1985.

Is Elliott the winningest third-year Winston Cup driver? That depends on how you view his record. After his rookie year in 1976, Elliott competed on a limited basis for six more years before joining the Winston Cup ranks full-time. If Elliott was a rookie in 1976, his zero wins in 1978 obviously do not make him the winningest third-year driver. But if you consider that Elliott's full-time Cup career began in 1983, then his 11-win season in 1985 does make him the winningest driver.

David Pearson - Pearson's first year in Winston Cup, or Grand National (as that is what it was called in Pearson's early days), was 1960. As a rookie, he ran 22 races out of 60, with a best finish of second. He ran 19 races the next year and won three of them, only to go winless in 12 races in 1962. On those merits, Pearson is not the winningest third-year driver.

However, Pearson never really ran a full season, with the exception of 1964, when he ran all 61 races for Cotton Owens. If one believes that Pearson's career really began in 1964, then two years later in 1966, the Spartanburg, S.C., native scored 14 victories while running in 42 events en route to the series championship, besting Elliott's 11-win total. But in his "sophomore" year Pearson only ran in 14 races. Does that mean Pearson never really was a full-time driver, and that his third year needs to be 1962?

Fonty Flock - Going way back to 1951, when there were a total of 41 races on the schedule - many of which were held at dirt tracks - Decatur, Ga.'s Fonty Flock scored eight victories in his third-year on the NASCAR circuit. He also scored a record 13 poles, three of which came on dirt. Does Flock hold the record for most wins by a junior-year driver, despite the era in which he accomplished his feats?

Jeff Gordon - Gordon is perhaps the easiest driver to pinpoint. His rookie year was 1993, as was his first full Winston Cup season. The Pittsboro, Ind., native has been a full-time Winston Cup competitor ever since. Gordon didn't win any races in his first year on the circuit, but he did manage to score two wins in 1994. In his third year, however, Gordon nailed seven victories en route to his first Winston Cup championship.

Gordon's case is pretty cut and dry. He was a rookie in 1993 with only one prior Winston Cup start to his record, yet two years later he won seven races in a single season. It should also be noted that Gordon's mark, since it is the most recent, was obtained during the most competitive year, comparatively, of the four candidates. If the "modern-era" designation is applied, as well as the notion that a third-year driver's career began during his rookie season, then Gordon is the winningest third-year driver.

Hmmmmm - the winningest third-year Winston Cup driver is - This sounds like a job for Bob Latford.

(Bob Latford, while recently retired, is a NASCAR fixture credited with helping to invent the current point system used in Winston Cup today. His 50-plus years as a NASCAR historian make him the unofficial dean of statistical and anecdotal NASCAR information. - Ed.)

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Bill Elliott , Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , David Pearson