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The Seven Greatest Seasons in NASCAR Cup Series History

| December 19, 2021 6:53 am PDT

There are so many factors that go into having a historic NASCAR season. Wins, top fives, top 10s, laps led, and average finish are the key aspects, but there is much more.

Over time, NASCAR has changed so much that it’s hard to compare a season from the 1970s to the 2020s. Still, we can use the numbers to compare the greatest seasons in NASCAR history.

This list will only feature seasons from the Modern Era (1972-present). That’s why you won’t see Richard Petty’s historic 27-win season.

Here are the seven greatest seasons in NASCAR Cup Series history.

7. Cale Yarborough (1978)

Before Jimmie Johnson set a record with five straight championships, it was Cale Yarborough that held the mark for most consecutive titles.

Following back-to-back championships in 1976 and 1977, Yarborough was looking to extend the streak.

Truthfully, his season didn’t get off to the best of starts. He won the opening race at Riverside, but that was his only win in the first nine races. He led over 35 laps in seven of those nine races, but also had four finishes of 15th or worse.

Over the next eight races, Yarborough began his march for a third straight title.

  • 4 wins
  • 8 top-5 finishes
  • 1,206 laps led
  • 2.1 average finish

His win at Nashville Speedway moved him into the points lead. Yarborough led all 420 laps of the race. Four races later, the Cup Series returned to Nashville. This time, he led 411 of 420 laps in the victory.

Yarborough had a 26th place finish at Pocono, but he bounced back with eight straight top-five finishes. That stretch included four wins, with a pair of back-to-back wins. He also led over 325 laps at Bristol and Martinsville.

He won his ninth and final race of the season at Rockingham. Yarborough led 376 of 492 laps. He closed the season with an eighth and second place finish.

The championship battle wasn’t even close. Yarborough finished 474 points ahead of Bobby Allison. For reference, the most points you could earn in a season during this time period was 185.

That’s over a 2.5 race buffer.

Yarborough’s final numbers were 10 wins, 23 top-five finishes, 24 top 10 finishes, 3,587 laps led, and a 6.0 average finish. And of course, he won a then record third straight championship.

But was it the best season of his championship run?

6. Cale Yarborough (1977)

I guess not.

One year before winning his third title, Cale Yarborough had a championship season that I feel was a little better than his 1978 season.

Unlike his 1978 season, Yarborough’s 1977 season got off to a great start. He led 102 of the 119 laps before finishing second in the season-opener at Riverside. He won three of the next five races and led over 130 laps in four of those races.

Following a 16th place finish at Darlington, Yarborough went on a crazy tear.

Yarborough’s Run After Darlington
Track Starting Position Finishing Position Laps Led
Bristol 1st 1st 495
Martinsville 5th 1st 243
Talladega 5th 2nd 29
Nashville 3rd 2nd 275
Dover 6th 1st 141

Despite finishing sixth or better in four of his next five races, Yarborough lost the points lead to Richard Petty, Yarborough quickly gained it back with a second-place finish at Talladega.

Yarborough picked up his eighth win of the season and second at Bristol after leading 299 of 400 laps. Four races later, he did the same at Martinsville. This time, he led 352 laps.

In the end, it wasn’t even a battle for the championship. Yarborough defeated Petty by 386 points.

Over the final 14 races, Yarborough only won twice. However, his consistency was off the charts. He never finished worse than sixth in that stretch. Compare that to Petty who had four finishes of 20th or worse.

For the 1977 season, his final stats were nine wins, 25 top-five finishes, 27 top 10 finishes, 3,218 laps led, and an average finish of 4.5.

It’s interesting to compare his 1977 and 1978 seasons because they are so close in every category. I liked the 1977 one a little better because of its consistency. A 4.5 average finish is unreal in any time period.

5. Kyle Larson (2021)

This one is still fresh in a lot of people’s minds. Kyle Larson’s 2021 season is what happens when you take the best driver and put him in the best car.

After missing most of the 2020 season due to suspension, Larson returned in 2021 with Hendrick Motorsports. Coming into the season, Larson had six career wins in 223 starts. It only took him four to capture his first victory of 2021.

Larson led 103 of 267 laps at Las Vegas to capture his first victory with Hendrick Motorsports. Over the next 10 races, Larson had multiple coulda woulda shoulda’s. He finished second four times, leading over 260 laps at Atlanta and Dover. He also led 132 laps at Kansas before dropping back late.

Following that stretch, the luck finally turned Larson’s way.

Larson’s Luck Returns
Track Starting Position Finishing Position Laps Led
Charlotte 1st 1st 327
Sonoma 1st 1st 57
Nashville 5th 1st 264
Nashville 3rd 2nd 275

In between Sonoma and Nashville, Larson also won the All-Star Race.

His fifth win of the season came at Watkins Glen. His regular-season success propelled him to the regular-season title.

In the playoffs, Larson won the Round of 16 finale at Bristol. He faced adversity in the Round of 12 at the Charlotte Roval. His team overcame battery issues to score the victory. From there, Larson advanced to the Championship 4 with victories at Texas and Kansas.

Larson didn’t have the best car in the season finale, but a clutch pit stop propelled him from fourth to first. Larson held off Martin Truex Jr. to win the race and capture his first career championship.

Here’s his acceptance speech for the title win.

All in all, he became the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win 10 races. Larson also had 20 top-five finishes, 26 top 10 finishes, 2,581 laps led, and an average finish of 9.1.

His 2,581 laps led broke the record for most in a 36-race season.

That’s domination.

4. Darrell Waltrip (1981)

Coming into the 1981 season, Darrell Waltrip was one of the top drivers in NASCAR. However, he was still looking for his first career championship.

Early in the season, people were unsure if he could achieve that. Waltrip had four wins in his first nine races, but he also had four finishes of 17th or worse. In this era, it took more than wins to win the championship.

Waltrip went on a six-race winless streak but hit his stride in the second half of the season.

Following a 30th place finish at Texas World Speedway, Waltrip never finished outside the top 10 in the final 17 races.

He kicked off the stretch with three wins in five races. He dominated Pocono and Martinsville, leading a combined 423 of 620 laps. Over his next six races, he only had one win, but never finished worse than third. That consistency allowed him to take the points lead with seven races remaining.

Going into the final six races of the season, Waltrip led the standings by a mere two points. That’s when Waltrip took control with a dominant stretch.

Waltrip Goes for the Kill
Track Starting Position Finishing Position Laps Led
Martinsville 1st 1st 149
North Wilkesboro 1st 1st 318
Charlotte 1st 1st 127
Rockingham 1st 1st 163

By the end of that stretch, he led the standings by 68 points. A second and sixth place finish in the final two races earned him his first career title.

In the end, Waltrip won 12 races and had 21 top-five finishes, 26 top 10 finishes, 2,517 laps led, and an average finish of 7.2. There’s something to be said for stepping up when it matters most. That’s exactly what Waltrip did.

His 1982 season could’ve made this list as well. He won 12 races en route to his second championship.

3. Richard Petty (1975)

When you win 200 races and seven championships, any season can make this list. However, only two of Richard Petty’s championships came in the Modern Era. He had a great 1974 season, but 1975 was a little better.

Following a pair of seventh-place finishes to start the season, Petty won four of the following five races. He led at least 170 laps in each victory.

After that, he had one win in his next four races. On the other hand, he finished seventh or worse in the other three races. That set up an unbelievable run of consistency.

Stats over his next 12 races
  • 6 wins
  • 12 top-3 finishes
  • 1,054 laps led
  • 1.6 average finish

The first race of that stretch was a third-place finish at Dover. He finished top two over the next 11 races. That is incredible.

That stretch put him a massive 862 points ahead of second-place Dave Marcis. At that point, the championship was in the bag. It’s a good thing because he had a poor finish to the season.

Petty won two of the final seven races, but he also finished outside the top 15 four times. He wasn’t running bad, but engine troubles typically ended his day early.

Even with the rough stretch, he won the title by 722 points.

His sixth championship came with 13 wins, 21 top-five finishes, 24 top 10 finishes, 3,158 laps led, and an average finish of 6.6.

Before the Modern Era, Petty had five seasons with at least 14 wins. That success carried over into the Modern Era.

In 1975, he put together his best season of the Modern Era.

2. Dale Earnhardt (1987)

When it comes to the G.O.A.T discussion, most people seem to give Richard Petty an edge over Dale Earnhardt when talking about the greatest NASCAR drivers ever.

When it comes to the most dominant season, though, Earnhardt had the advantage. Earnhardt came into the 1987 season looking to win his second straight title and third overall. It didn’t take long for people to realize he was in a class of his own.

Check out what he did in the first eight races.

Earnhardt’s Insane Start
Track Starting Position Finishing Position Laps Led
Daytona 13th 5th 16
Rockingham 14th 1st 319
Richmond 3rd 1st 235
Atlanta 1st 16th 196
Darlington 2nd 1st 239
North Wilkesboro 3rd 1st 319
Bristol 3rd 1st 134
Martinsville 4th 1st 156

Uh, wow. The competition never had a chance. Through eight races, Earnhardt led the standings by 157 points.

Earnhardt went five races without finishing top three, which I have to imagine seemed shocking at the time. That all changed when he won two of the following three races.

A few races later, Earnhardt had another historic run. He won three straight races, leading a combined 744 of 1,102 laps. By then, he had an over 600-point lead with seven races remaining.

In those final seven races, Earnhardt had multiple close calls. He had four second-place finishes, leading over 120 laps in all four races.

Earnhardt’s fantastic season resulted in his third championship. He won a career-high 11 races and had 21 top-five finishes, 24 top 10 finishes, 3,357 laps led, and an average finish of 5.9.

When you have someone like Earnhardt who was so good for so long, it’s interesting to see which of his seasons was the best. The 1987 season takes the cake as he set a career-high in every category except for top 10 finishes.

1. Jeff Gordon (1998)

By 1998, Jeff Gordon had established himself as the best driver in NASCAR. He won the title in 1995 and 1997, and won 10 races in 1996.

It was going to be tough to top those three seasons, but Gordon was up for the task. Early in the season, Gordon was good, but not great. He won two of the first six races, but also had three finishes outside the top 15.

Following a 31st place finish at Texas, Gordon had five straight top 10s. That included a victory at Charlotte and a third at Dover, despite leading 375 of 400 laps.

A crash at Richmond dropped him to third in the standings. At this point, they were 13 races into the season, with 20 to go. For the remainder of the season, Gordon went on a tear that cemented his spot on this list.

He kicked off the stretch with a third and second place finish. Then, we saw the peak of his historic run.

Jeff Gordon’s Epic Finish
Track Starting Position Finishing Position Laps Led
Sonoma 1st 1st 48
New Hampshire 2nd 3rd 73
Pocono 2nd 1st 164
Indianapolis 3rd 1st 97
Watkins Glen 1st 1st 55
Michigan 3rd 1st 9
Bristol 7th 5th 0
New Hampshire 1st 1st 68
Darlington 5th 1st 64

When that stretch began, Gordon was second in the standings, 36 points behind Jeremy Mayfield. After Darlington, he had a 199-point lead over Mark Martin.

While the wins slowed down, the consistency didn’t. Gordon finished second in four of his next five races.

He closed the season with three wins in his last four races.

What’s unbelievable about this championship season is his 19 top-five finishes in the last 20 races. There’s just no way someone is going to beat you when you’re running that well.

Gordon’s overall numbers are 13 wins, 26 top-five finishes, 28 top 10 finishes, 1,717 laps led, and an average finish of 5.7.

Other Great NASCAR Seasons

  • Jimmie Johnson (2007)
  • Martin Truex Jr. (2017)

In 2007, Jimmie Johnson battled Jeff Gordon all season for the championship. In the end, Johnson won four straight playoff races to steal the title. Overall, he had a career-high 10 victories.

Martin Truex Jr. came into the 2017 season with seven career wins. He won eight races and led 2,253 laps en route to his first championship.

For more NASCAR content, check out the following articles.

Nicholas Sterling

Nicholas has been a Sports Writer with GamblingSites.com since May 2021. He has a rich sports background, writing about NASCAR, NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, Golf, etc. Nick is always ready for a new challenge.

He enjoys rooting on D.C. sports teams, including the Commanders, Wizards, and Capitals.

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