Don't let Jimmie Johnson's career statistics fool you. Most drivers have a disappointing season or two over the course of their Sprint Cup careers.
It can happen for any number of reasons, from a slow car to a team's inner turmoil to simply a lack of confidence behind the wheel. But there's often a season on every driver's stat sheet that sticks out like a sore thumb, an anomaly that sees a top driver slip from the sharp end of the field to the middle of it.
This list is designed to rank those seasons.
Fans may read this as a modern era-heavy list, and it's the truth; you won't see a lot of the sport's legends here. Many of them retired early (Ned Jarrett, for example), transitioned into part-time schedules before they passed their prime (Cale Yarborough and David Pearson), or just dropped off gradually instead of all at once (Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip).
Those factors, plus the fact that the field wasn't quite as deep as it is today—in that fewer drivers had cars capable of winning races—keep a lot of legends from making appearances.
There are two kinds of seasons that generally make this list. The first is when a driver follows up a really good season with a really bad one; there are a lot of those present, and many should be apparent to recent fans.
The second is when a driver posts magical numbers, in some cases career bests, only to lose the championship. Let's be honest—running that well and losing a title, for any reason, is a disappointment.
Without further ado, here are the 10 seasons that should have left drivers the most frustrated in the Cup ranks:
It may seem early to include anything from 2013 with two-thirds of the races remaining on the schedule, but this season has the potential to be far and away the greatest struggle of Tony Stewart's career. For a driver who has never finished a Cup season worse than 11th in points (and that happened only once, in 2006), his current rank—21st—is simply unacceptable.
Stewart hasn't won since last year's summer Daytona race. His only top 10 of the season came at Phoenix, in the second race of the season, and he hasn't been in the top 20 of points since Las Vegas. With only six lead-lap finishes and 18 laps led, there's a ton to improve upon for the three-time champion, who won't be happy with how his season turns out if it continues at this pace.
Take your pick here. When Carl Edwards chases a championship, having fallen just short twice now, the following year is inevitably a letdown.
Edwards' combined stats from 2008 and 2011, the two years he finished second in points are: 10 wins, 38 top fives, 53 top 10s, and an average finish of 9.4.
His combined stats from 2009 and 2012: no wins, 10 top fives, 27 top 10s and an average finish of 15.3. He ranked 11th in points in 2009 and 15th last season.
If not for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Jeff Gordon's five wins and 11.4 average finish would have been good enough for the championship in 2004. Instead, he finished third, not a bad run, but one that should have been better.
The next season, Gordon would miss the Chase entirely. Three wins in the season's first nine races, including the Daytona 500, would yield to three consecutive crashes in the early summer and a struggle to climb back into the top 10.
When it didn't happen, he fell to as low as 17th during the Chase, only clawing back to 11th after scoring a win and three other top 10s in the final four races of the year.
For the fourth time in his career, Mark Martin finished second in Cup points in 2002, this time falling to Tony Stewart. But for all the promise of that season, the following year was the worst of Martin's career up to that point.
2003 was the third winless season for the No. 6 team since 1996. Martin fell to 17th in points, the lowest he ever ranked as a full-time driver, with a miserable five top fives and 10 top 10s. He would do worse only once, finishing 22nd in 2011, but it was clear then that he was on the way out at Hendrick Motorsports and running with an afterthought team.
New Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett was one of the sport's best at his peak, winning 32 races (including three Daytona 500s) and the 1999 championship. But his skills seemed to erode almost instantaneously in 2003 when he fell from ninth in points the previous year to 26th.
The year started off well, with a 10th-place finish at Daytona and victory in Rockingham. But the next week at Las Vegas, Jarrett crashed out and finished 41st. After finishing 21st at Atlanta, he fell out of the top 10 in points for good; he wouldn't finish in the top five again until the following summer at Michigan.
Ricky Rudd had an epic streak of 16 consecutive seasons with a Cup victory from 1983 to 1998. That would come to an end in a dismal 1999 season, which saw him finish 31st in points with only three top fives and five top 10s while going through three crew chiefs (Bill Ingle, Dan Stillman and Michael McSwain).
The No. 10 team, which Rudd had established in 1994, was on its way out anyhow; the Tide sponsorship was due to migrate to PPI Racing in 2000, and he couldn't find a replacement. Then again, that worked out for the best; Rudd would land a ride at Robert Yates Racing and pull out a points finish of fifth in 2000 and fourth in 2001.
How does a 10-win season rank as a disappointment?
When the driver who beats you for the championship, your teammate, only won two races.
Gordon fell to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Terry Labonte in 1996, despite the fact that Gordon had eight more wins and both drivers were equal in top fives (21) and top 10s (24). The difference came in average finish: Labonte's was 8.2, while Gordon's was 9.5 (owing to five finishes of 31st or worse, including DNFs in the first two races of the season).
For the purposes of this list, 10-win seasons in the modern era that do not result in championships are disappointments. That's exactly what happened to Rusty Wallace in 1993, as he fell to Dale Earnhardt in points, despite winning five of the final eight races of the season.
Interestingly enough, Wallace didn't win the championship in either of his best seasons, statistically speaking. In 1988, he had career highs in top fives (19), top 10s (23) and average finish (7.1), only to be beaten by Bill Elliott.
He had a career high in wins in 1993, tied his high in top fives and came close in both top 10s (21) and average result (9.4), losing the title by 80 points.
From 1986 to 1995, Dale Earnhardt finished in the top three in Cup points every year except for one. That year was 1992, when he fell from two consecutive championships to a dismal 12th; he posted an average finish of 14.9, his worst since 1983, while failing to finish four races for the first time since 1986.
Earnhardt had nothing to do with the epic battle for the championship in that year's season finale at Atlanta, having fallen out of the top 10 in points for good at Martinsville that fall. Luckily for him, 1992 was an aberration. After winning the previous two titles in 1990 and 1991, "The Intimidator" followed up his stinker with two more titles in 1993 and 1994.
The rest of this list has been comprised purely of drivers, but this one deserves an exception.
Anytime a new manufacturer comes into a series, expectations should be guarded, but nobody expected Toyota to fail as spectacularly as they did in 2007.
From the jet fuel incident at Daytona, to numerous DNQs (though they weren't exactly helped by NASCAR's top-35 rule), to a driver lineup that never panned out (top finisher Brian Vickers was 38th in points with 13 DNQs), the year was an unmitigated disaster.
Compare that to Dodge's re-entry into Cup in 2001, which saw Sterling Marlin finish third in points, Bill Elliott break a winless drought that dated back to 1994, and if nothing else, at least performed respectably through its ranks.
2008 would see improvements, but at a cost. Michael Waltrip Racing's third car became an afterthought, Dale Jarrett's retirement was hastened by a 41st-place finish in points and Joe Gibbs Racing was lured to the manufacturer to try and add some credibility.
But there's no doubt—the fact that 2007 was a struggle across the board for every driver in a Toyota makes it the most disappointing single season in Cup history.
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