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Behind the Numbers: Ranking the 10 best Top Fuel seasons in the Countdown era

Steve Torrence just swept the Countdown to the Championship -- but does that mean he had the best Top Fuel season since 2008? Let the debate begin.
11 Dec 2018
Jacob Sundstrom, NHRA National Dragster Associate Editor
Behind the Numbers
Steve Torrence

Steve Torrence swept the 2018 Countdown to the Championship en route to his first Top Fuel title. He became the first to win all six playoff races, which, in addition to sports media's affinity for recency bias, led to some predictable hyperbole.

That doesn’t make comparing single-season performances easy. At least, not if done in a sensible way. Stacking #winz, consecutive or not, up against one another is problematic at best, as is comparing point totals (even if done relative to the rest of the field).

So, I decided to take the first part of the offseason to dive into the numbers to see where Torrence’s great 2018 campaign stacks up against other magnificent Top Fuel seasons in the 1,000-foot era. First, I needed to come up with a way to assign a number to every season (here comes math, I’m sorry).

The stat, which I’ve labeled win points (WP for short) accounts for average elapsed time (minus the class average), average reaction time, and success rate (how often the car gets down the track). The formula is: (average elapsed time – class average elapsed time) – (success rate/10) + average reaction time. A lower number is better and the result, for a good season, anyway, will result in a negative number. So, the more negative … the better. I’m sorry.

Using the class average e.t. subtracted from the racer’s average e.t. makes the number comparable from year to year. The class average e.t. includes the top 60 percent of runs from that year and is based on both qualifying and elimination runs from 2016-2018. For years before that, I use only elimination runs based on data availability; there is not a major difference in average e.t. between qualifying and eliminations, so I prefer to use both when possible because it gives us more data.

So, since most of you skipped all that noise to get to the list, let’s get on with it. I included every season champion on my list and every driver with a score of -0.020 and lower. The average score of a champion is -0.033, which is just -.002 higher than the overall list average. There are 30 total racers on the list and 11 champions. It’s fair to say any racer within .001 or .002 points of another is negligible and up for debate — which will become important as we get further up the list.

To make things a little easier on the eyes, you can see this whole list sorted by WP from 1-10 at the bottom of the article. 

10. Steve Torrence — 2016

Finish: Second

Average E.T.: 3.767

Class Average E.T.: 3.789

Average R.T.: .0728

Success Rate: 84.7%

WP: -.034

We talk a lot about Torrence’s missed-it-by-that-much 2017 campaign, but the Texan also put together an incredible 2016 season that deserves nearly as much acclaim. The difference in 2016? His good buddy Antron Brown raced even better.

9. Tony Schumacher — 2008

Finish: First

Average E.T.: 3.884

Class Average E.T.: 3.904

Average R.T.: .0718

Success Rate: 86.4

WP: -.035

First: Only races following Englishtown were used to calculate these stats (so, 1,000-foot races only). Second: This is the gold standard for those who want to use the #winz argument over everything else, but frankly Schumacher had a great year against so-so competition, which makes some of those wins a little hollow when stacking them up against others on this list.

8. Antron Brown — 2016

Finish: First

Average E.T.: 3.776

Class Average E.T.: 3.789

Average R.T.: .0544

Success Rate: 80%

WP: -.039

Brown won his second straight championship with a very quick, very consistent race car — but the obvious eye-popper here is his reaction-time average. The next closest to Brown in reaction-time average was Shawn Langdon, who averaged a .0569 light.

7. Tony Schumacher — 2012

Finish: Second

Average E.T.: 3.809

Class Average E.T.: 3.829

Average R.T.: .0616

Success Rate: 80.4%

WP: -.039

Schumacher let this season get away from him in a big way. He finished behind teammate Brown by only seven points and had the better average e.t. and success rate (the latter by a wide margin). We’ll call it a fair trade, though — Brown won with the lowest WP of any champ in the Countdown era (-.019) … except for the previous year, when Schumacher won the a -.011.

6. Larry Dixon — 2010

Finish: First

Average E.T.: 3.861

Class Average E.T.: 3.895

Average R.T.: .0772

Success Rate: 84.3%

WP: -.041

Dixon’s Top Fueler was a full hundredth quicker than the next quickest car (Schumacher at 3.874), and it was the only dragster to get down the track more than 80 percent of the time. That made Dixon the champion, and it also easily puts him in the top 10 on our list.

5. Spencer Massey — 2011

Finish: Second

Average E.T.: 3.866

Class Average E.T.: 3.885

Average R.T.: .0566

Success Rate: 78.2%

WP: -.041

This is in the hall of fame of second-place finishes. The wheels came off Massey’s season during the Countdown, as the racer failed to qualify in Dallas and ended up 58 points behind Del Worsham when the season wrapped up.

4. Antron Brown – 2017

Finish: Fourth

Average E.T.: 3.749

Class Average E.T.: 3.78

Average R.T.: .0601

Success Rate: 73%

WP: -.044

No, Brown is not the first person you think of when I mention Top Fuel racers who had great 2017 seasons but did not win the championship — and I’m not saying he should be, either. But man did the Matco Tools team have a ton of bad luck prior to the departure of Brian Corradi. Want to make an argument for his value? Brown’s WP made a .029 change from season to season. Yikes.

3. Steve Torrence – 2017

Finish: Second

Average E.T.: 3.753

Class Average E.T.: 3.78

Average R.T.: .0606

Success Rate: 80.2%

WP: -.047

So, we have arrived at the Torrence block of the tour. Great reaction times, an incredible dragster in terms of speed and consistency. Yep, it’s all here — but a bit of bad luck and failure to perform during the playoffs cost the Capco Contractors team its first championship down the stretch. That doesn’t take away from what was by far one of the best seasons of all time.

2. Steve Torrence — 2018

Finish: First

Average E.T.: 3.781

Class Average E.T.: 3.825

Average R.T.: .0709

Success Rate: 75.2%

WP: -.049

What’s most impressive about Torrence’s championship season is how well crew chiefs Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana responded to the track prep changes. The average e.t. dropped less than three hundredths of a second while the class average e.t. went down more than four hundredths. Torrence was competitive on the Tree (nearly a hundredth above the class average) and the dragster was silky smooth down the track.

1. Antron Brown – 2015

Finish: First

Average E.T.: 3.777

Class Average E.T.: 3.798

Average R.T.: .054

Success Rate: 82.6%

WP: -.050

It’s a coin flip between this season and the one put together by Torrence in 2018, but damn Brown killed it en route to his second title. Not only was he quicker than everyone down the track, he smashed the Tree (again) and his dragster made it down nearly every single time he hit the gas. There’s a great debate on top of this list, but man is it hard to argue against what Brown did to lock up his second title against one of the best fields in modern Top Fuel racing: Tony Schumacher, Shawn Langdon, J.R. Todd, Doug Kalitta, Spencer Massey, Richie Crampton, Larry Dixon, and Steve Torrence.