Ranking the 20 greatest NASCAR drivers of all time
Feb 21, 2012 4:31p ET
Who's No. 1?
Some things in life are up for debate. Others, like the 20 greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, are more clear. Petty, Earnhardt, Gordon, Johnson — NASCAR has a host of legendary drivers from many eras. But who’s really the greatest? FOXSports.com ranks the 20 best drivers of all time.
Do you agree?
Born in 1940, Gant enjoyed a stellar NASCAR career – one marked by success into his 40s and 50s. He was strong off and on throughout his racing career, finishing in the top 10 eight times. His best season, in terms of the standings, came in 1984 when he finished third in the standings. But it was in 1991 when he earned the most wins of his career. That year, Gant won five races overall, including three in a row, and finished fourth overall. For his career he earned 18 wins. He had 208 top-10 finishes, 123 of them top fives, and 17 pole positions. In addition, he earned 21 Nationwide Series wins despite running a limited schedule there.
Not everyone driver has to win a Sprint Cup title to prove they are a champion. Mark Martin has been the consummate pro and achieved many accomplishments despite falling short in the biggest column – championships won (finishing runner-up five times in his career). Since starting his Sprint Cup career in 1980, he has won 40 times, snagged 51 pole positions (eighth most all time) and earned over $85 million in earnings. Add in his accomplishments in NASCAR's other top divisions (49 Nationwide Series wins, second-most all time, and seven Truck Series victories) and it shows he deserves to be amongst champions.
When 1989 Sprint Cup Series champ retired in 2005, he had established himself one of the elite drivers of his era. He is eighth on NASCAR's all-time win list (55 wins) and his 697 consecutive starts is second only to Ricky Rudd's Ironman streak (788 races).He led the series with 10 wins in 1993 finishing runner-up to his great rival and friend Dale Earnhardt by only 80 points and led the series in wins (eight) again the next year. His nine career wins at Bristol Motor Speedway is second only to Darrell Waltrip's 12 and only Waltrip and the legendary Richard Petty visited Martinsville Speedway's Victory Lane more. At a time when NASCAR drivers specialized in ovals, Wallace was a road course master. His six wins on road courses was tops among his generation and a mark not overtaken until a couple young kids named Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart came along.
Roberts raced over the course of just 15 years, but he made a heavy impact on the sport. A native of Daytona Beach, Fla., he made 206 career starts. He earned 33 wins in that stretch. Roberts also raced to 32 pole positions. He earned 122 top-10 finishes, 93 of them top fives. Overall, he finished in the top-10 in the standings six times, including a career-best second in 1950. In addition, Roberts earned four wins in 16 starts in the Convertible Series.
Call him what you want - "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville." "Million Dollar Bill," "Mr. Popular" – he is simply a legend. The Georgia native has scored an impressive 44 wins and has 55 poles to his Cup record and won the 1988 championship. He also was the first driver in NASCAR history to win "The Winston Million" – by taking the checkered flag in the sports three prestigious races (The Daytona 500, The Winston 500 at Talladega and the Southern 500 at Darlington). He was so popular with the fans that he "retired" from the National Motorsports Press Association's Most Popular Driver contest after winning it 16 times.
In 27 seasons, Labonte amassed two championships and 22 wins. Labonte holds the distinction of having the longest drought between Cup titles – 12 seasons. Labonte has also posted wins and poles in each of NASCAR's top three tours. Throughout his career, Texas Terry was one of the sport's most popular competitors as the crowd proved at Thunder Valley when Dale Earnhardt "rattled his cage" or dumped Labonte for the win in the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1999.
Flock, part of a famous racing family, won two NASCAR Cup titles during his career – in 1952 and 55. A native of Fort Payne, Ala., he competed from 1949-61, making 187 career starts. He won 39 races in that stretch for a winning percentage of 20.86 percent, the second best all-time. He also earned 37 career pole positions. Flock also won NASCAR's only sports-car race, in 1955. Flock ranks 18th on NASCAR's all-time wins list.
No other driver in the last seven seasons has made a splash in NASCAR with the flair of Kyle Busch. Although this former protégé has endured his share of growing pains, his accomplishments, which include 104 victories among NASCAR's top three tours, certainly make up for his mercurial nature. What makes the 26-year-old's endeavors more impressive, however, is that he hasn't even reached his prime. Who knows what the next decade will bring?
"Gentlemen Ned" had a comparatively short Cup career (13 years), but he accomplished things that drivers with twice as long in a race car can only dream about. He has 50 career wins in the series (tied for 10th on all-time list), earned 35 pole positions, earned three NASCAR championships in 1961, 1964 and '65, won 28 races during those final two championship seasons, won the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway by 14 laps (17.5 miles, still the largest margin of victory in NASCAR Sprint Cup history) and won two championships in the Sportsman Division (1957 and 1958).
Known as a legendary car owner, Johnson wasn't too shabby behind the wheel too, recording 50 career Cup wins (tied for 10th all-time), 46 career poles (ninth all-time) and winning the 1960 Daytona 500. He is also credited with discovering drafting at superspeedways.
The Indiana-native has been a force to watch throughout his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. Stewart is capable of striking quickly and rolling off a series of wins at any time. He's a three-time champion, winning titles in 2002, 2005 and 2011, winning his latest as an owner/driver with his Stewart-Haas Racing team. Stewart has a worst career finish of 11th in the standings in 12 seasons of Cup competition. He has 44 wins as well as 266 top-10 finishes, 162 of them top fives. He has 13 pole positions to his credit. Stewart has won at least one race in every season he has competed at the Cup level.
Petty was the start of an empire in NASCAR – in more ways than one. Not only was he the patriarch of the famed Petty Enterprises, but he also was the first driver to win the Daytona 500 in an epic three-wide finish that took three days to determine the winner, and he also became the first three-time Cup winner in history. He competed from 1949-64, making 427 starts, won 54 times (ninth on the all-time list and tops at the time) and won 18 poles. One significant contribution you won't find within the numbers is that Petty also helped develop safety innovations like roll bars and window nets.
A charter member of the "Alabama Gang," Allison checked off all the major accomplishments drivers yearn for before his untimely retirement due to injuries in 1988. He Earned 84 career victories (tied for fourth all-time with Darrell Waltrip) in 718 starts, 58 career pole positions, won the 1983 NASCAR Cup championship, earned three Daytona 500 wins, two NASCAR Modified Division championship in 1964 and '65 and won two NASCAR Modified Special Division titles in 1962-63. He was inducted in NASCAR's Hall of Fame in 2011.
Known as Jaws for his outspokenness, the Hall of Famer certainly backed it up. In his illustrious career, DW earned three NASCAR Cup championships (1982, '82, '85), 84 career victories (tied for fourth all-time with Bobby Allison), 59 pole positions (fifth all-time), and continues to hold the record for most wins at Bristol Motor Speedway with 12 wins (including an epic seven straight from 1981-1984). Outside the car, he was a successful team owner, winning in all three major NASCAR national series before embarking on a television career.
Before there was Jimmie Johnson, there was Cale Yarborough. NASCAR's original dynasty, Yarborough won three-straight championships from 1976-78. The Hall-of-Famer also won 83 NASCAR Cup races (including 28 during his championship run), won 68 pole positions during his career and was series runner-up in 1973, '74 and '80.
It's hard to believe that the driver once known as "the kid" is now 40 and a four-time champion with 85 wins. Gordon is tied for third on the all-time win list with Bobby Allison and trails just Richard Petty (200) and David Pearson (105). Gordon leads all drivers with 64 short track wins, 12 restrictor plate wins and nine road course victories. With the exception of Homestead-Miami Speedway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule in 2011), Gordon has visited victory lane at all current tracks on the calendar. While Gordon is a lock for a first ballot election to the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his on-track accomplishments alone, the California native should also be credited with bringing NASCAR out of the South and into the mainstream.
For all intent and purposes, Jimmie Johnson was a complete unknown when Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon took a shot on him in 2001. JJ's sole highlight reel consisted of climbing out of a destroyed car that shot nose first into a tire barrier. However, nine seasons later, NASCAR had its first five-time consecutive championship. If Johnson's titles weren't amazing enough, his ability to finish each of those first nine seasons among the top five in the point standings, resulting in becoming the only driver to qualify for every Chase for the Sprint Cup, simply accentuates his legend. Oh, and don't forget his 55 career wins and 25 poles to date.
There's only one Intimidator. And unfortunately, Dale Earnhardt was taken from the sport he loved too early. Certainly, there were those that believed Earnhardt was destined to win that eighth championship in 2001. Still, his body of work – seven titles and 76 Cup wins -- would easily qualify him for any hall of fame. Earnhardt also collected 21 Busch Series (now Nationwide Series) wins in just 136 starts. As an owner, Dale Earnhardt Inc. provided equipment for four NNS championships and two truck titles.
Pearson was one of the best drivers to ever wheel a stock car, as his impressive statistics and induction into NASCAR's Hall of Fame show. He sits second on NASCAR's all-time wins list with 105 victories and earned a trio of Cup titles despite running less than a full schedule throughout his career. Pearson won his titles in 1966, '68 and '69. He also snared 113 pole positions in his career, also second only to Richard Petty. In one of his top career runs he won 27 races and finished as the race runner-up 30 times in a stretch that spanned 1968-69.
There's a reason that to this day, Petty is simply known as The King in and outside of NASCAR circles. He has seven Cup championships (tied for most all-time), 200 Cup wins (most all-time), 123 Cup poles (most all-time), 27 wins in one season (1967, most all-time), 1,027 career starts (most all-time) 10 consecutive wins (1967, most all-time), seven-time Daytona 500 winner (most all-time).