Now that NASCAR has inducted its first Hall of Famers, its greatest champions will finally have a place to call home. But who’s the best of the bunch? NASCAR on FOX’s analyst Jeff Hammond ranks the greatest drivers to hoist the sport’s top prize.
I look at Lee Petty as the patriarch of so many champions of our sport. Here was a man who not only committed his career, but also his family’s, to NASCAR. A lot of folks may not know that he hauled moonshine at one time, but elected to make things happen in stock car racing. To me, it’s simple. Lee Petty is a legend. He’s one of those guys who ended up wining it all and doing it all. He built the foundation for his son Richard to carry his career to a different level. Lee's just one of those guys that are unfortunately overlooked but did so much for the sport. He was a leader. The people who drove for Petty Enterprises over the years are a "Who’s Who" of NASCAR. He set the bar early on as far as our sport is concerned for others to try and match.
Talent? The man had unbelievable talent. Probably his strongest suit was to design and work on race cars. He led more than any other driver I can think of on engineering cars. His technical ability was phenomenal and unmatched in our sport. On the race track, he was one of the toughest competitors to outsmart or outrun. He definitely was not one bit afraid to mix it up with you. The battles between him and Richard Petty are legendary. Bobby also had the opportunity to drive for some of the best owners in the sport. From Bud Moore to Junior Johnson and Roger Penske, Bobby has been with them all. With Bobby, unfortunately we will never know how far he could have gone following his career-ending accident in 1988 at Pocono. He is a man who truly loves the sport and, I have to say, he maybe was not given his just amount of rewards for what he accomplished. He was someone that a lot of guys learned from, and a hero of so many young drivers.
Smoke is probably one of the most difficult individuals to figure out. When you get to know Tony, he is truly a kid in so many ways. At the same time, he is as passionate as any driver that’s ever come along. I liken him to Cale Yarborough for the passion he displays behind the wheel. There is no give up or quitting in Tony and the devil be damned, he gets the job done. The only thing that is a negative about Tony is that same passion. At times it makes him volatile and that’s not a good thing. He simply is not going to be the guy who is politically correct. While it makes him challenging, it also makes him a lot of fun to watch. His tenacity is derived from his passion. To know the friends of Tony Stewart is to know Tony Stewart. His friends are as true and diehard loyal friends of any I have ever met. He truly believes and cares about the people around him. But when the competitiveness of Tony comes out, he definitely can become a handful.
DW was a Renaissance man. He could win a 600-mile race at Charlotte on Sunday and then be with the President of the United States on Wednesday and be as charming, graceful and businesslike as anybody in politics. When it came to driving and his ability to learn from guys he raced against, I simply don’t know of anyone who did it better in his time. In addition to all that, he could set you up with his mind games even before you got on the track. He had that Ali-like ability to get inside your mind and make it hard for you to stay focused. The thing about Darrell is that he believes in Darrell. That doesn’t make him a bad guy, but it does sometimes make him challenging. He’s got a great heart, a great personality, and he likes being the center of attention. He has what everybody desires when it comes to being a successful athlete. He has the confidence in himself while at the same time having the demeanor and tools to back it up.
When it comes to the "short man," which is what I call him and I do mean short man, the words that fit the best are tenacious and unrelenting. Cale never gave up, nor did he ever give up an inch. He truly was a giant of a man when it came to driving race cars. For me, I was lucky in that I was able to know him, work with him and watch him in his prime. It really was a blessing. The hotter and slicker the racetrack, the better he was. I never ever remember anybody that could take the heat like Cale did. Add to that he would dish out the lap-after-lap attack on his competitors and you can easily see why for 30 years he was our only three-time consecutive NASCAR champion. Don't overlook how smart he was. He just knew what a car was capable of and what he needed to add. There never was another driver that could carry a race car like Cale could. There simply was no one that could do it as well as he did.
Jeff Gordon is one of the guys that showed that you didn’t have to come from the dirt tracks of the Carolinas or be a good ol’ boy to win in NASCAR. His first season driving for Rick Hendrick, many thought he would never make it on the Cup level. But after all these years, his accomplishments have put him among the best race car drivers ever. Jeff is equally as good at short tracks as he is at restrictor-plate venues or road courses. The kid could run on any of these different style tracks and not only win there, but make it look easy. There just isn’t a thing as a “weak racetrack” for him. When he was teamed with Ray Evernham, we truly got to see Jeff Gordon at his finest. With all the media attention and pressure squarely on his shoulders, Gordon flourished. We have all been very fortunate to watch him develop as a person, driver and a great champion for our sport.
David Pearson was called the Silver Fox for so many reasons. His cunning behind the wheel and his ability to know how hard to let a guy race him without David having to race him any harder was quite frankly, uncanny. David was clearly the only one who could match Richard Petty behind the wheel in getting the job done. From the dirt tracks of the Carolina’s and Georgia, all the way to the superspeedway of Daytona, you would find David Pearson. He was truly a master of disguising how good his race car was and never needing to show how good it was until it really mattered. When it came time, he could sure put the whip to it and let it go. The battles between Pearson and Petty were just so much fun to watch. So many people wanted to imitate his driving style, but very few people even got close. Darrell Waltrip will tell you to this day that David was his hero and he wanted to be just like him.
Dale Earnhardt clearly understood how you raced and why you raced. When he finally got his opportunity to make it happen in NASCAR, he went at it like his life depended on it. His whole desire was to equal or pass the King. Dale knew who the leader of the sport was and he knew what he had to do to become a champion. Dale did it by intimidation. That’s not to say that Richard Petty wouldn’t do what it took to win and put a bumper to you when needed, but he did it in a much smoother way. Dale definitely was the Intimidator through and through in everything he did. He just went for it all the time. Watching him drive was just fun because he was just totally fearless. So much to the point, that at times he bordered on reckless. I think some of his wins and some of the situations he found himself in prove that point. You will never find anyone who loved winning, who loved racing and who loved racing hard, more than Dale Earnhardt.
Who better than a young man who literally grew up in the infancy of the sport as a mechanic who ironically wasn't allowed to drive by his dad, to become the King of our sport? When he finally was, he turned a family-run business in a family-run sport on its ear. What sets Richard Petty apart from so many drivers isn't the seven Cup championships or the seven Daytona 500 wins, but the fact that he established himself as a champion of the people. No one can ever argue about how loved and revered Richard is on our sport. He means so much to us and showed us so many of the right things we can do. You could also never, never underestimate the man's driving ability. He could get up on the wheel and outrun the best of them and it didn't matter if it was on dirt, asphalt, short tracks or superspeedways. The records speak for themselves.
The man makes it look so easy that I hate to say this, but sometimes it looks like it is fixed. He’s one of the most talented, smart, persistent drivers you will ever meet but as down-to-Earth a person that there is. Even though he made history by winning five straight titles (and possibly counting), he is one of the most humble guys you will ever meet. He has just accomplished so much in a very short career. His talent is indisputable. He’s just that good no matter where he goes. The other thing I like about Jimmie is that he truly appreciates what he has accomplished and is a great ambassador for our sport. You have to believe that he has more championships in him. Right now, I think the only person that stops Jimmie Johnson is himself. As long as his team stays solid behind him, his talent is equal to anyone on the race track. Until someone can disrupt that chemistry, his is still a force to be reckoned with.