10. Tony Stewart
It’s fitting that Tony Stewart’s hero is A.J. Foyt. No IndyCar star was as successful at switching to stock cars as Foyt, who won seven NASCAR Cup races, including the 1972 Daytona 500. Until Stewart, his protégé, came along. Stewart, the 1997 IndyCar champion and a former USAC champ, has proven to be just as adept at racing stock cars since winning NASCAR Cup rookie of the year honors in 1999. In 12 seasons, Stewart has won 39 races and two Cup championships (2002 and ’05). Stewart, whose fiery personality and propensity for controversy mirrors the career of his mentor, won 33 races and two championships for Joe Gibbs Racing before starting his own Stewart-Haas Racing team in 2009.
9. Junior Johnson
Junior Johnson is a genuine folk hero, once dubbed “The Last American Hero” in an Esquire article by noted author Tom Wolfe. Johnson honed his driving skills as a moonshine runner and in 1956 was arrested by federal agents at his father’s moonshine still and served 11 months in federal prison. Once back on the stock-car circuit, he used his moonshine-running skills to become one of NASCAR’s top drivers. Johnson’s biggest victory came in the 1960 Daytona 500, when he invented the art of drafting and used it to slingshot past faster cars.
An aggressive driver, Johnson drove for a variety of team owners, but had his biggest season in 1965, when he won 13 races for his own team. He retired as a driver the following season with 50 career wins. He went on to became one of the most successful car owners in NASCAR history, winning 132 races and six championships with drivers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. Johnson was inducted into the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
8. Darrell Waltrip
Darrell Waltrip is perhaps best known for his mouth, first as a cocky, outspoken driver who was once dubbed “Jaws,” and now as a colorful TV analyst for Fox’s NASCAR coverage. But Waltrip’s numbers on the track also make him one of NASCAR’s all-time greats. He won three NASCAR Cup championships (1981-82 and ’85) and has 84 career victories, tying him for third on the all-time list. Of Waltrip’s 84 career wins, 40 came from 1981-85 while driving for Junior Johnson, including 12 wins each in 1981-82. His biggest victory came in 1989 when he finally won the Daytona 500 after 17 tries.
7. Bobby Allison
Part of the famed Alabama Gang, Bobby Allison won 84 NASCAR Cup races, tying him for third on the all-time list (although he still disputes the results of a 1973 race and claims he actually won 85). Allison won the Daytona 500 three times, including in 1988, when he held off his son, Davey in a thrilling 1-2 finish. Allison, a 2011 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, won the 1983 Cup championship, but his best season may have come in 1971, when he won 11 races for three different teams, including his own.
Allison’s career ended in 1988 when he suffered a severe head injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway. Ironically, both of Allison’s sons, Clifford and Davey, were killed at race tracks in 1992 and 1993, respectively.
6. Cale Yarborough
Stock-car racing is a sport built by moonshiners and outlaws and all sorts of colorful characters bumping and banging and fighting their way around bullrings throughout the Southeast. But none were rougher and tougher than Cale Yarborough. A former semi-pro football player and Golden Gloves boxer, Yarborough was so determined to be a racer that he snuck into Darlington Raceway as a kid and later lied about his age so he could enter a race as a teenager. He made his NASCAR debut in 1951 at age 18 and won 83 Cup races during his 31-year career, including four Daytona 500s and five Southern 500s. Yarborough is one of only two drivers to win three straight Cup championships, winning the title for Junior Johnson from 1976-78 with 28 wins in 90 starts over three years. Yarborough is also known for brawling with Bobby and Donnie Allison in the infield grass at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, a race that put NASCAR on the map.
5. David Pearson
If Cale Yarborough was NASCAR’s version of Ty Cobb, David Pearson was the sport’s Ted Williams. Many believe he was the most talented driver ever. His 105 career wins is second only to Richard Petty’s 200 and historians argue that Pearson might own the record had he run more races. Known as the “Silver Fox” for his methodical approach and ability to lay back and sneak up on the competition, Pearson rarely ran the full Cup schedule, even while winning his three Cup championships in 1966, ’68 and ’69. While Petty made 1,185 career starts, Pearson made just 574, accumulating the third-best winning percentage among drivers with 100 or more starts. His three championships in the 1960s aside, his most impressive years might have come in 1973 when he won 11 of 18 races he entered for Wood Brothers Racing and in 1976 when he won 10 of 22 races.
4. Jeff Gordon
There are a host of stats and victories to justify Jeff Gordon’s place among the all-time greats, but he will be best remembered for one thing — he is the driver who knocked Dale Earnhardt from his throne. Earnhardt had dominated the 1980s and early ’90s and was NASCAR’s biggest star — until the 21-year-old phenom from California came along. Gordon burst onto the scene in 1993 and immediately took the sport by storm. Dubbed “Wonder Boy” by Earnhardt, he earned his first race win in 1994 and his first Cup title a year later, stopping Earnhardt’s run of seven championships.
From 1995-99, Gordon won 47 races and three championships. His 13 wins in 1998 matched Richard Petty for the most single-season victories in NASCAR’s post-1972 modern era. Along the way, he racked up win after win in NASCAR’s biggest races — the Daytona 500 (three times), the Brickyard 400 (four times) and the Southern 500 at Darlington (a record four straight times). Gordon won his fourth championship in 2001 and has remained competitive throughout the last decade, finishing second in points in 2007 and third in 2004 and 2009. His 84 career victories are tied for third all-time. Gordon, a former sprint car star, also has been a trendsetter, opening the door for both younger drivers and drivers from open-wheel backgrounds. His outgoing personality, youthful exuberance and polished image also helped NASCAR attract more Fortune 500 sponsors during its boom years.
3. Richard Petty
Richard Petty, more than anyone else, is the face of NASCAR and one of the most iconic figures in sports history. He is NASCAR’s Babe Ruth, both in terms of accomplishment and legendary status. Petty, who raced from 1959-1992, owns practically every NASCAR record, including most starts (1,185), most wins (200), most poles (123), most top-five finishes (555), most top-10s (712), most championships (seven) and most autographs signed (countless). His 200 career victories are a record that likely will never be broken. Likewise, his 27 wins in 1967, including 10 in a row, rival Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak as one of the most remarkable records in sports history.
As dominant as Petty was on the track, he has been even greater off of it, becoming NASCAR’s chief ambassador and an iconic figure who is still a fixture in the sport today. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses, he set the standard for fan interaction and sponsor relations, becoming perhaps the most popular driver and personality in NASCAR history. The only knock against Petty – and the only caveat that keeps him from being No. 1 on this list — is that he accumulated most of his wins and championships in the 1960s and ’70s, when NASCAR’s top stars ran 40 to 50 races a year, often against inferior competition at small-town short tracks across the country. Of Petty’s 200 career wins, 140 came prior to the modern era (1972), when he averaged 44 races per season.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have the win total to match NASCAR’s all-time greats — yet — but he has already achieved the most significant accomplishment in NASCAR history with five straight Cup championships. Johnson’s third straight title in 2009 matched Cale Yarborough’s record, and he has shattered that mark the past two seasons. A sixth title is a strong possibility in 2011, as Johnson is still in his prime at age 35.
Johnson’s championships have all come under NASCAR’s Chase For The Sprint Cup format, a 10-race playoff that has generated considerable debate through the years. Many argue that Johnson’s Chase titles aren’t as significant as the season-long championships won by Earnhardt and others, but Johnson has won fierce title battles over a host of drivers and done it in extreme pressure situations. He has mastered the 10-race playoff, winning 13 Chase races during his championship runs, including four straight in 2007. Johnson’s 54 career victories include a career-high 10 wins in 2007 and triumphs in some of NASCAR biggest races, including the Daytona 500.
1. Dale Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are the two most famous names in NASCAR history, linked by a significant achievement — they each won a record seven NASCAR Cup championships. The difference is that Earnhardt won his in a much more competitive era, dominating the 1980s and early ’90s — NASCAR’s boom era in terms of competition and popularity. Earnhardt won his first race and rookie-of-the-year honors in 1979. The following season, he captured his first championship, winning five races for car owner Rod Osterlund. When he rejoined team owner Richard Childress in 1983, the move defined his career. From 1986-94, Earnhardt won six Cup championships driving for Childress, capturing back-to-back titles three times.
Earnhardt became NASCAR’s biggest star and an almost mythical figure in the sports world. He was “The Intimidator” and “The Man in Black,” a driver who was feared on the track and worshipped off of it. As talented as he was behind the wheel, he was even more successful at building a legendary fan base and developing an iconic image that helped him earn a fortune in sponsorship and souvenir sales. A blue-collar man, Earnhardt was NASCAR’s John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Elvis all rolled into one. His death in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 made headlines worldwide — his funeral was televised live by CNN — and his legend has only grown since his death. His influence and impact on the sport is still felt today.
(Photos for Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison provided by BRH Racing Archives.)