NASCAR's 'Real' 50 Greatest Drivers (2001)
By Steve Samples
Last month I discussed common NASCAR myths, and analyzed the findings of a panel of experts' choices for the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR history. The next two months we will devote a special edition of this column, to accurately rank both the all time top 50 and the current era top 10 drivers. Unlike NASCAR's list there will be no compromises which come from taking several viewpoints, and combining them into a "stew" of a who's who at the racetrack.
Each driver's accomplishments have been carefully recorded and scrutinized, and the end results will provide a remarkably historic picture of what actually happened both yesterday and today. In this comparison we'll discuss briefly why each driver is ranked where he is, and why.
But before we begin it's necessary to establish specific criteria to determine greatness. Are stock car racing's best drivers simply the ones who won the most races? The most points championships? Are they the drivers who won the most money over a long career? Should we consider the one year wonders like Leroy Yarbrough? Are quality drivers like Davey Allison and Fireball Roberts, who died in their 30's to be considered? Does a long career set a better standard, or is the measure of true greatness determined by how hard a driver was to beat at the peak of his career? And if we use the latter standard, how many peak years must a driver have to qualify as an all-time great?
Our answer to those questions is a simple one. If a car owner could pick any driver in any era to represent him, who would he choose? In that regard we will rate the drivers along with their team members. We will look at the driver who could generate the most money per start, and each decade of drivers brings a different person to the forefront in that category. But most money per start, although an important part of the picture, is not the only part. To be an all time top 50 driver, one had to have success on both long and short tracks. Our drivers must also be tough to beat in a duel to the checkered flag, and drivers who enjoyed success for less than five years, will be given proportionately less credit. We will also examine expediency of greatness, and look at how long it took each driver to reach certain milestones, like winning all the superspeedways, and all the major short tracks. With these standards in place let's take a ride through NASCAR history and see who makes the prestigious TOP 50.
Before we begin though, one fact must be stated. Stock car racing, like most other sports, has a short list of true superstars. In this regard there are only 14 drivers who are interchangeable. Those 14 in comparable equipment, would win most, if not all, of the races that anyone else in the top 14 would win. The remaining 36 are great drivers all, but not superstars. With that information in toe, let's look at the 50 greatest drivers in stock car racing history.
1) Fred Lorenzen- It took the "Golden Boy" just six years in a Holman-Moody Ford to become the only driver in NASCAR history (at the time) to win races at all five of the south's original superspeedways. Richard Petty needed two decades to reach the same milestone. From 1961 to early 1967, Lorenzen won a quarter of the races he entered and placed in the top 10 half the time. A remarkable feat when one considers the attrition rate in those days was far greater than today. He set new standards for consecutive wins with six in 1964, driver earnings, and successive victories at the same track with three straight Atlanta 500 wins from 1962-64. Like golfing great Bobby Jones who ended his career at age 30, Lorenzen retired at 32. A comeback two and a half years later in non competitive cars resulted in several top five finishes, but no wins. At the peak of his career though, there was no one tougher to beat.
2) Glenn "Fireball" Roberts- Appropriately called a legend, Fireball Roberts was NASCAR's first driver to achieve nine victories on the big racetracks. Second to none in pure physical skill, Glenn could drive the short tracks as well, and dominated Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, and Joe Weatherly during his entire career. Sadly, a racing accident at Charlotte Motor Speedway would claim his life in 1964, and inspire a poem by sportswriter Charlie Harvell.
3) David Pearson- The "Silver Fox" had a combination of driving skill and savvy. Although his performance in head to head competition with both Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts was comparatively poor, Pearson went on to reach superstardom in the late 60's and 70's. Winning Rockingham in 1968 made him the second driver in NASCAR history to score wins at all five of the "old" superspeedways. With 105 career wins which encompassed both superspeedways and short tracks, Pearson was equally adept at winning on any paved surface. A car owners dream, David always finished higher than the car would have finished with virtually anyone else in the cockpit, and rightfully earned a place on the all time Top 50 list.
4) Bobby Allison- Leader of the Alabama gang, Bobby Allison enjoyed success over a long career. Had he been offered a quality ride earlier in his career, his all time win totals no doubt would have been higher. Frequently outdriving Richard Petty in head to head duels, Allison picked up where Fred Lorenzen left off as Ford's number one driver. One of only a few drivers in NASCAR history to win races in his late 40's, and even a Daytona 500 at age 50, Bobby remained competitive until the day he was forced into retirement following a 1988 crash.
5) Tim Flock- The only driver of the 1950's to draw comparisons to Fireball Roberts, Tim won an astonishing 21.2% of the races he entered on all tracks. Possessing lightning reflexes, and nerves of steel, Tim was a threat to win on any track with any car. Sadly his peak occurred before the big paydays, and Flock was expelled from NASCAR for his part in attempting to organize a drivers union in 1961.
6) Jeff Gordon- Perhaps the only driver in the modern era who could have competed and won consistently in any era, Gordon may be the best "natural" race driver in history. A technical marvel behind the wheel, Jeff frequently makes his competition look like amateurs. Still a young man capable of competing another twenty years, he may ascend to the top of the chart before his driving career comes to an end.
7) Richard Petty- Called "The King" because of his 200 career wins, Richard stepped into a quality car at the age of 21 and proved his mettle by setting records for both Cup Championships, and total victories. Had Richard been more competitive on the superspeedways early in his career, when Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts were dominating the big tracks, he'd have even more wins. Even so, King Richard proved himself over decades, and is an automatic selection on any all time list.
8) Cale Yarborough- Few drivers in NASCAR history drove a car harder than the "Timmonsville Flash." Always a threat to win, Cale was a heady driver who charged through the pack, took the lead, and tried to widen it every lap. A mixed package of physical skill, nerve and intellect, Cale was as good as they come.
9) Darrell Waltrip- DW was a crafty, flashy, and highly skilled driver equally talented at winning on short tracks and superspeedways. Although he experienced failure due in large part to marginal cars in his final competitive years, in his prime Waltrip was among the best.
10) Herb Thomas- A true NASCAR pioneer, Thomas was perhaps the most underrated driver in the sports history. His 48 career wins included both short and long tracks, and he banged doors successfully with the best driver's of his era.
11) Dale Earnhardt- The "Man in Black" was a no holds barred charger who seldom made a mistake on the racetrack. Fortunately for Dale, his career peaked in the 1980's and 90's. Had he arrived two decades earlier, the Intimidator would have found that Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, and Junior Johnson were not as easily intimidated as today's current crop of stars.
12) Buck Baker- A true champion who raced hard and clean, Buck was a race driver's race driver. He was a technical wizard behind the wheel, and won races at every stage of his illustrious career.
13) Davey Allison- A gifted young driver who tragically died in a helicopter accident at the height of his career. Allison was every bit as good as his famous father, and would have seen victory lane another seventy five times had he lived.
14) Tim Richmond- Another driver who died before his time, Tim Richmond was a charismatic charger who, "drove the wheels" off every car he raced. Controversial in his off track life, Tim like Fireball Roberts and Curtis Turner, enjoyed a good party. On race day though he was all business. Unlike many drivers, Tim never lost a race from lack of driving skill.
15) Lee Petty- He didn't begin his racing career until relatively late in life, but Lee got the most from every car he entered. A hard
nosed competitor and once the sport's all time winner, Lee Petty was a short track ace, and a great superspeedway driver as well.
16) Jim Paschal- A teammate of Richard Petty in the 1960's, Jim was an ultra smooth driver out of the Buck Baker mold. His 25 career wins attest to a superb driving ability, as he usually raced the #2 Petty car.
17) Junior Johnson- No one in the history of the sport drove a car with more reckless abandon than the "Ronda Roadrunner." Although his superspeedway win totals are small, Junior was a short track master who could bang doors with the best of them. Had he raced in the modern era with more durable equipment, Junior Johnson may have won 100 races.
18) Rusty Wallace- One of NASCAR's all time winners over a long career, Wallace has maintained his driving savvy well into his 40's. Aside from Jeff Gordon, perhaps the only one of today's drivers who has truly reached legendary status.
19) Marvin Panch- "Pancho" earned a stellar reputation as a versatile driver of both the Wood Brothers Ford, and a variety of sports cars, including the Maseratti he was tragically burned in in 1963. A superb driver, Panch once finished a millisecond behind Fireball Roberts and Fred Lorenzen in a photo finish at Daytona.
20) Bobby Isaac-Another victim of a racing accident, Bobby Isaac was the dominant qualifier of his time, in the K and K Insurance company Dodge. Bobby's 37 career wins include success on small tracks and superspeedways. Perhaps his biggest accomplishment was starting dead last at Daytona for the Firecracker 400-- and winning the race.
21) Jack Smith- Jack was a rough and tumble country boy who was highly superstitious. No green cars or women in the pits around Jack. That may have made it hard for him to compete today, but Jack Smith was a hell bent for leather chauffeur who didn't like to relinquish the lead. He won the inaugural Volunteer 500 at Bristol, and 20 more races to go along with it.
22) Ned Jarrett- A two time Grand National Champion with 50 career wins, Jarrett was a short track expert who struggled on the superspeedways. None the less he was a car owners dream who stayed out of trouble, and usually finished his car in the money.
23) Joe Weatherly- When little Joe's life ended at Riverside Raceway, he was in pursuit of his third Grand National championship. A talented man who raced motorcycles as well as stock cars earlier in life, Joe could drive anything with wheels.
24) Bill Elliott- The most popular driver in NASCAR history, Bill teamed with his engine builder brother Ernie to create the fastest car on the Winston Cup circuit. Over a four year period Elliott was THE dominant force in stock car racing.
25) Speedy Thompson- An early pioneer who worked on his own cars, Speedy competed with the likes of Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Tim Flock, and Lee Petty and came out on top 20 times. An accomplished driver, he was a challenger in any race.
26) Dick Hutcherson- Holman and Moody's short track expert, Dick amassed 14 wins in just three season's. Learning to drive in the midwest, he came to the south with the intent of winning. There were few better on a half mile oval.
27) Leroy Yarbrough- Out of the Junior Johnson school of hard chargers, Leroy had one of the greatest seasons in racing history in 1969, when he dominated the superspeedways. Although his career was comparatively short, Leroy was almost impossible to beat when at the top of his game.
28) Terry Labonte- The "Iceman" proved to be both durable and consistent by winning Winston Cup titles in different decades. Always a thinker, Terry can trade paint with NASCAR's best, and usually come out on top.
29) Buddy Baker- A lead footed lap leader who never liked to run second, Buddy had no fear of anyone or anything. In a better ride Buddy Baker had the physical skill to have won many more times in his career.
30) Curtis Turner- The North Carolina lumberman was a brash, aggressive charger who gave no quarter and expected none. Seldom concerned with whether his car would finish the race, he ran every lap as if it was the last one.
31) Rex White- A former Grand National champion, White was a gifted short track driver, who usually finished his in the top 10. Never noted as a superspeedway threat, Rex was none the less a formidable foe on the 1/2 milers & dirt tracks throughout the south.
32) Harry Gant- "Handsome" Harry Gant was smooth as 75-year-old scotch. He avoided accidents, charged when it was smart to do so, and frequently won.
33) Mark Martin- A steady operator who shows equal skill in both superspeedways and road courses, Mark has earned a reputation as a gritty competitor who ranks among the sports all time leading money winners.
34) Ricky Rudd- A contemporary of Martin, Rudd has earned a reputation as a a man of varied talent. Equally comfortable on a superspeedway, a road course, or a short track, Ricky Rudd ranks as one of NASCAR's all time leading winners.
35) Bobby Labonte- A Winston Cup titleist who is consistent on race tracks of all configuration, Bobby constantly places his car in the money and is a perennial Winston Cup title contender.
36) Ernie Irvan- Similar to Curtis Turner, Ernie was a front runner who took no prisoners on his way to the lead. Irvan was seriously injured in a racing crash, and never quite returned to his former level of excellence. Tough to beat in a fight to the finish, Irvan was a crowd pleaser who had his detractors on the race track.
37) Geoffrey Bodine- A smart driver who was easily the most talented of the famous Bodine brothers. Geoff won races over many years, and in his prime was as good as anyone in his era.
38) Donnie Allison- Along with Junior Johnson, Curtis Turner, Fireball Roberts, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarbourough, and Dale Earnhardt, a flat out driver who would have won more races had he had better equipment. Anyone who bought a ticket to see Donnie race was never disappointed.
39) A.J. Foyt- Tex Foyt like Joe Weatherly could drive anything with wheels. A hard nosed man, on and off the racetrack, he was always a threat in the Wood Brothers Ford. Although primarily classified as a open wheel superstar, Foyt was respected by drivers on every circuit that he competed.
40) Tony Stewart- A young driver better known for his short temper than driving ability, Tony can bump and bang with the best of them. If he continues to run NASCAR, Stewart will win 80 races before he retires.
41) Neil Bonnett- Another member of the famed Alabama gang, Neil was a smart driver who sadly lost his life on the race track. An understudy of Bobby Allison, Neil learned from one of the best, and thus became one of the best.
42) Benny Parsons- A good 'ol boy from North Carolina, Benny was a solid driver who won races, and finished his car among the leaders virtually every week. Not one to risk his car in a reckless manor, Benny made money for his car owners every year.
43) Dale Jarrett- The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, Dale is a better superspeedway driver than his dad. Always a thinker on the racetrack, he challenges for Winston Cup titles on an annual basis.
44) Darel Dieringer- Always a challenger, Darel drove his Bill Stroup Mercury and other rides to seven career wins. In modern times with a consistent car capable of finishing races, Dieringer would have seen victory circle many more times.
45) Paul Goldsmith- One of the more underrated driver's in racing history, Goldsmith could drive Indy cars and stock cars with equal capability. Although he ran NASCAR only part time, all his competitors were watching Paul during practice and qualifying, and usually taking notes.
46) Bob Welborn- A charter member of the "Pontiac Pack" of the early 60's, Bob was a leader who always posed a winning challenge. One of the last of NASCAR's true pioneers, Bob traded paint with Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, Lee Petty and others, and held his own on many occasions.
47) Dan Gurney- Perhaps the greatest road course driver in NASCAR history, Gurney seemingly won the Riverside 500 every time he entered. On an oval he would have been every bit as good. Unfortunately for NASCAR fans, Dan restricted his activity to a handful of races.
48) Nelson Stacy- Teammate of Fred Lorenzen and Fireball Roberts, Stacy was far less publicized than his famous stablemates. Winner of Charlotte, Darlington, and Martinsville by one of the largest margins of victory in racing history, Nelson Stacy was one of the best. Had his racing career begun a decade earlier (Stacy was in his 40's when he signed with Holman-Moody) he would have retired with over 30 career wins.
49) Tom Pistone- The toughest guy to beat on quarters and half milers ever, "Tiger" Tom was the king of short tracks. Unfortunately for NASCAR fans, he spent most of his career in the mid west, and seldom had a quality car when he did race in the south.
50) Cotton Owens- A "Pontiac Packer" along with Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, Bob Welborn and others, Cotton was a master car builder as well as a great driver.
Well, there you have it. Stock car racing's 50 greatest drivers. No fluff, no twisted facts, just the truth. So will these men be replaced in years to come? Some will. Some will not. But make no mistake about it-- each has earned a place in stock car racing history.
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