Everybody has their favorite NASCAR driver of all time. Whether it was the dazzling brilliance of Richard Petty or the people’s champion, Dale Earnhardt Sr., fans will have their reasons for gravitating towards a particular driver. Over the years, NASCAR has produced some of the most brilliant men of auto racing in the world. In the process, legendary careers have been forged.
As with any other sport, the legendary men that have made the loudest noise and the greatest impacts stand out. In NASCAR, the pantheon of great drivers reads like a list of many of the greatest sportsmen in American history. Studying these all-time greats and their fascinating skillset and character traits is always an honor, yet attempting to assemble a list of just nine of them is headache-inducing.
Each and every standout legend of NASCAR comes with their own unique brand of skills and attributes. However, there are many qualities that they share and these are usually required in order to be a great driver. A little later, we will examine what makes a truly great stock car racer, breaking down the shared qualities that the drivers on our list have demonstrated in their time on the track.
When it comes to NASCAR, spectators and enthusiasts are as fanatical as you will find in any sport, anywhere in the world. It became popular for publications to say that NASCAR’s appeal was dwindling following the golden age of the 1990’s, but this is not the case at all. What keeps NASCAR’s heart beating strongly is the fans, the cars, the big occasions, the history, and, of course, the legends.
Let’s take a look at what is so special about NASCAR.
Community. Camaraderie. Fun. These are three things you will find in abundance if you have ever been lucky enough to attend a Daytona 500 weekend. The most anticipated combined dates in the NASCAR calendar are when the sport truly takes on a life of its own. Fans from across the country converge on Daytona Beach for a festival of fun, fuel, and fireworks.
What makes NASCAR special, especially when compared to other types of racing like Formula 1 or IndyCar, is that it always feels like an inclusive event. Even when the races are done for the day, walk through the camps and you will smell hotdogs, hear Lynyrd Skynyrd and Johnny Cash, and find some of the world’s greatest wheelbarrow races. Yes, that’s right, wheelbarrow races…
The fans make this sport what it is and they will be more than happy to clear that up for you anytime you would want to disagree. Yes, this may be true for most sports out there, but you can still fathom many games being played without fans. To imagine NASCAR without the colorful, enthusiastic, and downright legendary folk in the stands is something that is too awful to truly comprehend.
NASCAR fans are world-famous for the color and passion they bring to the sport. That is a great achievement in itself. Unlike many other sports, NASCAR is a family sport. It is one that places a strong emphasis on kinship, friendship, America, and having a good time in the process. When fans converge for the big events, they come knowing that watching the races and enjoying yourself afterward are two things that go well together.
Well, yes, you wouldn’t have racing without cars. Well, that is not entirely true, as you would have horse racing and people racing. Oh, and boat racing. Snail racing, competitive swimming… you get the picture. The cars used in NASCAR over the years have inspired many wide-eyed and youthful observers to jump behind the wheel and give things a go for themselves. Some of the most famous cars in NASCAR history are even on display.
NASCAR Hall of Fame’s “Glory Road” in Charlotte, North Carolina, has a collection of the most iconic cars ever to grace the sport. From David Pearson’s 1966 Dodge Charger to Richard Petty’s 1964 Plymouth Belvedere, you will find some of the most iconic vehicles ever to be raced in NASCAR. These days, fans are observing tomorrow’s legendary cars, that will one day light up the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the same way.
NASCAR is renowned for its big occasions. Unlike with Formula 1 or IndyCar, the party vibe in the world’s elite stock car racing competition is tremendous. As we mentioned above, a visit to the Daytona 500 – the major race in NASCAR – is something that many fans dream of. The sense of occasion never disappoints and bonds racing fans together like no other group of sports enthusiasts across the globe.
Of course, NASCAR isn’t all about partying. The drivers, the manufacturers, the fans, and everyone else, are here for the races. First and foremost, the competition is what matters and it just so happens that NASCAR has the events to make it big, bad (the good type), and loud. The Cup Series is what gets everyone’s blood pumping in NASCAR and this is where the true legends of the sport are made.
NASCAR has a colorful history that seems to fit well with the bright and mesmerizing cars that take to the track. It is believed that the first ever stock car races honed their skills during the prohibition era. The drivers – known colloquially as “runners” – would transport moonshine while trying to evade the clutches of federal agents intent on catching anyone with illegal alcohol.
Over the years, the cars have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger, and the sport has grown significantly in stature. There is no doubt that this history is the pride of many NASCAR fans and helps to gain the attention of the new breed of drivers who want to make their own history in their eras and generations. NASCAR is a sport where history well and truly matters to drivers, fans, and everyone else involved in the sport.
Without the legends of the sport, nothing would really matter as much as it does. For a start, the great races, incredible moments, and sublime finishes are a massive part of why many fans fell in love with the sport, to begin with. The pioneers, game-changers, trailblazers, and innovators, behind the wheel, have made NASCAR the sport that it is today.
This piece is dedicated to the true legends of NASCAR. These are the men who have achieved more in the sport, done more for the sport, and live on in the hearts and minds of true NASCAR fans around the world. These legends are held in most reverence among fans and continue to inspire everyone in the sport, to this day.
We know who these men are, how they have come to be so respected, and why they are great, but what, exactly, are the indicators of a legend?
Let’s imagine that you come from a very wealthy family, who are “connected” in the world of NASCAR. It just so happens that you want to be a driver when you grow up and have the best of materials and people around to help you. No expense has been spared and every single thing has been done to get you into the driver’s seat at the Sprint Cup Series. Do you think you could create a legacy worthy of being called a legend?
If only it was that easy. For thousands of drivers who aspire to be in the shoes of their heroes, it takes a lot more than the right connections and financial backing. It goes without saying that you will need to be one hell of a driver to even make it as far as NASCAR. With that, you a driver must have the skills, talent, and mental and physical attributes necessary to succeed on the highest stage.
To be a great driver, it must be said, you need to possess more than the average guy competing for glory. In order to be a legend, however, you are going to need all that and much, much more.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five key traits of a legendary NASCAR driver:
Heart is always regarded as a necessary quality in sports like boxing and MMA, where getting repeatedly punched and kicked in the head can take its toll. Yet, in NASCAR, there is no doubt that heart is also an attribute that can really make some men great. If you think about it, this is competition, too, and the other guys on the track are going to make life as difficult as possible for you if you get in their way.
OK, it is a little different when it comes to racing. However, if you think of the mental fortitude of a driver, who must pick themselves up and dust themselves off after every fall, the ones who continue to do so become legends. These are the drivers that refuse to be beaten and keep getting back up for more. As we have seen over the years in NASCAR, heart is, without a doubt, one of the true indicators of a legend.
If you think heart and courage are the same things in racing, think again. A courageous driver is one that takes risks and does whatever they have to do, despite the consequences. NASCAR racing is a sport where the smallest margins can make the greatest difference at the end of a race. What gets many drivers there are the gambles and risks that others do not have the courage to take.
Courage is a word that is thrown around far too easily these days, in most walks of life. For some who use the word, what they believe to be courageous is anything but. In NASCAR, things are different. You can spot courage a mile off. It emanates from certain drivers, who use it almost as a superpower to edge ahead of their rivals. Courage is impressive, as things can go wrong in this sport (Dale Earnhardt’s tragic passing being an example).
You cannot be great without first knowing you are great. This may sound like the type of “inspirational” quote you would find accompanied by an image of a sunset on a beach in the Caribbean, but in NASCAR, it is very important. Think of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport, and then ask yourself, did any of them seem to lack confidence? The answer will be a resounding no.
Greatness is not achieved by the meek or those who doubt themselves. Legend is won, not begged for or borrowed. It is taken, whether it is snatched from the jaws of defeat, or grabbed, mid-stroll, with both hands before being paraded in front of the world. One of the most apparent common denominators of NASCAR legends in that they had incredible self-belief. That comes from a bottomless pit of confidence.
Not in the literal sense, of course. Hitting those corners would be a little difficult if your vision was off. When we talk about tunnel vision, we are referring to the ability to set your eyes on the prize and keep them there, until you have your hands around that trophy. When looking back at the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, they seemed to have a culture of winning. This recipe is certainly held together by tunnel vision.
In NASCAR, a driver needs to have a level of focus and dedication that eclipses their peers. While the day of the race may be where the war is fought, there are a myriad of battles won in the days, weeks, and months leading up to each one. Battles against the self, against life’s ever-growing assembly of obstacles, of age, declining skill, and a lot more. Maintaining focus, when everything else is demanding attention, is crucial.
How far are you willing to go to prove you want something? How much effort are you prepared to demonstrate that you will stop at nothing to get it? While most of us lay in bed at night, unable to sleep, making that walk to the fridge in our minds to grab that piece of the pie, we don’t always do it. It’s cold and dark, and we don’t want to wake up the house and be shamed for our hunger. So, we close our eyes and try to sleep off our lack of ambition.
Do you think any of the NASCAR legends would have stayed there? Do you believe that they would not have just got straight up, flicked on the torch, and took that last piece of apple pie? Not only would they have got the pie, but they would have warmed it up and put some ice cream on top. In NASCAR, ambition means everything. It is your license to go out and take what is rightfully yours, regardless of the conditions or consequences.
As you might appreciate, it has not been an easy task rounding up the greatest legends of NASCAR. For every name on this list, there will be one man who just doesn’t make it. Unfortunately, this is just the way it is. We have selected who we believe to be the nine greatest legends in NASCAR history, on account of their achievements on the sport, their impact on it, and how important they have been throughout its history.
In order to compile our list, we have carefully considered all of the above and have done our very best to justify our selection. We have purposefully only concentrated on drivers who began their NASCAR careers in the 20th century, so drivers like Jimmie Johnson will not feature, unfortunately.
The following men are nothing less than the truly extraordinary standouts in the history of NASCAR. Allow us to introduce the 10 greatest legends of NASCAR (in no particular order). Enjoy!
Tony Stewart is one of the true candidates for the title of the “people’s champ” of NASCAR. A big personality in the sport, “Smoke” was also a multi-talented driver with championships and titles in Indy, midget, sprint, and USAC Silver Crown racing. To fans of NASCAR, however, Stewart will always have a special place in many of their hearts. The man who dared to believe was an inspiration to many budding drivers.
With a total of three career championships, Stewart sits in joint-fifth place on the all-time NASCAR titles list. the names of the other four drivers will be revealed a little later, but this, if anything, shows what kind of realm the Columbus, Indiana-native was operating from. With an 18 season Cup Series career, Stewart was a mainstay in the sport for almost two decades, and his resume certainly shows that he did pretty well for himself.
Stewart may not have the glittering record that other drivers who came before him did, but three titles are nothing to be scoffed at. The legend of the sport had a steady average of at least one race win in his first 15 seasons, with a tally of six wins in a season in one of these. Stewart retired from NASCAR with 49 career wins in 618 races, with 15 poles, 187 top five finishes, and 308 top 10 finishes.
Incidentally, Stewart is also credited as being the only man to with the Cup Series championship under the old points system and the chase playoff format. Additionally, Stewart became the first driver in the history of NASCAR to win the championship with three different sponsorships. A legend of NASCAR? Absolutely.
Notable NASCAR Achievements:
Career Length: 18 Years
Total Races: 618
Total Poles: 15
Top 5 Finishes: 187
Top 10 Finishes: 308
The first man to ever win the Daytona 500 (albeit under controversial circumstances) is also another three-time Cup Series champion. He is also widely regarded as one of the greatest drivers in the history of NASCAR and is very much deserving of his place in these rankings. So, what made Lee Petty one of the nine greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, aside from winning the inaugural ‘500?
You could start by looking at Petty’s impressive resume. In addition to his three championships, the Randleman, North Carolina-native racked up 54 race wins in 427 starts. Given that he achieved so much in considerably fewer races than some of his peers certainly warrants special attention. Not to mention that he achieved all this in some pretty old school vehicles (by today’s standards).
The primary reason that Petty comes in at #9 in these rankings ahead of Stewart despite the fact that they both won three titles is the fact that Petty won 54 races, which is more than Stewart’s win total of 49, and Petty pulled that off in just 427 starts while Stewart competed in nearly 200 more races than Petty did. Despite the former mechanic starting his career at 35, he will always go down as one of the greats.
Given that he has occupied the top ten list in all-time wins, victories, the top five in career championships, among other achievements, it is difficult not to consider him as a legend. Another interesting statistic about Petty is that he accomplished so much in NASCAR despite never racing in every event in his 16-year career. That is a pretty astounding statistic, and one which really sums up his greatness.
Well, almost, until you consider that he was also just the second driver in the history of the sport to win back-to-back championships (1958 and 1959). These were both the second and third of his three titles and this also made him the first man to ever win three championships. We could go on and on here, but surely you get the point by now! Lee Petty, you were a true NASCAR legend.
Career Length: 16 Years
Total Races: 427
Total Poles: 18
Top 5 Finishes: 231
Top 10 Finishes: 332
Bobby Allison may not have as many championships to his name as the other drivers he shares this list with. That is not to say that Bobby Allison does not have some pretty extraordinary achievements on his resume, however, as we assure you that he certainly does. For a start, Allison’s career wins come in at an incredible 84. This puts him up there with the very best alone.
It will forever be difficult to understand how Allison could have only ever won just one championship in a career that spanned a quarter of a century. In 25 years, Allison would win just one title, and that was in the latter stages of his career in 1983. Regardless, the Miami, Florida-native did have a huge impact on the sport of NASCAR and helped to popularize the sport even more in America.
Ironically, one particular incident of controversy brought more attention to NASCAR. That was, of course, the 1979 Daytona 500 fist fight with Cale Yarborough. The televised fight really helped to put NASCAR on the map, making Allison one of the true stars of the sport. When all is said and done, however, it will be Allison’s driving skills and achievements that make him a true legend of NASCAR.
Allison is a Grand Slam winner (by winning the four majors) and also holds the record for five consecutive poles won. He has an incredible 336 top 5 finishes and is widely regarded as a pioneering driver who has done a lot for the sport. He is still a very popular name among NASCAR fans, even to this day. A Hall of Fame inductee, Allison is a true legend of NASCAR and deserves his place on this list.
Career Length: 25 Years
Total Races: 718
Total Poles: 59
Top 5 Finishes: 336
Top 10 Finishes: 446
Another member of the three-championship club, Cale Yarborough is a name that is very familiar among diehard fans of NASCAR. In his 31-year NASCAR Cup Series career, the Timmonsville, South Carolina-native enjoyed a fierce rivalry with Bobby Allison that helped to popularize NASCAR. His achievements in the sport see him make this list with relative ease, given how successful he was in his heyday.
Yarborough took part in 560 races it all, setting some pretty impressive records along the way. One of these records was setting 13 poles at Daytona, which is no mean feat. The most impressive statistic – alongside his three championships – is that he was the first driver in the history of NASCAR to win three titles in a row. In his day, Yarborough was an incredibly difficult man to stop (and other drivers knew it).
Yarborough has a career wins’ total of 83 that comes from 560 races. This is considered an incredible return, given that many other drivers with (slightly) higher winning percentages achieved theirs with far more races. Overall, Yarborough cuts a legendary figure in NASCAR for his accomplishments and the mark that he left on the sport. That famous fight with Bobby Allison being an example of how he helped NASCAR to grow.
Not many drivers can claim to have won the Daytona 500 four times. Not many drivers can boast the level of success that Yarborough achieved, period. The all-time great was also just the second NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, which sums up the popularity of the man. A true pioneer, achiever, and legend of NASCAR, Yarborough more than deserves his place in this list.
Career Length: 31 Years
Total Races: 560
Total Poles: 69
Top 5 Finishes: 255
Top 10 Finishes: 319
It seems fitting that Darrell Waltrip – the man nicknamed “jaws” due to his outspoken nature – would become a NASCAR commentator and one of the foremost voices in the sport. Despite waiting for his 50th start for his first race win, the Owensboro, Kentucky-native was not afraid to let his voice be heard. Cocksure, confident, and with a tunnel vision approach to racing, Waltrip was the perfect example of a true NASCAR driver.
Many of his rivals and peers might argue that Waltrip had the habit of rubbing others up the wrong way, however. “DW” ensured that he backed up his famous mouth with some pretty accomplishments, including three championship wins. As part of this illustrious club, Waltrip is clearly a driver who would surely make most fans’ lists when it comes to the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time.
Waltrip does have an impressive resume in NASCAR and has done a lot for the sport over the years (and continued to do so after his retirement). Waltrip was the first driver to win the World 600 three times, has 84 wins from 809 races, and 59 poles. In his 29-year career, there was no doubt that “DW” helped to popularize the sport, becoming one of the most memorable characters in NASCAR history.
Given that Waltrip also holds numerous records, years after his retirement, and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2012, it is not difficult to find a place for him on this list. In fact, there can be no list of the greatest legends of NASCAR history without Waltrip featuring in it. A colorful driver with a huge personality, “DW” is nothing short of a legend of the sport.
Career Length: 29 Years
Total Races: 809
Total Poles: 59
Top 5 Finishes: 276
Top 10 Finishes: 390
Fewer drivers in NASCAR history can lay claim to the lightning-fast impact that Jeff Gordon had on the sport. Gordon’s 25 years in the world’s foremost stock racing championship yielded an incredible return of four championships, with 93 wins in 805 races in the Cup Series. That alone puts him in the upper echelons of NASCAR greats, in case you haven’t already guessed that.
What must be a bitter pill to swallow for Gordon is – had the playoff system not changed things up – he would have seven championships to his name. While that would have been a fitting way to honor one of the greatest drivers to have ever graced the track, it doesn’t take anything away from just how good Gordon was. In terms of skill, speed, and courage, there are fewer drivers who can compete with the “Rainbow Warrior.”
There are many who believe that Gordon is one of the greatest drivers of all time, if not the greatest, and there is certainly a case to be argued in his favor. In his prime, he was the most dominant racer on the track. His exceptional talents were bolstered by a hunger for success and an ambition to be the greatest NASCAR driver to have ever lived. It is difficult to say that he didn’t come close.
In 805 races, Gordon achieved a lot more than most of his peers. He joins an elite band of drivers who have won more than three championships, cementing his legacy. His numbers are impressive, with 81 poles and 325 top 5 finishes. All in all, Gordon is undoubtedly one of the most talented and successful drivers to have ever raced. A legend? You bet.
Career Length: 25 Years
Total Races: 805
Total Poles: 81
Top 5 Finishes: 325
Top 10 Finishes: 477
A little earlier into this piece, you might remember when we asked you what makes a legend. We then went on to explain how certain legends achieve the extraordinary. David Pearson is one of those men. Despite driving at the highest stage of NASCAR for 28 years, the Spartanville, South Carolina never completed a full season, yet still had more wins than every other driver (bar Richard Petty) at one point. Wow, indeed.
The man who is considered to be the greatest driver of all time in terms of achievement, Richard Petty, enjoyed an incredible rivalry with Pearson. In sports, these rivalries come around rarely but often define true greatness. Much like Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in Formula 1, Petty and Pearson were pushed to whole new levels by their rivalry in NASCAR.
Pearson, however, will always be remembered for his incredible consistency. He retired with 105 victories in 574 races, which sees him only second to his great rival, Petty, for prolificness. Of course, a legendary driver will be measured on how many championships they have to their name and Pearson won three (in four years). His first championship was won in spite of him missing 7 races in that particular season.
In one season alone, Pearson won 16 races. The man was an all-time great that truly defined what it meant to battle against the odds. As a driver, he had almost every single attribute you would associate with a legend of the sport. NASCAR would have never been the same without his immense contributions and achievements and these ensure that he will remain in the pantheon of the sport’s greatest drivers of all time.
Career Length: 28 Years
Total Races: 574
Total Poles: 113
Top 5 Finishes: 301
Top 10 Finishes: 366
What can you say about Dale Earnhardt that hasn’t already been said? Let’s start by putting forward the idea that he was perhaps the most famous driver of all time. Even those who were not fans of NASCAR knew who he was. He helped to popularize NASCAR in a way that was never before seen in the sport, bringing a legion of fans with him everywhere he raced. Oh, and he was pretty damn good behind the wheel, too.
Earnhardt’s talents saw him join the elite club of seven-time champions, which includes only two other men. Known as “The Intimidator,” the Kannapolis, North Carolina-native was an aggressive and confident driver who would have dominated in any era. A bona fide fan favorite, he was also the face of NASCAR for many years throughout a career that was nothing short of exceptional.
According to many fans and pundits, Dale Earnhardt was the greatest driver in the history of NASCAR. Do his career statistics back this up, even if we disregard his seven championships? They are certainly worthy of that consideration. Earnhardt had 676 races under his belt, winning 11 races in one season. He put together a tremendous run of victories, but his total career wins are surprisingly low (at just 76).
However, when you consider that Earnhardt won back-to-back titles on three separate occasions, you begin to get a sense of how good he was. This incredible feat was achieved during a purple patch for the famous driver that happened within a nine-year period. His 27-year career was one of the most spectacular in NASCAR history and what he means to fans of the sport can never be underestimated.
Unfortunately for Earnhardt, his family and friends, fans, and everyone else involved in NASCAR and beyond, he was killed in a crash in 2001 at Daytona 500. The all-time great was just 49-years-old and could have achieved even more if he would have lived. While he may or may not have been the greatest driver in the history of NASCAR, you don’t get any more legendary than Dale Earnhardt.
Career Length: 25 Years
Total Races: 676
Total Poles: 22
Top 5 Finishes: 281
Top 10 Finishes: 428
Whenever the words “legend” and “racing” are put together, there is a chance that Richard Petty’s name won’t be too far behind. For the man known as “The King,” he would prefer not to be behind anything, with the exception of those words, maybe. Petty is used to being ahead of pretty much everything in NASCAR, including others cars, drivers, and practically every major record there is in the sport.
The pride of Level Cross, Randolph County, in North Carolina, Petty is widely considered to be the greatest driver in NASCAR history (and up there with the best in racing, period). His records speak for themselves: seven championships (joint -highest), seven Daytona 500 wins, 127 poles, 700 top 10 finishes. The list goes on and on for one of the greatest men in the history of motorsports.
Not many sportsmen receive the coveted Presidential Medal of Freedom. Then again, Richard Petty is no ordinary sportsman. His contribution to NASCAR is legendary and there are fewer figures in American sports that are celebrated with as much reverence. Petty transcended the sport and influenced thousands of young would-be drivers to take up racing. He is seen as an icon, a legend, and an ambassador of NASCAR.
Petty’s rivalry with David Pearson is still celebrated in NASCAR and brought a lot of attention to the sport. While his rival had the habit of edging him out in head-to-heads, there is little doubt that Petty’s record is far superior. Is Richard Petty the ultimate legend of NASCAR? There are many who believe him to be the greatest driver of all time and it is hard to argue against that opinion.
Career Length: 35 Years
Total Races: 1,184
Total Poles: 123
Top 5 Finishes: 555
Top 10 Finishes: 712
There are many skills, attributes, and behaviors that make a legend. Not every man on this list shares the same repertoire of features, but this is what makes them stand out as individuals. There is no doubt that what they do share is an exceptional ability to win and a burning desire to succeed. When all is said and done, these drivers will forever be immortalized in NASCAR folklore due to their accomplishments and characters.
It takes much more than just winning races to be considered an all-time great. When drivers retire from the sport, they leave their fingerprints on NASCAR’s history. Only the true greats attain legendary status and can take their place in the hearts and minds of racing fans as eternal icons of NASCAR.