Jimmie Johnson’s ride into history gets this conversation started about where he fits among the all-time greats. Who are the all-time greats in NASCAR Cup racing? While truly not knowable, it makes for lively discussion. Heck, I even change my mind, but for the sake of discussion, here goes…..
#10- Junior Johnson- A racer, an owner, a former moonshine runner, the “Last American Hero,” Robert Glenn Johnson Jr. was NASCAR’s original superstar. Johnson is credited with being the first to use the draft at Daytona. Racing in an era when NASCAR still competed on dirt, Johnson was considered a master, having acquired the skill outrunning the law. For all he achieved on the track, he claimed he was never “committed” to racing- never winning a championship as a driver. His greatest success in that realm came as an owner- providing championship rides for Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.
#9- Bobby Allison- The leader of the Alabama Gang may have only won one championship, but he visited victory lane 84 times during his colorful career. He won the Daytona 500 three times and the Southern 500 four times. If there was a big race to win, Allison was there to win it.
#8- Tony Stewart- Put four wheels on a cockroach, and Smoke will find a way to win with it. Many have tried crossing over from Indy car to NASCAR, but no one succeeded in a greater way than the Rushville Rocket. Stewart has earned three titles, won 48 Cup races, and has also crossed over into the business side of the sport as owner of Eldora Speedway and as part-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing.
#7- Darrell Waltrip- The Muhammad Ali of NASCAR was not only one of the sports most colorful characters, the three-time champion and winner of 84 Cup events and three championships earned his greatness in an era of Earnhardt, Elliott, Petty, Allison and more. In the modern era, only Jeff Gordon has more victories. Never camera shy, Ol’ D.W. has been a part of broadening the sport’s reach.
#6- Jeff Gordon- He may no longer dominate the way he did back in the late 90s, but this four-time champion and winner of 88 races is still a continuing strong competitor within NASCAR. Off the track, Gordon has broken the stereotype of the NASCAR driver with his soap opera star looks and presence on TV.
#5- Jimmie Johnson- This cool, collected Californian has been an unbelievable one-two punch of dominance and consistency with 66 victories and six championships in a little more than a decade. In an era where the sport is as competitive as its ever been, the singular focus of the 48 team has enabled it to rise head and shoulders above the crowd.
#4- Cale Yarborough- The first man to win three championships in a row was more than just a flash in the pan. A winner of 83 races, Yarborough was an ever-present force to contend with for parts of three decades. Much like Dale Earnhardt, Yarborough could take a piece of junk and win races with it. His famed fight with the Allison brothers at the 1979 Daytona 500 took NASCAR’s fame past the reaches of the Mason- Dixon Line.
#3- Richard Petty- He is and forever will be The King. Regardless of any advantages he enjoyed, Petty maximized them all for an unbreakable record of 200 wins to go with seven titles. He was more than just a great driver; Petty still is, in many ways, the face of NASCAR. Petty and his organization were also innovative, adding a number of safety features (the window net being one), culled from lessons learned the hard way. He may be the king, but no NASCAR figure has made himself more approachable than Richard Petty.
#2- Dale Earnhardt- Never mind the seven championships, Earnhardt just did things that made your jaw drop. The hardest of hard chargers, Ironhead had an iron will to boot. If ever a man were born to race, it was this winner of 76 races.
#1- David Pearson- What??? Hear me out: in 574 starts, the Silver Fox won 105. Pearson only ran a full schedule in a handful of seasons, and of those, he bagged three championships, while giants like Petty, Yarborough, and Allison roamed the landscape. In scientific tests, Pearson’s blood pressure actually went LOWER. One of the greatest tactical racers that ever lived.