2015 appears to be shaping up as one of those crossroads season, with some great careers coming to a close, and some potentially great careers getting started. Jeff Gordon’s retirement announcement got this fan in a reflective mood. When the Rainbow Warrior happened on the NASCAR scene in the early 90s, the sport was in a golden era, and at the time, there was an exchange of great careers getting started, and some great careers winding down.
In this humble opinion, these are the greatest of the last 25 years. By then, great careers of Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, and Bobby Allison were either over or coming to a conclusion. The careers of Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Bill Elliott were at their apex. The 90s also signaled the rise of Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Tony Stewart and others.
Without further delay, here are the 10 greatest drivers of the last 25 years….
Worth noting: Kyle Busch has piled up trophies across all three of NASCAR’s top series, but we’re talking Cup here, and his performance has lacked consistency after an impressive 2008 campaign. We’ll never know what Alan Kulwicki would have accomplished had he not died in a 1993 plane crash, the season after winning it all in his cerebral style. Bobby Labonte won a championship in 2000, and excelled for a few years, but he was never quite the same after his season-ending win at Homestead in 2003. Kurt Busch won NASCAR’s first chase in 2004, but hasn’t been consistent as he’s bounced from team to team. Jeff Burton’s star shone briefly in the late 90s. Geoff Bodine’s best work was done in the 80s, but the venerable New Yorker still made a little noise in the 90s. Darrell Waltrip collected five wins in the early 90s before fading.
10. (tie) Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Terry Labonte- Hey, it’s my column, so I can go with a three-way tie here. Picking for this spot was HARD. Labonte was a cool, calculating sort who won championships 12 years apart, (1984 & 1996) and was steady, if unspectacular. If it’s all about wins, Kenseth is actually the top Cup winner in this trio, and he won it all in 2003. The newest champion, Harvick has been a consistent top 10 finisher in the Cup series for over a decade.
9. Bill Elliott- Though he achieved most of greatness in the 80s, the 1988 Cup champion reeled 12 of his 44 career after 1990, and finished top 10 in points five times during the 90s- including a second-place finish to Alan Kulwicki in 1992. “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” was named “Most Popular Driver” 16 times. Not too bad for a guy who will mainly be known in the future as “Chase Elliott’s Dad.”
8. Dale Jarrett- The 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise of second and third generation drivers from racing royalty: Petty, Allison, Pearson, and Earnhardt and it can be argued that the son of “Gentleman” Ned Jarrett was the most successful among those in this era. His steady ascent culminated in a 1993 Daytona 500 victory, in which Jarrett held off Dale Earnhardt; he would go on to win two more editions of the Great American Race (1996 & 2000). In 1999, Jarrett captured a NASCAR Winston Cup championship. All told, the man who was once offered a golf scholarship from the University of South Carolina won 32 races before hanging it up in 2008.
7. Davey Allison- Though his tragic death in 1993 cut short what was shaping up to be a brilliant career, no list would be complete without Allison. The son of the legendary Bobby Allison captured 13 checkered flags from 1990 until his untimely passing in a helicopter crash at Talladega Superspeedway. A fierce, but beloved competitor- the record book might have looked a lot different had he lived beyond his early 30s.
6. Mark Martin- To many, the diminutive yet buff, rap music loving Arkansan was the greatest driver to never win a championship. Martin was a six-time runner-up; twice to Dale Earnhardt, once to Jeff Gordon, once to Tony Stewart and once to Jimmie Johnson. Until Kyle Busch came along, Martin was the all-time leader in wins for what is now known as the Xfinity Series, and 39 of his 40 career Cup victories came this side of 1990.
5. Rusty Wallace- Here may be one of the underappreciated drivers of recent renown. He may not have had the most wins, and he may have earned only one championship to his credit, however, in perhaps NASCAR’s most competitive era, Wallace was among the best in a most competitive era. 39 of 55 of his wins came after 1990, and the Missourian in true midwestern form was a master of the short track with a record 34 victories on tracks of one mile or less.
4. Tony Stewart- The quintessential racer’s racer crossed over from open wheel racing in 1999 to capture three Cup wins in his rookie season. Smoke has gone on to win 45 more Cup events and three championships. It’s been said that you could put four wheels on a cockroach and he would win with that. Like another NASCAR great- Junior Johnson- Stewart has broadened his resume with success as a team, track and now, a racing series owner.
3. Jimmie Johnson- Argue if you must about how he may have benefited from the championship format under which he has won six, but that aside, Johnson’s accomplishments are undeniable. Since 1990, only Jeff Gordon has won more races than Johnson, who has won 70. Like his buddy, Johnson’s name appears on a variety of track reader boards, and what Dale Earnhardt was to the early 90s, Johnson was to the late 2000s, winning an unprecedented five titles in a row.
2. Dale Earnhardt- By 1990, The Intimidator had already peaked, having already won 39 races and three championships. He wasn’t done; in the 90s, the man who is arguably the greatest driver NASCAR had ever seen snagged another 37 victories and four more championships (1990, ’91, ’93 and ’94.) Injuries and age appeared to be gaining on Earnhardt by the time of his untimely death in the 2001 Daytona 500, so there’s no way to know what might have happened had he lived longer.
1. Jeff Gordon- With 92 wins (third all-time) and four championships, how can it not be Gordon? Road courses, super speedways, short tracks, he won them all. His championship run in 1998 with 13 wins and a stretch of four wins in a row was one of the most dominant in NASCAR’s Modern Era. Gordon’s background and personality transcended motorsports and redefined what the face of NASCAR looked like.