Over in the NBA, LeBron James has lain before himself a new challenge: to have a career worthy of being part of basketball’s “Mt. Rushmore.” Today- he says he belongs there alongside such luminaries as Jordan, Magic and Bird. Did you catch that? These are names even non-basketball fans know- transcendent figures.
It prompts for the motorsports fan the question of who belongs on NASCAR’s Mt. Rushmore? Who are the four giants?
For this fan, NASCAR’s Mt. Rushmore must be game changers, the giants of the sport. Who are the greats that even a non-fan would know? Two choices are easy, then the discussion becomes something of a judgment call.
Here is NASCAR’s Mt. Rushmore, according to yours truly…..
Richard Petty– The King is NASCAR’s Babe Ruth- the original giant of the sport a la Wilt Chamberlain. He is number one in wins with 200, tied for first in championships with seven, and dominated in ways no other driver will ever dominate again. 27 wins in one season? 10 wins in a row? Sure it was a different era, but Petty was more than a dominant driver, he was the face of NASCAR in the 60s and 70s, and was a big enough deal that President Ronald Reagan flew in for victory number 200. What’s more Petty has always taken seriously his role as NASCAR’s ambassador.
Dale Earnhardt– Go ask someone who knows nothing about NASCAR who Dale Earnhardt was, they’ll know who he was. He won seven championships in perhaps NASCAR’s most competitive era, “The Intimidator” was synonymous black Chevrolets, Wrangler jeans and Mr. Goodwrench. Earnhardt was NASCAR’s original badass and he was a blue collar legend for a blue collar sport. For the late 80s and 90s, NASCAR’s man in black became the face of the sport. While his roughhouse tactics earned him scorn in certain circles, there was nothing but a universal outpouring of reverence when Earnhardt died that fatal day in the 2001 running of the Daytona 500. If Petty is NASCAR’s Babe Ruth, then Earnhardt is the sport’s Michael Jordan.
Jeff Gordon – This four-time champion turned eyes towards NASCAR that had never paid attention before. With his polished image and California good looks, Gordon presented a visage that broke stereotypes, guest hosting on TV shows, and bottling his own wine. From the late 90s on into the 21st century, Gordon was a one man tour de force, setting a “modern” NASCAR record by winning 13 races in one season. Still racing, The Rainbow Warrior remains a capable contender who perhaps for better or for worse showed that NASCAR could draw a different kind of fan.
So who gets the fourth spot on the mountain? David Pearson and Cale Yarborough won multiple championships, so did Darrell Waltrip, who has maintained a high profile beyond his racing career. Junior Johnson? He was prolific in his career, but his greatest achievements came as an owner and as an ambassador who forged groundbreaking partnerships. Ned Jarrett and Rusty Wallace were also big winners who continued to make an impact after they hung up their helmets.
Among today’s drivers, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson head the class. Stewart has shown himself to be far more than an accomplished driver as a team owner and track owner. Johnson stands poised to equal and even top seven championships. Chase or no Chase, the man is a winner, and follows right in the path of Gordon as a NASCAR champ who doesn’t fit the stereotype. By the time it is all said and done, it may be Johnson who eclipses who not only passes Petty and Earnhardt for titles, but also passes the 100 win mark, achieved only by Petty and Pearson (105.)
What do you say fans? I think my first three are carved in stone with one spot open- most likely for Johnson. It’s a tough call with so many great ones in the sport, but racing is about winning, and no matter what measure you use, Johnson is closing fast with no sing of slowing down.