It’s hard to survive in NASCAR’s top series. It’s success that usually breeds longevity, and the NASCAR Cup Series is rife with successful veteran drivers. Who’s been around the longest? Here are the five full-time Cup drivers whose careers began the longest ago. Due to the structure of the rules for rookies at the time, many made a handful of starts before their full rookie seasons. All are multiple-time Cup Series winners; four are Cup champions.
1. Kurt Busch
Debut race: 2000 MBNA 400, Sept. 24, 2000, at Dover International Speedway (started 10th, finished 18th)
First full season: 2001
First win: March 24, 2002, at Bristol Motor Speedway
Career races: 688
2004 Cup Series Champion
Busch is one of only two drivers still active in the Cup Series who raced against Dale Earnhardt, making his debut in the 2000 season. He missed out on the rookie title in 2001 to Kevin Harvick but took his first win the following year and was the first of this group to win a title, coming in 2004.
While Busch’s first win or title (video below) might be the most memorable moment for the driver, for many fans, it’s his role in the Cup Series’ closest finish ever that will go down in the books.
2. Ryan Newman
Debut race: 2000 Checker Auto Parts/DuraLube 500, Nov. 5, 2000, at Phoenix Raceway (started 10th, finished 41st)
First full season: 2002 (Rookie of the Year)
First win: Sept. 15, 2002, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway
Career races: 657
The Rocketman might not have as many wins as the others here, but his remarkable consistency and bulldog attitude has made him a Cup Series staple. Newman debuted in 2000 (the other driver to have raced with Earnhardt) but would not run a full season until 2002, when he beat out Jimmie Johnson for rookie honors while driving for Team Penske. That start puts his ahead of Harvick even though Newman has fewer starts. Newman is currently sidelined due to a head injury suffered in this year’s Daytona 500, but is hopeful for a return. The video below is Newman’s first win. The runner-up that day? Kurt Busch.
3. Kevin Harvick
Debut race: 2001 Dura Lube 400, Feb. 26, 2001, at Rockingham Speedway (started 36th, finished 14th)
First full season: 2001 (Rookie of the Year)
First win: March 11, 2001, at Atlanta Motor Speedway
Career races: 686
2014 Cup Series Champion
Harvick’s first win was a bittersweet victory; it came in his third start after Harvick took over Earnhardt’s Richard Childress Racing ride a week after Earnhardt’s death in 2001. The plan for Harvick had been for him to run his first full season in 2002, but Earnhardt’s death put him on the fast track. The emotion of that first win — a hard-fought battle with Jeff Gordon — was palpable as Earnhardt’s crew finally had something to smile about.
4. Jimmie Johnson
Debut race: 2001 UAW-GM Quality 500, Oct. 7, 2001, at Charlotte Motor Speedway (started 15th, finished 39th)
First full season: 2002
First win: April 28, 2002, at Auto Club Speedway
Career races: 655
2006-10, 2013, 2016 Cup Series Champion
Johnson’s debut was inauspicious to say the least. He crashed out of his first start, and his best finish in three races in 2001 was 25th. It didn’t exactly answer any questions about why he’d been tapped for a brand-new ride at Hendrick Motorsports. But Johnson answered those questions soundly in 2002, becoming the first rookie in Cup Series history to lead the points. He won his first title in 2006 and tied the all-time record in 2016 with his seventh (below). Johnson will retire from full-time Cup competition after this season.
5. Kyle Busch
Debut race: 2004 UAW Daimler-Chrysler 400, March 7, 2004, at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (started 18th, finished 41st)
First full season: 2005 (Rookie of the Year)
First win: Sept. 4, 2005 at Auto Club
Career races: 538
2015, 2019 Cup Series Champion
Yes, he’s been around that long (Martin Truex Jr. and JJ Yeley also made their Cup debuts in 2004, but Busch’s was first). Busch has established himself as the Cup Series’ dominant driver in the last few years, with most of his wins and both titles coming in the 2010s. But he was just 20 years old when he took the checkers for the first time (below), driving for Hendrick.
About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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Harvick’s first full Cup season was 2002. He did not run the 2001 Daytona 500.
Also, how could his debut race be “2001 Dura Lube 400, Sept. 26, 2001, at Rockingham Speedway”?
Didn’t he take over right after Dale died in Feb of 2001? Didn’t he win at Atlanta a few weeks later?
Really need to re-research this one.
OK it just looks like the debut race is incorrect. Everything else looks correct (except debut and, as Rick pointed out, first full season is technically 2002 even though he won Rookie of the Year in 2001)
The correct date of his debut is February 25, 2001…..one week after Daytona
I miss seeing Kellogg’s as a sponsor.
I corrected the date; it was correct in my draft but somehow got switched up in the shuffle. It’s 2-26-01. I consider Harvick to have been a full-time Cup driver in 2001. While he didn’t race at Daytona (and the intent at the time had been for him to run a limited schedule that would have allowed him to run for rookie honors in ’02), he ran every race and won ROTY over Kurt Busch. I don’t think he can be considered part-time for 2001. “First season as a full-time Cup driver” seems a little unwieldy. Perhaps “Rookie season” would have been clearer?
That’s a lame argument but it’s your article, not mine. I’m a huge Harvick fan, but there was zero intent for him to run full time in 2001 and he was not entered in the sport’s marquee event. Is Ryan Newman running full time in 2020? Did Kyle Busch run full time in 2015?