Race Weekend Central

Frontstretch 5: Virginia’s Most Successful Inactive Drivers in NASCAR

We’re all familiar with NASCAR’s roots originating in the southern part of the United States: the foundation of NASCAR occurred in Daytona Beach, Fla., while the first ever race was held in North Carolina. But Virginia is another one of these old-timey states with plenty of NASCAR history to sift through.

Martinsville Speedway, where NASCAR just raced this past weekend, is still the longest-active track in organization history, going all the way back to its inaugural season in 1949. There are several NASCAR-sanctioned tracks in which many famed drivers began their careers at, like Langley Speedway, South Boston Speedway and Motor Mile Speedway. Wood Brothers Racing is still kicking after 70 years of operation.

With NASCAR wrapping up its Virginia swing this coming weekend at Richmond Raceway, it’s fitting that we browse through the most successful all-time drivers that hail from the state. All upcoming drivers on this list have since passed on or retired. Which means that since Denny Hamlin’s career is still ongoing (he’s already likely a future Hall of Famer), we’ll have to reserve him for another list on another day. Sorry, Hamlin fans. 

1. Ricky Rudd (Chesapeake, Va.)

At 18 years old, Ricky Rudd began his NASCAR Cup Series career at Rockingham Speedway in 1975, where he scored an impressive 11th-place finish. For the next 31 seasons, he built up a memorable legacy in NASCAR. Rudd has the second-longest streak of consecutive starts at 788, and his total of 906 starts ranks second all-time to Richard Petty’s record of 1185 starts. His tally of 23 career wins isn’t too shabby either, including his well-documented streak of winning at least one race in 16 consecutive seasons from 1983-1998.

Not only did he have one of the longest careers, but he proved himself to be a driver that could bounce back from tough situations. After suffering a violent flip in the 1984 Busch Clash, Rudd finished seventh in the Daytona 500 with his eyes taped open, followed by a win at Richmond one week later.

His grueling 1998 win at Martinsville saw him conquer 90-plus degree heat with a malfunctioned cooling system in his car, followed by Rudd receiving medical assistance during his victory lane interview.

Rudd retired from driving after the 2007 season, ending his legendary career with plenty of dignity and respect. He was named as one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998 and is an inductee of the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.

2. Joe Weatherly (Fairfax, Va.)

It took a little time for Joe Weatherly to find his place in the Cup Series. But when he finally did, he became an unstoppable force. His first wins came in 1960, and he continued to rack up more from there. By the end of the 1963 season, the Hall of Famer had scored 25 total wins, a 66.5 top-10 percentage rate and back-to-back championships, taking the title in 1962 and 1963. In addition to the rigid driving style he had on the track, his funny and clown-like personality made him a fan favorite off the track.

Unfortunately, in pursuit of his championship defense, Weatherly’s career and life were cut short on Jan. 19, 1964, after suffering fatal injuries in a crash at Riverside International Raceway in California. He was just 41 years old. But there’s no doubt that the “Clown Prince of Racing” had a lasting effect on classic NASCAR racing. He will always be remembered as one of the late greats.

3. Ray Hendrick (Richmond, Va.)

When someone earns a nickname like “Mr. Modified,” you had to have done something magical to do it. And Ray Hendrick was able to do just that.

He briefly got his feet wet in the upper series of NASCAR, making 17 Cup starts and seven starts in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series. But his heart purely belonged to what is now the Whelen Modified Tour. No official record books were stored by the Modified series until the mid-1980s, but it’s estimated that Hendrick has over 700 victories between the Modifieds, Late Model Sportsman Series and a handful of others. He became synonymous with his “Flying Eleven” car, a scheme in which Hamlin drove to victory with in the 2017 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

Hendrick died of cancer on Sept. 28, 1990 at the age of 61. But he was still greatly rewarded after his passing. He was named one of NASCAR’s 50 greatest drivers in 1998 and has also since been inducted into both the Virginia Motorsports Hall of Fame and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.

4. Curtis Turner (Floyd, Va.)

A driver who was part of the very formation of NASCAR in 1948, Curtis Turner has come to be one of the most intriguing personalities in the classic era of NASCAR, both as a driver and as an individual.

Turner never did run a full Cup season. But every time he showed up to a racetrack, he was often one of the toughest guys for the competition to race against. He scored 17 career wins between 1949-65, including the 1956 Southern 500 and the inaugural race at Rockingham Speedway in 1965. He also tallied over 4,900 career laps led. His record in the former NASCAR Convertible division was even better, earning 38 wins and 23 poles.

Off the track, Turner built up a reputation as both a heavy partier and an outlaw. In 1960, he tried to organize a drivers’ union to gather monetary support for the newly-constructed Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960, as well as requesting other benefits from NASCAR. Upon hearing this, CEO Bill France slapped a lifetime ban onto Turner and fellow driver Tim Flock. Turner’s ban was lifted in 1965. He also drove Smokey Yunick’s famed yet mysterious No. 13 Chevelle in the 1967 Daytona 500, putting it on the pole.

Turner perished in a plane crash on Oct. 4, 1970. He is an inductee of the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and a 2016 class inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

5. Ward Burton & Jeff Burton (South Boston, Va.)

Okay, maybe there isn’t room for just five drivers here. The accomplishments between these two brothers were too close for one to outweigh the other. So we’ll make an exception and include them both in the final spot together.

For over two decades, Ward Burton and “The Mayor” Jeff Burton were forceful figures on the racetrack. They began racing with their family’s race team at South Boston, advancing up from go-karts to late models before beginning their professional NASCAR careers. Between their Cup Series careers, they have a combined 1,070 starts and 26 wins. Ward has two landmark wins to boast about with his Southern 500 and Daytona 500 victories, while Jeff has wins in the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and a plethora of others.

Ward’s last NASCAR start came in 2012, while Jeff’s came in 2014. Today, the family name is still alive on the racetrack with cousins Jeb and Harrison Burton (Ward’s and Jeff’s sons, respectively) competing against each other in the Xfinity Series. It would be safe to bet on there being a Burton on the track for many oncoming years, let alone winning on one.

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