Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers: The Legends

NASCAR is celebrating its 75th anniversary all throughout the 2023 season.

In 1998, NASCAR had a panel select a list of its 50 greatest drivers for its golden anniversary.

Likewise, we at Frontstretch decided to put together our own list of the 75 greatest NASCAR drivers in honor of this year’s milestone. Seventeen of our writers weighed in to pick the 75 drivers, and we’ll be releasing four to seven drivers from that list every weekday for the next three weeks.

Similar to the one in 1998, this list is not a ranking of the top-75 drivers. Instead, we’ve broken the list down into categories, with a new category released each day (see the full list below). Within those categories, the drivers are listed in alphabetical order.

Today, we tackle the Legends.

Bobby Allison

Three-time Daytona 500 winner, 1983 NASCAR Cup Series champion and founding member of the Alabama Gang, Bobby Allison is a shoo-in for any list of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. His Hall-of-Fame career is an example of the success, longevity, and determination of one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

As a young man, Allison’s mom forbade him from racing, so he assumed the name Bob Sunderman at the track. That alias lasted only one race; after finishing well enough to make the local paper, his father told him to change it. If Allison was going to race, he said, he should do it with honor under his own. 

By 1965 Allison was in the Cup Series, and by 1966 he’d scored his first victory. He spent much of the decade campaigning for independent owners, driving Chevrolets to occasional wins in seasons dominated by factory-backed Ford and Chrysler teams.

He was an upstart, a youngster, he raced with something to prove, and others took notice. While Richard Petty and David Pearson may have been rivals on track, Petty and Allison were enemies.

In 1972, Allison won 10 races and 11 poles and led 4,343 laps, Petty was only good enough for eight, three and 2,093 respectively, but claimed the title anyway. The most iconic moment, of both the season and the two legends’ rivalry, was a fender-banging duel in the Wilkes 400. Like he did in the standings, Petty came out just ahead. 

But maybe Allison got the last laugh. As other greats aged into semi-retirement and irrelevance, Allison kept stealing headlines and glory well into the 1980s. He became Cup champion for the first time at age 45 and won his final Daytona 500 in 1988, holding off his son Davey to become, at 50, the oldest driver to win the Great American Race.

After suffering head injuries in a crash at Pocono Raceway later that year, he retired with 84 Cup victories.

Well, 84 victories officially, anyway. If you ask Allison, he’ll tell you 85, and for good reason. Due to a NASCAR scoring anomaly from the body’s brief experiment with multi-class racing, the 1969 Myers Brothers 250 at Bowman-Gray Stadium was awarded to Allison as a Grand American division victory while, officially speaking, nobody won the Cup race. -Jack Swansey

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: The GOATs

Ned Jarrett

Maybe the most well-known story of Ned Jarrett’s racing career was how he really started out in Grand National racing: writing a bad check on Friday, sweeping a Saturday-Sunday doubleheader and then beating the check to the bank on Monday with enough winnings to cover it.

Despite his colorful start, Jarrett was the epitome of the gentleman racecar driver. A fierce competitor, Jarrett was also a fair one, renowned for his clean racing style.

Jarrett competed in only six seasons in which he drove in over 90% of the races, but he finished in the top five in points every year and won two championships. He won 50 races in just 352 starts and is one of just 14 drivers with 50 or more career Cup victories.

Although the Ford stalwart was greatly assisted by a Chrysler boycott in 1965, Jarrett’s second championship-winning season was still extremely impressive. The future NASCAR Hall-of-Famer had a 4.9 average finish and 13 wins in 54 starts, with only 10 races that season not having Jarrett as a top-10 finisher.

Jarrett hung up his helmet after a winless 1966 season and went on to a long and successful careers in promoting and broadcasting races. His tenure in the TV booth was marked as a golden era of NASCAR coverage. The gentleman driver became a gentle, well-spoken broadcaster that was still down to Earth and neighborly enough to sound like an old friend over to watch the race after church on Sunday.

Like his driving, Jarrett was calm and fair to all, with the noted exception of the 1993 Daytona 500. On the final lap, he could not hold back his emotions as he cheered on and celebrated his son Dale Jarrett’s first-ever win in the Great American race. -Michael Finley

Rusty Wallace

On a Sunday afternoon in March 1980 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Rusty Wallace finished second in his Cup debut in a car owned by Roger Penske.

It was a sign of things to come.

The St. Louis native ran his first two full-time seasons for Cliff Stewart in 1984 and 1985 before joining forces with Raymond Beadle in Blue Max Racing’s No. 27 car. The move paid off immediately, as Wallace scored his first two Cup wins in 1986. In five seasons with the team, Wallace scored 18 wins — a number that included the 1990 Coca-Cola 600 — and defeated Dale Earnhardt by 12 points to win the 1989 championship.

Beadle’s team suspended operations after the 1990 season, and the team’s equipment was acquired by none other than Penske for 1991.

Wallace scored 37 wins in the team’s No. 2 car in a 15-year tenure between 1991 and 2005 before retiring; that win total included a 10-victory season in 1993 and an eight-triumph season in 1994. Although Wallace was unable to add to his championship total (with a runner-up finish to Earnhardt in 1993 as his best result), he spent the ’90s as one of Earnhardt’s most formidable rivals and crafted his own legacy as an all-time great driver.

Wallace has the 11th-most wins all time, and much of his legacy was built on NASCAR’s shortest circuits. He scored 25 of his 55 victories on tracks shorter than 1 mile, with nine at Bristol Motor Speedway, seven at Martinsville Speedway, six at Richmond Raceway and three at North Wilkesboro Speedway. In addition to his short-track prowess, Wallace scored six wins on road courses, a number that is tied for the fourth most all time.

Wallace, his performance and his cars have become an instrumental part of NASCAR lore, as Wallace’s 1991-1995 Miller Genuine Draft paint scheme is one of the most famous and recognizable NASCAR liveries of all time. He was a prominent figure in one of NASCAR’s most recognizable eras, and he continued his involvement with the sport after retirement as an announcer and team owner.

Wallace was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a driver in 2013. -Stephen Stumpf

Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip started his Cup career in 1972 and ended it in 2000 after just
over 800 starts. He drove for DiGard Racing, Junior Johnson & Associates and Hendrick Motorsports before setting out on his own in 1991. His first victory came at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in 1975, a fitting place for the Tennessee native.

Waltrip won multiple races and finished in the top five in points each year from 1977-1980 for DiGard, but his switch to Junior Johnson’s team saw him claim his first title in 1981. He won 12 races that season and added on 21 top fives, 25 top 10s and 11 poles. The following year he duplicated the win column on the way to his second-straight championship. Then in 1985, Jaws – a nickname given to him by Cale Yarborough – claimed his third title after three wins, 18 top fives and 21 top 10s.

Waltrip had a knack for short tracks, as he won six times at Richmond Raceway, 10 at North Wilkesboro Speedway, 11 at Martinsville Speedway and 12 at Bristol Motor Speedway. His dominance was displayed in his first several years with Johnson, taking five straight checkered flags at North Wilkesboro and seven consecutive at Bristol.

But one of his biggest achievements was his Daytona 500 victory in 1989 for Hendrick. Waltrip led just 25 laps, but it was all he needed to claim his first and only win at the World Center of Racing.

After his tenure in Cup, Waltrip joined the FOX Sports booth in 2001 and announced his retirement from broadcasting in 2019. He then rejoined the booth in 2022 for one (to-date) last “Boogity, boogity, boogity” at Bristol.

His 84 Cup wins and 13 in the NASCAR Xfinity Series are part of a very successful career for the 2012 Hall of Fame inductee. Yet Waltrip will equally be known for his time in broadcasting – not just for the catchphrase, but also for his knowledge and style after nearly 20 years in the booth. -Joy Tomlinson

See also
How Will Stewart-Haas Racing Fill Kevin Harvick's Shoes?

Cale Yarborough

1970s NASCAR is a story that can’t be told without three names: Richard Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough.

Hailing from Timmonsville, S.C., Yarborough didn’t have an easy climb to the upper echelon of NASCAR at first, as he made part-time starts with over a dozen teams between 1957 and 1966 before scoring his first Cup win in 1965. He then caught his big break with Wood Brothers Racing, and he scored 13 wins for the team between 1967 and 1970.

After relatively quiet 1971 and 1972 seasons, Yarbrough joined forces with Richard Howard and his No. 11 car in 1973. The team was transferred to Junior Johnson in the middle of 1974, and Yarborough’s results in the No. 11 car were nothing short of legendary. He scored 55 wins between 1973 and 1980, and he finished first or second in points in all but two seasons.

Yarborough reached his peak between 1976 and 1978, as he scored 28 wins and three consecutive Cup championships, a record that stood until Jimmie Johnson won five straight between 2006 and 2010.

Yarborough then concluded his career by running part time for MC Anderson, Harry Rainier and himself in the 1980s. He scored another 14 wins between 1980 and 1985 before retiring after the 1988 season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

In 560 starts, Yarborough scored 83 wins (tied for sixth all time), 255 top fives, 319 top 10s and 69 poles. He had a career winning percentage of 14.8% and was a dominant driver throughout his career, as his 31,556 career laps led is second only to Petty. He also had a decorated history in NASCAR’s most prestigious races with the second-most Daytona 500 victories (four) and the second-most Southern 500 wins (five) of all time.

Without a doubt, Yarborough is one of NASCAR’s 10 greatest drivers, and he set all of these accomplishments despite only running full time for eight seasons. If he had found full-time team stability earlier in the ’60s, there’s no telling how much more he would’ve accomplished on the racetrack. -SS

Frontstretch‘s 75 Greatest NASCAR Drivers

The GOATs
Dale Earnhardt
Jeff Gordon
Jimmie Johnson
David Pearson
Richard Petty

The Legends
Bobby Allison
Ned Jarrett
Rusty Wallace
Darrell Waltrip
Cale Yarborough

Generation X
Greg Biffle
Carl Edwards
Denny Hamlin
Kasey Kahne
Ryan Newman

Champions of the 2010s & Beyond
Brad Keselowski
Kyle Larson
Joey Logano
Martin Truex Jr.

The Next Generation
Buddy Baker
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Chase Elliott
Dale Jarrett

The Pioneers
Buck Baker
Red Byron
Lee Petty
Herb Thomas
Curtis Turner

Brotherly Love
Kurt Busch
Kyle Busch
Fonty Flock
Tim Flock
Bobby Labonte
Terry Labonte

Masters of the Modifieds
Jerry Cook
Richie Evans
Ray Hendrick
Mike Stefanik

Lower-Series Lifers
Sam Ard
Matt Crafton
Red Farmer
Ron Hornaday Jr.
Jack Ingram
Jack Sprague

Exceptional Longevity
Bill Elliott
Harry Gant
Kevin Harvick
Matt Kenseth
Mark Martin
Ricky Rudd

Gone Too Soon
??? (Feb. 6)

Stars of the ’60s & ’70s
??? (Feb. 7)

Stars of the ’80s & ’90s
??? (Feb. 8)

Stars From 1949-1960
??? (Feb. 9)

Jacks of All Trades
??? (Feb. 10)

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

Joy joined Frontstretch in 2019 as a NASCAR DraftKings writer, expanding to news and iRacing coverage in 2020. She's currently an assistant editor while continuing to write daily fantasy and news articles. A California native, Joy was raised as a motorsports fan and started watching NASCAR extensively in 2001. She earned her B.A. degree in Liberal Studies at California State University Bakersfield in 2010.

Stephen Stumpf joined Frontstretch in September 2021 and currently pens the weekly columns 4 Burning Questions and Stat Sheet. He also contributes to Frontstretch with social media, editing and rotating commentary while occasionally serving as an on-site reporter.  A Texas native, Stephen started following NASCAR at age 9.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

Jack Swansey is an open-wheel racing editor at Frontstretch.com and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

Share this article

guest

8 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
DoninAjax

Where is Mark Martin? And where would Marty Robbins fit in?

Kurt Smith

I’ll probably get a lot of flak for saying it, but Kyle Busch belongs in the GOATs category in my opinion. 224 wins among the three series is never going to be touched. He may only have two championships, but that’s how many Jimmie would have under the “classic” points system that all the GOATs before him won titles under.

Bill B

Gee, maybe that’s because most of the other NASCAR Cup stars didn’t run hundreds of Xfin and Truck races while they were Cup stars.
It will never be touched because most Cup drivers won’t step down and race in those lower series. Maybe they are lazy or maybe they have too much class to beat up on the lower series. If all the top drivers started running as many lower series races as KB, then it would be touched eventually.

Last edited 8 days ago by Bill B
Kurt Smith

Even in the Truck and Xfinity Series Bill, Kyle faced MUCH tougher competition than Richard Petty did in the TOP series. Back in Petty’s day drivers often won by a lap or more, and most seasons you only had five or six race winners, as opposed to now where there are usually more than 12-13. To me that makes Kyle’s win total more impressive, not less. I loved Petty, but he didn’t face anywhere near the level of competition that Kyle did.

Last edited 7 days ago by Kurt Smith
Bill B

I’ve never been that impressed with Petty’s 200 wins either for exactly the reasons you state. To me those reasons equally apply to Kyle Busch’s 200 wins. You didn’t address my point about many of the top Cup drivers being able to match his success if they were willing to invade the lower series as regularly as he did. The crux of this issue is whether you think it is admirable to go down to those lower series and steal their thunder (and purses) or you think it’s lame when drivers do that (especially as much as Kyle did). Obviously you think it was admirable and I think it was lame. With that in mind he could win a 1000 races in those lower series while being a top 10 driver in Cup and it wouldn’t move the needle for me at all. I just see someone beating up on wanna bees for their own ego trip and greed.

DoninAjax

David Pearson won 18% of the races he entered. Richard Petty won 17% of the races he entered. Bobby won 12% of the races he entered. Jimmie Johnson won 12% of the events he entered. Baby Busch won 9% of the events he entered. Analytics!

Kurt Smith

Pearson, Allison and Petty raced in an era where there were no multi-car teams and the competition was nowhere near as tough. Look up the statistics and see how many race winners there were each season in the Petty/Pearson/Allison era compared to the years Kyle Busch raced. Again, in those days drivers often won by a lap or more because there was a lot less regulation of car specs and one car on each team. No WAY would ANY of those guys win at that percentage level today or even in the last 15 years.

I’m not disputing Jimmie’s place among the all-time greats, but for the same reasons I believe Kyle belongs there too.

Last edited 7 days ago by Kurt Smith
Bill B

If Kyle had 7 Cup championships and/or 80+ Cup wins then he belongs in that group. But he doesn’t. he’s stuck at 60.

Also, why is Kyle the only Cup driver where some people (especially in the media) regularly group all his wins together? I never hear any other driver’s wins aggregated across all three series when discussing total wins or their place in NASCAR history. Why is that?

Last edited 7 days ago by Bill B
Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

8
0
Comment on this articlex
()
x