Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers: The GOATs

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.

Let’s begin the list of the 75 greatest with the GOATs (greatest of all time) of NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt’s father Ralph was a legendary competitor on southern dirt tracks throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Like his father, Dale cut his teeth on dirt but soon turned to the powerful and rapidly expanding NASCAR circuit.

Driving for Rod Osterlund, the Kannapolis, N.C., competitorer scored his first NASCAR Cup Series win at Bristol Motor Speedway during his 1979 Rookie of the Year campaign. He followed it up by claiming his first championship in 1980.

Earnhardt enjoyed most of his success with car owner Richard Childress. The duo won six more titles between 1986 and 1994.

In total, Earnhardt won 76 times in 676 starts, including the 1998 Daytona 500, a race he finally conquered after 20 attempts.

In 1988, GM Goodwrench replaced Wrangler Jeans as primary sponsor of Earnhardt’s Chevrolet, creating his iconic black No. 3 Chevrolet. During this time, he earned the nicknames of The Intimidator, The Man in Black and Ironhead for his rough-and-tumble, take-no-prisoners style of driving.

Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 as he was setting out on an attempt to claim a record-setting eighth Cup championship. His son Dale Earnhardt Jr. carried his father’s namesake and legacy, winning 26 times between 2000 and 2015.

Earnhardt was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of its inaugural class in 2010. -Zach Gillispie

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

Jeff Gordon

The 1992 Hooters 500.

In what is talked about as one of the greatest races in the NASCAR history, perhaps a footnote in that event was a debut. A fresh-faced, mustached kid wearing a mullet from California wheeled a bright rainbow-colored Chevrolet Lumina into the history books.

Jeff Gordon eventually went from that California kid to legend in a short span of eight years. He won three championships, 52 races and tied Richard Petty’s single-season win record of 13 all in that span.

He was NASCAR’s marquee attraction as well, as he battled with Dale Earnhardt in a rivalry that helped sell out race tracks all over the country. The exposure from their rivalry would also make both men household names not only in the South, a traditional market for the series, but also in brand-new areas into which the sanctioning body could grow.

The new millennium was kind to Gordon at first, as he won his fourth championship in 2001. But as is the case in racing, Gordon lost a step in the latter part of the 2000s; he had a strong season in 2007 but only won one time between 2008 and 2010.

Wonderboy, as Earnhardt famously nicknamed him, experienced a resurgence unlike many had seen before from 2010 to 2015, as he resumed his winning ways. He won 11 times in that timeframe, including a dramatic and fitting final victory at Martinsville Speedway in 2015.

Gordon retired in fourth on the all-time wins list with 93, and his contributions to the sport found him a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 2019.

That wasn’t the end of Gordon in racing, though. He went on to work for FOX Sports alongside Mike Joy and Darrell Waltrip as color commentator following his retirement. His natural charisma and knowledge of the sport made him a fan favorite in this regard. He stayed there until 2021, when his longtime car owner Rick Hendrick asked him to come aboard as vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon continues in that role as of this writing. -Garrett Cook

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson’s first venture in NASCAR was for Tad and Jodi Geschickter in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, driving the No. 59 Kingsford/Match Light Chevrolet at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park in 1998. He then ran part time for Herzog Motorsports in 1999 before competing the majority of races in 2000 and the full season in 2001. Johnson earned one victory in ‘01 at Chicagoland Speedway.

After getting his feet wet in the Cup Series that same year, the El Cajon, Calif.,
native started his full-time career with Hendrick Motorsports in 2002. Though he didn’t win Rookie of the Year, Johnson still earned three victories, six top fives and 21 top 10s – the start of a Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Across 686 starts as of the start of the 2023 season, Johnson tallied 83 wins, 232 top fives, 374 top 10s and 36 poles. He also claimed seven titles, including five in a row from 2006-2010. The 2007 championship campaign saw him grab 10 wins — the most he ever had in a season — as well as 20 top fives and 24 top 10s.

He’s also a two-time Daytona 500 champ, earning the feat in ‘06 and ‘13.

Additionally, Johnson claimed the $1 million prize in four All-Star Races: 2003, 2006, 2012 and 2013.

He closed out his last full-time season in 2020 with a top five at Phoenix Raceway before shifting gears to the NTT IndyCar Series in 2021 and 2022. Johnson piloted the No. 48 for Chip Ganassi Racing in 29 races, snagging two top 10s in 2022.

Following the 2022 IndyCar season, the 47-year-old announced that he’ll rejoin the Cup Series with Legacy Motor Club. He’ll run part time as a co-owner, starting with the 2023 Daytona 500. -Joy Tomlinson

David Pearson

David Pearson was part of a NASCAR era notable for its season counts stretching well into the 20s and 30s – Richard Petty’s 35, Hershel McGriff’s 29 among the most notable – and The Silver Fox put together 27 seasons of two starts or more, though never competing in a full schedule.

But when Pearson was hot, he was hot, reeling off five seasons of double-digit victories and three championships within a four-year span (1966, 1968 and 1969) while ranking third all-time in winning percentage with .183. Pearson also led all drivers in poles during six different seasons.

After entering the NASCAR world at the relatively older age of 25 in 1960, Pearson claimed 15 wins in the 1966 season – more than a third of his starts – en route to his first title. As if that wasn’t enough, his second title came on the heels of 16 wins and a 5.8 average finish two years later while leading 30% of the laps he ran.

He finished in the top five just over half the time he hit the track, the top 10 64% of the time and led just shy of 19% of the laps he raced. He also owns 43 of Wood Brothers Racing’s 99 wins while holding all-time records in wins at two tracks and poles at two others.

Much as he and Richard Petty sit in the top echelon of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, their duels in the 1974 Firecracker 400 and 1976 Daytona 500 rank among the sport’s greatest finishes, with Pearson feigning a blown engine in the former and crashing with Petty in the latter. In case it wasn’t obvious, he won both – managing to refire his maimed No. 21 in time during the latter for one of his 10 career crown-jewel triumphs. -Adam Cheek

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Richard Petty

The son of three-time NASCAR champion Lee Petty, Richard Petty’s legendary driving career spanned from 1958 to 1992. Primarily driving for his family team Petty Enterprises, his iconic No. 43 entry became synonymous with winning.

The Level Cross, N.C., native collected a NASCAR record 200 victories between 1960 and 1984, 95 more than second place on the all time wins list. His accolades also include the 1959 Rookie of the Year award, a record seven Daytona 500 wins, a record seven Cup championships, a record 123 poles, the most career starts, the most wins ever in a single season (27) and the most consecutive wins
(10).

One of The King’s crowning wins included the 1979 Daytona 500, triumphant after leaders Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison crashed on the final lap.

His final win came in the 1984 Firecracker 400, barely edging out Yarborough for his record-extending 200th win as President Ronald Reagan watched from the
press box.

For his accomplishments, Petty was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George H. W. Bush, the only NASCAR driver to receive such an honor.

Petty was inducted into the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame class in 2010 and is widely considered to be NASCAR’s greatest driver.

After retiring from driving, Petty turned his focus to team ownership, serving as a principal figure with Petty Enterprises, Richard Petty Motorsports, Petty GMS Racing and now the newly created Legacy Motor Club. ZG

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

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.

Adam Cheek joined Frontstretch as a contributing writer in January 2019. A 2020 graduate of VCU, he works as a producer and talent for Audacy Richmond's radio stations. In addition to motorsports journalism, Adam also covered and broadcasted numerous VCU athletics for the campus newspaper and radio station during his four years there. He's been a racing fan since the age of three, inheriting the passion from his grandfather, who raced in amateur events up and down the East Coast in the 1950s.

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DoninAjax

The GOATs
Dale Earnhardt
Jeff Gordon
Jimmie Johnson
David Pearson
Dale Earnhardt”

That proves this list is a joke!

Bill B

All lists of this type are jokes. However I see what they did here and it makes sense if you use wins and championships as the determining factor. Petty, Earnhardt and Johnson for their 7 championships, Pearson and Gordon for being 2nd and 3rd on the all-time win list.

Who do you think should have been included that wasn’t? And remember, wins and championships appear to be the basis. Just because you don’t like the drivers they picked doesn’t matter. It’s not based on like or dislike, it’s based only on actual statistics.

DoninAjax

Let’s compare Pearson and Johnson. Pearson won 105 (real) races in 366 (real) races and one hundred and thirteen poles. He won 3 (real) championships in 4 years and stopped at three because he wanted a ring for his each of his sons.Johnson won 83 mostly events in 686 mostly events and had 36 poles. He was gifted 7 titles by Brian.
Pearson won for around a dozen different owners including himself. Johnson drove for ONE owner who conceivably had the best car. How many would he have won in a Carl Long or Roush or Gibbs car or without Brian’s help?

As far as the GOAT I am torn between Pearson and Bobby Allison. They are the best I have seen. Boby also won for a lot of different owners including himself. But Benny Parsons said his GOAT is Curtis Turner and he could be too. How many on this staff have even heard of him?

Bill B

Well it sounds like you want to use your own criteria and not wins an championships. Maybe you should make your own list and put it out somewhere and then everyone can marvel at your genius. It seems your list is based on a lot of intangible factors besides wins and championships.

“As far as the GOAT I am torn between Pearson and Bobby Allison. They are the best I have seen.”
Oh, now I understand, you aren’t basing it on stats at all, you are basing it on your own bias and personal judgement. Way to go.

That’s the problem with time and sports, in the end the stats are the only thing that matters. Because some day all the people that saw Bobby Allison and Pearson race will be dead and the only thing that will be left are the stats, AND THAT’S WHAT WILL MATTER.

Last edited 8 days ago by Bill B
DoninAjax

And that is why it’s a fool’s game to rely on analytics to define anything. Analytics are ruining all sports because it takes the eye test in the moment out of the equation.If a batter is hitting 300 how does anyone know if the current at bat is the 1 in 3? Who’s to say Joe Montana or Steve Young or John Unitas wouldn’t have the same record as Brady if he was in his place?

Bill B

I agree with all of that but using the “eye test” has it’s own issues with “defining anything”. I’m not saying the list from the FS writers is necessarily right, but if you are only relying on stats it is, arguably, right.
And that is the spirit of these fluff pieces that they are putting out there to keep the fires burning until the season starts. At least it seems obvious to me, anyway.

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!

DoninAjax

And according to movies I have seen they are called “puff” pieces or “soft news”.

Bill B

Yes “they tug at the heart and numb the mind”, while not really proving anything.

OK so you should have just said you thought win percentage was a better method for ranking than actual wins and championships and left it at that, rather than complaining about the drivers on the list which were obviously based on the latter.

DoninAjax

It’s just click bait!

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