Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers: The Pioneers

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 final 75, 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.

The latest edition of this series discusses NASCAR’s original stars, the pioneers of the sport who came before the rest.

Buck Baker

Buck Baker, a former bus driver from the Carolinas, was among the 33 drivers in
the field for NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock race in 1949. It was the beginning of a career that spanned more than 25 years at NASCAR’s highest level.

In that time, Baker racked up 46 wins, 246 top fives, and 372 top 10s.

Baker won Grand National championships in 1956 and 1957, becoming the first driver to win consecutive premier series titles. The first championship came racing for Carl Kiekhaefer’s powerful Chrysler team, with whom Baker won 14 times.

When Kiekhaefer pulled out of NASCAR before the 1957 season, Baker spent most of that season racing for himself. Not only did he win the title again, he also scored 10 victories and finished outside the top 10 only twice in 40 starts.

A fixture on the Grand National tour during its formative years, Baker ran the majority of the season every year from 1953 through 1966. Unlike many of his contemporaries who tended to pick and choose the seasons in which they would regularly compete, Baker put himself in championship contention nearly every year. His career included a run of eight consecutive seasons with top-five points finishes.

While most of Baker’s wins came on short dirt ovals, he was often fast at Darlington Raceway. In 1964, he drove a Ray Fox-prepared Dodge to victory in the Southern 500, his third win in the race and ultimately the final win of his NASCAR Cup Series career.

Baker continued to make sporadic starts into the 1970s, earning his final top 10 at Darlington in 1976 at age 57. He died in April 2002. -Bryan Gable

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: The Next Generation

Red Byron

Most Army Air Corps veterans during World War II stationed in the Pacific Islands only flew at most around 20 missions serving on the staff of a B-24 Liberator, one of the largest and most mass-produced bomber planes ever built.

Red Byron served in 57 missions and wasn’t scheduled for a 58th until answering the call of duty when a substitute was needed at the last second. That 58th mission, the 29-year-old’s left leg was rendered useless.

After a little over two years on the mend, Byron was able to recover enough to return to pre-NASCAR stock-car racing. He had just started to make some headwinds in the scene when the war had started, and he refused to let a mere disabled leg get in his way.

Byron drove with a specially crafted clutch pedal to which his steel brace was bolted. On track, Byron was the first renowned driver of his style in the South, driving calmly and letting most of his competition fall out before making a charge at the end of the race.

In 1948, Byron won the inaugural NASCAR Modified Series championship and the first NASCAR-sanctioned Daytona Beach race. In 1949, he won the inaugural NASCAR Strictly Stock Series championship.

But that damn leg and the unspoken, unfair guilt of an accident in 1948 when his car lost a tire and plowed into a group of spectators that left a 7-year-old boy dead cut Byron’s active career short.

Byron became a sports car team manager in the 1950s but was never able to find the success in that discipline as he had as a driver. The first Cup winner at Daytona and Martinsville was found dead of a heart attack at age 45 in 1960. -Michael Finley

Lee Petty

When Lee Petty flipped out of the first-ever Strictly Stock race, few thought the 35-year-old family man would even come back.

Instead, he became the patriarch of one of racing’s most royal families, and though son Richard would eventually take the crown as the king of NASCAR, Lee parlayed that flip into a very successful 12-year career.

Taking the baton from Red Byron as the calmest driver on the track, Petty’s main job was to make sure there was food on the table; he wasn’t going to be a wild man like Curtis Turner. Petty made 427 Cup starts, and he finished in the top 10 a mind-bogging 332 times. He only finished 326 races, which means that Petty had such a massive lap advantage on occasion that he could still finish in the top 10 despite a late-race problem.

Just 21 times in Petty’s career did he finish a race without finishing in the top 10, and even if you include the 16 races when Petty’s status was unknown at the end of the race, that’s still a tiny 37 times.

Petty’s career essentially ended in a horrible crash in his Daytona International Speedway qualifying race in 1961, only coming back for a handful of races after major injuries in that race. By the time of that wreck, Petty had won 54 Cup races and led most statistical categories, including most wins, most top-five finishes, most top 10s and most championships. Even today, Petty’s career average finish of 7.6 is, by a full place, the best mark of any driver in history with at least 100 starts.

Once you look past his standing as King Richard’s father and that he won the first Daytona 500, Petty’s resume was incredibly impressive both in his day and now. -MF

Herb Thomas

In NASCAR’s founding era of wild racers and hell-raising moonshine runners, Herb Thomas took a different approach.

Thomas was a tobacco farmer-turned-racer known for his toughness and remarkable car control. He became the first driver to win multiple championships at NASCAR’s highest level, racing cars tuned by the legendary mechanic Smokey Yunick.

Along with his Grand National titles in 1951 and 1953, Thomas won 48 races and earned 156 top 10s in 229 starts. His winning percentage of 20.96% is outstanding, even among other NASCAR legends.

He was also crucial to Hudson’s success in NASCAR’s early years. Driving a Hudson
to victory lane 39 times, Thomas’ career inspired the Doc Hudson character in Pixar’s Cars franchise.

Thomas deserves special recognition for being the first driver to demonstrate a mastery of Darlington. In seven races at the Lady in Black, Thomas won three times: the 1951, 1954 and 1955 Southern 500s. The 1955 victory was particularly impressive because it came after Thomas suffered major injuries in another race only four months earlier. While recovering from a broken leg, a concussion and several injuries to his arm and shoulder, Thomas vowed that he would return to the driver’s seat and win the Southern 500. Against long odds, he did.

Thomas sustained serious head injuries in another incident near the end of
the 1956 season. The crash took Thomas out of contention for a possible third championship and effectively ended his competitive career. Yet Thomas’ championships, frequent trips to victory lane and triumphs at Darlington immortalized him as one of NASCAR’s best racers of the ’50s. -BG

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: Champions of the 2010s & Beyond

Curtis Turner

The Babe Ruth of stock car racing. The personification of larger than life. No driver, with the exceptions of Roy Hall and Dale Earnhardt, ever gave fans as much value for their ticket than Curtis Turner.

A NASCAR Hall-of-Famer, Turner is probably best remembered today as the first stock car driver to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated and for the wild tales of his off-track activities. Turner worked in the timber business, which allowed him to do essentially whatever he wanted. He was the exact opposite of Lee Petty, a driver who would go like hell and, win or lose, just be out for a great time.

Turner’s Cup stats are middling, but there’s two reasons for that. He spent much of the late ’50s focused on the Convertible Division. In 79 starts, Turner won 38 races and had by far the most victories in that division.

Then, in 1961, Turner was banned forever from NASCAR after attempting to organize the drivers into a union, as part of his deal with the Teamsters Union to finish construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Four years later, with Ford dominating a Cup Series with little Chevrolet support and a banned Plymouth keeping Chrysler out, Bill France broke the emergency glass and reinstated Turner.

His final Cup win came later in 1965. Turner woke up the morning of the inaugural Rockingham Speedway race hung over on the decklid of his Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Turner, driving with a hangover for not the first time in his career, was able to outgun up-and-coming Cale Yarborough in the closing laps to nab the only win of his Cup comeback. -MF

Frontstretch‘s 75 Greatest NASCAR Drivers

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
Davey Allison
Neil Bonnett
Alan Kulwicki
Tiny Lund
Tim Richmond
Fireball Roberts
Joe Weatherly

Stars of the ’60s & ’70s
Bobby Isaac
Fred Lorenzen
Benny Parsons
Jim Paschal
LeeRoy Yarbrough

Stars of the ’80s & ’90s
Geoff Bodine
Jeff Burton
Ernie Irvan
Sterling Marlin

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

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

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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.

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