Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers: Exceptional Longevity

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.

There are drivers in NASCAR’s 75-year history who have had flash-in-the-pan success, and then there are those whose triumphs were sustained over a long period of time. Here are some of the stories of the latter.

Bill Elliott

Just over an hour from Atlanta Motor Speedway, a small Georgia town called Dawsonville has become a staple location among NASCAR fans. That can be credited to Bill Elliott, a NASCAR Hall of Famer who went against the status quo, performing at a high level throughout a career that spanned just under four decades.

Elliott arrived on the NASCAR Cup Series scene in 1976 but did not compete full time until 1983. During that season, he earned his first win in the season finale at Riverside International Raceway, finishing third in points.

Driving the iconic Melling Racing No. 9 from 1981 to 1991, Elliott won 34 races with the team. In 1985, Elliott scored 11 victories and earned a $1 million bonus by winning the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 and the Winston 500 to achieve the Winston Million. That earned him the nickname Million Dollar Bill.

After five consecutive seasons with points finishes of fourth or better, Elliott finally broke through in 1988 to win his first title, winning six races that season.

Awesome Bill from Dawsonville left Melling in 1992. From there, he drove for Junior Johnson for four seasons before forming his own team in 1996.

Enduring a seven-year winless stretch, Elliott joined the Dodge revival in 2001 with Evernham Motorsports, returning to his iconic No. 9. At 46 years old, he earned Ray Evernham his first win at Homestead-Miami Speedway and broke the drought.

Elliott won three more races with the team before retiring from full-time competition following the 2003 season.

Adored by loyal fans, Elliott won the Most Popular Driver award 16 times, the most of any driver. He also held the record for the most consecutive MPD awards until 2017 with 14.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015, Elliott recorded 44 wins, 175 top fives, 320 top 10s and 55 poles in his career. His speed records, awe-inspiring moments and popularity still resonate with fans today, evidenced by the popularity of his son, Chase Elliott. -Luken Glover

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: Lower-Series Lifers

Harry Gant

Harry Gant today is remembered for a number of things. One is his somewhat youthful appearance, despite now being 83.

Other than that, he’s likely best remembered for longevity and  a stretch of excellent in 1991 where he won four consecutive NASCAR Cup Series races at the age of 51, earning the nickname Mr. September. He came within 10 laps of making it five in a row at North Wilkesboro Speedway before a deflating tire allowed Dale Earnhardt past.

Gant entered the Cup Series at a somewhat advanced age. He ran for Rookie of the Year in 1979 at age 39 against the much younger Earnhardt and Terry Labonte despite making his Cup debut in 1973. Prior to that, Gant had spent years racing on the short tracks of the Carolinas. He won three championships in NASCAR’s Sportsman division and had multiple strong showings in the Late Model Sportsman circuit.

The early years of Gant’s Cup career were a series of near misses and jumping around from team to team. He started with Kennie Childers and then went to Race Hill Farm. He split 1980 between Rahmoc Enterprises and Race Hill, and then drove for three different teams early in 1981 before finally settling in with the then-new Mach 1 team owned by Burt Reynolds and his close friend, Hollywood stuntman/director Hal Needham, finishing third in points.

The early part of Gant’s Cup career was not dissimilar to Chase Elliott’s. He was right on the cusp of winning for a couple of years but was unable to hit paydirt. Gant had 10 second-place finishes before finally winning at Martinsville Speedway in April 1982.

Unlike Elliott, the floodgates didn’t open completely. The rest of the first half of the 1980s were strong, though. He earned a couple of victories a year and finish in the top five in points. 1984 was his strongest year, when he won three races and finished second to Labonte.

Then Gant’s performance dropped off. After 1985, he didn’t win any more races for Needham and Reynolds. 1987 was rock bottom, when he failed to finish 22 of 29 races. He maintained a strong relationship with Skoal, so when Needham and Reynolds’ team was sold to Travis Carter, Gant took his funding to Leo Jackson’s new organization.

The first couple of years at Leo Jackson Motorsports were up and down. Gant won a race in 1989 but dropped to 17th in points in 1990. 1991 saw Andy Petree take over as crew chief — and that’s when things really took off. A career-high five wins (including the four in September), plus a fourth-place finish in points in 1992 at 52 showed that he still had the goods.

Gant’s victory at Michigan in August 1992 makes him the oldest driver to ever win a race in the Cup Series. -Phil Allaway

Kevin Harvick

The Bakersfield Basher. Happy. The Closer.

These are nicknames of Kevin Harvick, NASCAR Cup Series driver of the No. 4 Ford of Stewart-Haas Racing. The first one came about due to his aggressive driving and features his hometown. His hot temper as well as his grin from the early years were part of why he was nicknamed Happy. Lastly, The Closer came from his ability to eke out victories from seemingly nowhere.

Last season’s win at Richmond Raceway was a perfect example of the latter for the 47-year-old, as he took the lead on lap 335 and held off Chris Buescher and Christopher Bell in the final 60 laps. But perhaps more notable for Harvick was that the win, which was his second straight, took him to 60 in his career, tying Kyle Busch for ninth on the all-time Cup win list.

Harvick’s Cup tenure began under tragic circumstances, with Dale Earnhardt passing at the end of the 2001 Daytona 500. At age 25, Harvick hopped in the renumbered No. 29 for Richard Childress Racing after earning three wins in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2000. The move proved to be the right one, as he brought home his first Cup victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway in just his third start.

Harvick went on to win 22 more times for RCR in Cup and claimed two Xfinity titles in 2001 and 2006. In 2013, he revealed he would leave RCR at the end of the Cup season and move over to SHR.

Nearly instantly, the Bakersfield, Calif., native found success, earning a win at Phoenix Raceway, the second race of the year. Harvick then won four more times and tallied 14 top fives and 20 top 10s en route to the championship.

Though Harvick hasn’t won another title since (yet, anyway), he finished in the top five in points from 2017-2021. He also won eight times in 2018 and nine in 2020, his highest win seasons to date.

Other notable accolades are his 2007 Daytona 500 win, his All-Star Race victories in 2007 and 2018 and three triumphs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including back-to-back in 2019-2020. Additionally, Harvick has more wins than anyone at Phoenix (nine) and hasn’t finished outside the top 10 there since spring 2013.

Harvick announced that 2023 will be his final full-time Cup season, and he’s ending it on a somewhat high note as the only driver to win back-to-back races in 2022. The likely future Hall-of-Famer will be remembered not only for his success on the track but also for his passion, leadership and vocalization off the track. -Joy Tomlinson

Matt Kenseth

Throughout his long career, it often felt like Wisconsin’s Matt Kenseth was overlooked. Some of the other drivers in his peer group tended to grab more headlines.

Yet Kenseth proved year after year that he was among NASCAR’s best drivers. His NASCAR Cup Series tenure of almost 700 races over more than 20 years includes 39 wins, 182 top fives and 331 top 10s.

Famed for his consistency, Kenseth had a remarkable ability to finish races better than he started and maximize the capabilities of his car. He was also an excellent team builder who could elevate the performance of the people around him.

Kenseth thoroughly dominated the 2003 Cup season by racking up consistent finishes, delivering a championship to team owner Jack Roush. At the wheel of Roush Racing’s No. 17 Fords, Kenseth also won two Daytona 500s. He remains
one of two drivers to win a Cup title with Roush’s team and the only driver to
win the Daytona 500 for Roush.

Moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, Kenseth scored a personal-best seven wins that year, including the Southern 500.

While initially known for his prowess on big, fast tracks, Kenseth’s years with JGR proved that he was just as great at short ovals. Of the 24 tracks at which Kenseth
made multiple starts, he earned at least one win at 19 of them. He also captured 29 checkered flags in the second-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Age only seemed to make Kenseth an even better racer. He remained competitive throughout his whole full-time career, taking his final victory in his penultimate race with JGR.

Kenseth’s induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year cemented his status as an all-time great and one of the best drivers of his generation. -Bryan Gable

Mark Martin

One of the longest-tenured NASCAR Cup Series drivers ever, Mark Martin competed in 882 Cup races over 31 years. While the bulk of his career came driving the No. 6 for Jack Roush, Martin also made starts for other well-known teams, including Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Morgan-McClure Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

After kicking around the sport’s top level part time from 1981 to 1987, Martin was hired on to Roush Racing, where he spent the next 19 seasons, through 2006. In that stretch, Martin racked up 35 of his 40 Cup wins, and though he never won a championship, he came close numerous times, finishing in the top five in points 12 times in his Roush tenure.

After his initial retirement tour in 2006, Martin relegated himself to a part-time schedule with DEI in 2007 and 2008. He never truly lost his step in those seasons, scoring 11 top 10s each year and earning himself another full time ride, this time with Hendrick.

At the ripe age of 50, Martin again came close to winning the championship in his first season piloting the Hendrick No. 5. He won five races, which tied his 1993 mark, and was the second highest in his career, only behind his 1998 total of seven. He went on to score 14 top fives, 21 top 10s and seven poles that season, finishing runner up in points, 141 behind teammate Jimmie Johnson. That points deficit was the second lowest in his career, coming behind only 2002, where he was only 38 behind eventual champion Tony Stewart.

Martin spent two more years at Hendrick but never found quite the
same success. After 2011, he retired again from full time competition, spending two years
running partial schedules with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012 and 2013 and Stewart-Haas Racing late in 2013, replacing an injured Stewart.

Martin also won 49 races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, a mark that was most all time until Kyle Busch passed him in 2011.

Martin retired after 2013 and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017. -Josh Calloni

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: Masters of the Modifieds

Ricky Rudd

With 906 NASCAR Cup Series starts in a 33-year span between 1975 and 2007, Ricky Rudd is second only to Richard Petty (1,184) in number of appearances at NASCAR’s highest level.

A staggering 33.4% of the 2,714 Cup races have featured Rudd behind the wheel.

Rudd’s longevity didn’t go unnoticed, and from 2002 to 2015, he held the title of Ironman with the most consecutive starts by a driver in NASCAR history.

Rudd competed full time for 25 seasons between 1981 and 2005 without missing a single race, and he left the 2005 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with 788 consecutive starts. It was a record that was left untouched until Jeff Gordon broke it in 2015 with 797 in a row.

The veteran scored 23 wins, good enough for 36th all time. The biggest victory of his career came in the 1997 Brickyard 400, and his best points finish came in 1991, when he battled Dale Earnhardt for the championship in much of the season before finishing runner-up.

And while Rudd never won more than two races in a single season, he was a threat for almost all of his full-time tenure. The crowning achievement of Rudd’s career was 16 consecutive winning seasons between 1983 and 1998 that included 20 of his career wins. His streak came to an end in 1999, and he returned to victory lane twice in 2001 before scoring his final triumph at Sonoma Raceway in 2002.

In addition to longevity, Rudd also showed exceptional versatility. His 23 wins came at 14 tracks, and he is tied for the fourth-most road course wins with six. Rudd additionally scored wins for six different teams, the most among drivers to have made their Cup debut after the beginning of the modern era (1972).

Nicknamed the Rooster, Rudd was named to NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers list in 1998. -Stephen Stumpf

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

Phil Allaway has three primary roles at Frontstretch. He's the manager of the site's FREE e-mail newsletter that publishes Monday-Friday and occasionally on weekends. He keeps TV broadcasters honest with weekly editions of Couch Potato Tuesday and serves as the site's Sports Car racing editor.

Outside of Frontstretch, Phil is the press officer for Lebanon Valley Speedway in West Lebanon, N.Y. He covers all the action on the high-banked dirt track from regular DIRTcar Modified racing to occasional visits from touring series such as the Super DIRTcar Series.

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

Joy joined Frontstretch in 2019 as a NASCAR DraftKings writer, expanding to news and iRacing coverage in 2020. She's currently an assistant editor and involved with photos, social media and news editing. 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.

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.

Josh joined Frontstretch in 2023 and currently covers the ARCA Menards Series. Born and raised in Missouri, Josh has been watching motorsports since 2005. He currently is studying for a Mass Communication degree at Lindenwood University

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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