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.
As we kick off the final week of articles on the 75 greatest, we look back at drivers whose NASCAR careers ended tragically early.
What could’ve been.
Born into racing royalty as the son of the great Bobby Allison, Davey Allison was a fast learner. He took the NASCAR Cup Series world by storm in his freshman season at Ranier Racing in 1987, scoring two wins at Talladega Superspeedway and Dover Motor Speedway despite competing in only 22 of the 29 races. His two victories remained a rookie record until Tony Stewart won three in 1999.
Robert Yates purchased the team from Ranier in 1989, and Allison continued to impress, earning eight wins across his first four NASCAR seasons with a best points finish of eighth in 1988.
And then, in 1991, the magic began. Allison was paired with crew chief Larry McReynolds in the fifth race of the season, and the results were instantaneous: the duo ended 1991 with five wins (including the Coca-Cola 600) and a third-place points finish.
The team picked up right where it left off in 1992. Allison won the season-opening Daytona 500, the first of four triumphs in the first 14 races, and he was scored as the points leader for the first 15 races of the season.
In the sixth race of the year at Bristol Motor Speedway, Allison injured his ribs in a crash. He then drove through the pain to win the following week at North Wilkesboro Speedway. Allison also was victorious in the All-Star Race in May despite getting taken to the hospital after a crash coming to the checkered flag with Kyle Petty.
Then, at Pocono Raceway in July, Allison flipped violently and was transported to the hospital again with a concussion and numerous broken bones but persevered and kept racing. He lost ground to Bill Elliott in the championship battle before a
win in the penultimate race at Phoenix Raceway vaulted him into the lead. But it was not meant to be, as he was taken out of contention after a crash with just under 80 laps to go in the finale.
Allison scored another win in 1993 before his tragic death in a helicopter crash on July 13 at the age of 32.
With 19 wins in 191 starts and a near championship in 1992, Allison was poised to be
one of NASCAR’s brightest stars for the 1990s and beyond. His death will always remain as one of NASCAR’s greatest tragedies. -Stephen Stumpf
Neil Bonnett today may be better remembered for his relatively brief career as a TV personality than his time as a driver.
But as a racer, Bonnett came up the ranks as a fierce driver on local short tracks in the Southeast, buoyed by his relationship with the Allisons and Red Farmer as part of the Alabama Gang.
That influence allowed Bonnett to first break into Cup in the mid-1970s, originally as an owner/driver. In 1977, he got the call to replace Dave Marcis in Nord Krauskopf’s No. 71 Dodge Charger. Bonnett earned his first two victories that year.
1978 saw him move to a new team, The 5 Racers, the first attempt by JD Stacy to own a Cup team. The squad was ultimately sold off to Rod Osterlund midseason, but that didn’t stop a string of DNFs that resulted in Bonnett only finishing 12 races all year.
In 1979, Bonnett moved to Wood Brothers Racing to replace the legendary David Pearson. There, he truly came into his own during four years behind the wheel. It was a period when he couldn’t run for titles due to the Wood Brothers being part time, but he did win nine races in the No. 21, proving his speed and guile.
That sprang Bonnett into the best years of his career, first with Rahmoc Enterprises (1983) and then as a teammate to Darrell Waltrip at Junior Johnson & Associates. His best year in Cup was 1985, when he finished fourth in points and had three wins.
But that was the last year he ran every race. The next five seasons saw Bonnett miss time due to injuries. In 1987, Bonnett suffered a broken leg in the Oakwood Homes 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, ending his season early. After a return to the Wood Brothers, Bonnett’s career was derailed by a head injury in a multi-car crash at Darlington Raceway that resulted in a case of amnesia.
While he was considered to be a very good analyst during his time in the broadcast booth, Bonnett still had the desire to return to the driver’s seat. Once he got approved healthwise, he took advantage of his friendships with Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress to score rides. The first of these was in a second Childress car in the 1993 DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Unfortunately, the return was marked by crashes. He flipped and ended up in the catchfence at Talladega. He then drove for Earnhardt in the Busch season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway and crashed there, too.
Bonnett was scheduled to race part time for Phoenix Racing in 1994 but was killed in a practice crash at Daytona International Speedway at the age of 47. -Phil Allaway
Greenfield, Wis.’s Alan Kulwicki was known to wear a uniform patch featuring the cartoon character Mighty Mouse.
It was an appropriate choice for a mascot. For most of his NASCAR career, Kulwicki was the owner/driver of a single-car team. At a time when multi-car organizations were beginning to take off, he and his crew embraced their role as the underdogs
Kulwicki was a fierce competitor, determined to succeed as his own boss. He did
just that by winning the Cup championship in 1992. Kulwicki learned early on in his racing career that he was most comfortable as an owner/driver.
In addition to his independent streak, Kulwicki had a reputation as a perfectionist who could be demanding of his crew. He was also a college-educated engineer, a rarity in NASCAR during the late 1980s and early 1990s. His experiences in the classroom and on the racetrack convinced him that the biggest factor in a team’s success was how its members worked toward a common goal, not its overall size. Kulwicki famously turned down job offers from Junior Johnson, staying committed to running a race team his own way.
Kulwicki’s story will be forever tied to the thrilling battle for the 1992 title. In the last six races of the season, Kulwicki went on a furious rally to capture the championship. He ultimately edged Bill Elliott by 10 points, an advantage he secured by leading one more lap than Elliott in the season finale at Atlanta.
Just as he did for his first win, Kulwicki marked the Cup title with his signature celebration: a slow, clockwise lap around the track he dubbed the Polish Victory Lap.
In April 1993, Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash on his way to a race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Although he never got a chance to defend his championship, he remains one of NASCAR’s most inspirational people and an influential figure in motorsports engineering. -Bryan Gable
It was a story straight off the pages of a Hollywood script: a journeyman NASCAR driver shows up at Daytona International Speedway in February without a ride hoping to find any available seat. As a spectator, he witnesses a fiery crash and rushes into the flames, rescuing the injured driver. The grateful competitor offers his ride and the hero rides this newly acquired steel chariot all the way to a Daytona 500 win.
While it may sound like pure fantasy, these events actually took place and the hero of the story was one of the great underdog tales in NASCAR history. His name was Tiny Lund.
Lund was a massive man, standing 6′ 5″ and tipping the scales at nearly 270 lbs. His nickname came about as an ironic nod to his immense stature.
Born in 1929, Lund began racing in assorted disciplines on a local level around his Iowa hometown. But after returning from a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War, he decided to try his hand at stock car racing. It didn’t begin well. In 1955, he qualified for his first NASCAR race but wound up flipping his car and found himself sidelined for the rest of the year with a broken arm.
Lund drifted from one team to the next over the course of seven years, winning two poles but never a race. Then came the fateful trip to Daytona in 1963. While Lund didn’t have a ride, his good friend Marvin Panch did. Panch, already a Daytona 500 champion, drove Wood Brothers Racing’s No. 21 Ford.
But while testing a Ford-powered Maserati for a sports car race, Panch crashed and the car caught fire. Lund bravely charged into the blaze, freeing Panch and dragging him to safety. He was awarded the Carnegie Medal for heroism, and Panch insisted that the Woods allow Lund to race the car in the 500.
In the hunt late, Lund held on as both Fred Lorenzen and Ned Jarrett had to surrender the lead to pit for fuel during the final 10 laps. Lund himself ran out of gas on the last lap but was able to coast to the line and claim his first Cup win.
Lund continued to race for a variety of teams, winning two more races in 1964. He never ran a full season and spent his later years running a NASCAR series known as Grand American, which were often combined with Cup races to make the fields larger.
After not making any starts in 1974, Lund returned to race at Talladega Superspeedway in August 1975. On the sixth lap of the event, Lund was caught up in a multi-car accident. As he spun up across the backstretch, he was struck by another car directly in the driver’s door. Lund was pronounced dead from internal injuries.
Lund may have been a huge physical presence, but he was also a huge talent with an even bigger heart. Although he made 303 Cup starts, he will always be remembered as much for what he did outside of the car as he will for what he did behind the wheel. -Frank Velat
Tim Richmond was a racer of several disciplines, starting out in open-wheel racing and winning the 1980 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year before switching to NASCAR two months later. He drove for multiple team owners in the NASCAR Cup Series, starting off with DK Ulrich at Pocono Raceway. He piloted the No. 2 car for Jim Stacy for much of 1982, earning his first two wins at Riverside International Raceway.
Richmond then ran full time from 1983-1986 for Raymond Beadle (1983-‘85) and Rick Hendrick (1986). His best year came in his final full season, as he claimed seven victories, 13 top fives, 17 top 10s and eight poles en route to third place in the standings.
But following his breakout year, he began to feel the effects of illness; he ran just eight races in 1987, winning the first two in his return shortly after his 32nd birthday.
In total, Richmond won 13 races and earned 42 top fives and 78 top 10s in 185 Cup starts. He also added two wins and four top fives in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, all with Hendrick Motorsports.
Richmond’s two best tracks were Pocono and Riverside, earning four victories and seven top fives apiece as well as 10 top 10s at Pocono and nine such finishes at Riverside. He also won the 1986 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.
Richmond died from Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) on Aug. 13, 1989. Though his racing career ended early, Richmond will be known for his charismatic personality both on and off the racetrack. -Joy Tomlinson
Named to NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers list in 1998, Fireball Roberts was one of NASCAR’s earliest superstars. Given the fitting nickname because of his ability to throw a baseball, Roberts quickly blazed his way to a successful career in the NASCAR Cup Series. Off the track, Roberts was beloved by fans, earning the sport’s Most Popular Driver honor in 1957.
Roberts debuted in 1950, competing in nine races between owners Jim Davis and Sam Rice. In his third Cup start, he led 43 laps to claim his first victory at Occoneechee Speedway in North Carolina. Despite not competing for a full season, Roberts finished second in points, 111 behind Bill Rexford.
After making just 25 starts over the next five seasons, Roberts made 33 appearances in 1956, winning five races. The next season, he won a career-high eight events. He had a knack for superspeedways, becoming the first driver to sweep the Daytona 500 and Firecracker 250 in the same season in 1962. In addition to seven wins at Daytona International Speedway, Roberts won the inaugural Firecracker 250 in 1959. He also became one of Darlington Raceway’s earliest conquerors, winning the Southern 500 twice.
Roberts’ last win came in 1964 at Augusta International Raceway, a track he designed. Nine starts later, his career came to a tragic end. On lap seven of the World 600, Roberts crashed while avoiding an incident, causing his car to burst into flames. Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson rushed over and pulled Roberts from his car, where he suffered second- and third-degree burns. He spent 37 days in the hospital before succumbing to those injuries. Through tragic, Roberts’ death did bring about change in NASCAR fire safety over the long-term.
One can only imagine how much more Roberts could have achieved in his career. Still, his success was far-reaching, winning 33 races, earning 93 top fives, 122 top 10s and 32 poles in just 206 starts. He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2013, cementing his legacy in the record books. -Luken Glover
NASCAR has seen its share of outlandish personalities over the last 75 years. The exploits of drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Tim Richmond and Tony Stewart are borderline legendary.
But before all of them, there was another larger-than-life driver who put on a show merely for the sake of the show: Joe Weatherly.
Nicknamed The Clown Prince of Racing for his antics, Weatherly knew how put a spotlight on himself and give the crowd its money’s worth. He once practiced his car wearing a full Peter Pan costume. Weatherly could often be found many hours after the race was over still partying with fellow driver and friend Curtis Turner.
But his legacy would turn out to be so much more than merely a lead foot who downed a few drinks.
As often as Weatherly won, there was plenty of celebrating to do. But he didn’t start his winning on four wheels; he started with just two. He raced motorcycles in AMA for four years, from 1946 to 1950. He won the prestigious Laconia Classic in 1948 and 1949.
Weatherly decided to move to NASCAR in 1950, beginning with the Modified tour. He won 49 out of the 83 races he participated in that year and went on to claim the series’ national championship in both 1952 and 1953.
Making the move to Cup racing in 1956, Weatherly ran a part-time schedule. This wasn’t unusual for the era, as few drivers were under contract and most would take whatever car was available. He scored his first Cup win at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway in 1958 and followed it up with three more in 1960.
The next year proved even more successful, as Weatherly claimed nine wins and the Most Popular Driver award — all while still running on a part-time basis. His nine wins were accumulated over the course of just 25 starts.
In 1962, Weatherly made a full-time run in an attempt to capture the series title. That, too, was a success. He claimed the championship on the strength of nine more wins and an astounding average finish of fifth. Another three victories and a second Cup title came in 1963.
In the fifth race of the 1964 season at Riverside, Weatherly lost control on a hairpin turn and his car slammed into the guardrail hard, driver’s side first. While the car wasn’t mangled or destroyed, Weatherly hit at such an angle that it flung him to the side and his head made contact with the guardrail. The Clown Prince of Racing was killed instantly at the age of 42.
One of the first true stars of NASCAR, Weatherly brought a unique blend of personality and skill to the sport. Additionally, his death led to the mandate of the window net in all levels of the sport. Inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015, Weatherly’s mark on safety in racing is bigger now than any on-track accomplishment. -FV
Frontstretch‘s 75 Greatest NASCAR Drivers
Champions of the 2010s & Beyond
Martin Truex Jr.
The Next Generation
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Masters of the Modifieds
Ron Hornaday Jr.
Gone Too Soon
Stars of the ’60s & ’70s
Stars of the ’80s & ’90s
Stars From 1949-1960
??? (Feb. 9)
Jacks of All Trades
??? (Feb. 10)
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