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NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers: Stars of the ’80s & ’90s

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.

A quartet of big-time drivers from the 1980s and ’90s comes next; read on to see who we chose.

Geoff Bodine

Geoff Bodine is a New York native who raced in the NASCAR Cup Series during five decades, from 1979 to 2011, and the older brother of fellow NASCAR drivers Brett and Todd Bodine.

The eldest Bodine ran his first full season in 1984 with car owner Rick Hendrick. His first career win in 1984 at Martinsville Speedway is said to have saved Hendrick Motorsports; had that race not been won, Hendrick was prepared to shut down the team for financial reasons.

Bodine went on to win the Daytona 500 in 1986, along with nine poles that season. He became embroiled in a bitter rivalry with Dale Earnhardt that spawned several wrecks, once resulting in a five-lap penalty for Earnhardt. This rivalry contributed to the storyline of Days of Thunder.

He ended his time with Hendrick after the 1989 season, a tenure that included seven wins and 49 top fives.

Bodine became a journeyman in the 1990s, driving for several different teams.
In the mid-1990s, he won five races driving for his own team.

1999 was his final season of full-time Cup competition, but he continued to race part-time for another 11 years, as well as in other national series.

Outside of NASCAR, Bodine co-owned Bo-Dyn Bobsled Company. His
bobsled-building efforts contributed to a U.S. Olympic gold medal in bobsled in 2002, its first in that event since 1948.

Bodine was a force to be reckoned with at North Wilkesboro Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Martinsville Speedway, where he had a combined 10 wins and 34 top fives. His career totaled 575 starts, 18 wins, 100 top fives, 190 top 10s and 37 poles. – Steve Leffew

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: Stars of the '60s & '70s

Jeff Burton

Nicknamed The Mayor, Jeff Burton’s NASCAR career spanned from 1988 to 2014, with the vast majority of those years coming with Roush Racing and Richard Childress Racing.

Before becoming a NASCAR star, he and brother Ward got their start racing at their local track of South Boston Speedway in Virginia.

After making his NASCAR Cup Series debut in 1993, Burton ran his first full-time season in 1994 with Stavola Brothers Racing. That season, he collected three top 10s and a 24th-place points finish, becoming the series’ Rookie of the Year.

After another year with the team, Burton moved to Roush in 1996, at which point his career really began to take off. In his tenure at Roush, which spanned from 1996 to the first half of 2004, Burton won 17 races, including a career-high six in 1999. He also recorded four consecutive top-five points finishes with the team, doing so in each season from 1997 to 2000.

Of those 17 wins, Burton most notably won the Southern 500 in 1999 and the Coca-Cola 600 twice, in 1999 and 2001.

After starting 2004 with Roush, Burton jumped to RCR halfway through the year due to lack of sponsorship and remained with the organization through 2013, primarily driving the No. 31. While he didn’t quite total the same amount of wins with RCR as he did at Roush, he did rack up four wins with the team, including two in 2008. Burton also finished top 10 in points three times with the team, each coming consecutively from 2006-08.

He was held winless after 2008, and after he left RCR in 2013, he only made four more starts, two each with Michael Waltrip Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, both coming in 2014.

For his career, Burton won 21 Cup races, finishing in the top five 134 times and
the top 10 in 254 races. He also had a number of NASCAR Xfinity Series wins, taking the checkered flag in NASCAR’s secondary series 27 times in his career.

After his retirement from racing in 2014, Burton became a full-time analyst for NASCAR on NBC, a position he’s held since 2015. – Josh Calloni

Ernie Irvan

Hailing from Salinas, Calif., Ernie Irvan was known not only for his aggressive driving (hence the nickname Swervin’ Irvan) but also his dominance and remarkable return to racing.

Irvan ran for NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year honors in 1988 and drove the No. 2 car owned by DK Ulrich. In two seasons, he recorded a best finish of sixth.

After driving for Donlavey Racing for the first three races of 1990, Irvan was tabbed by Morgan-McClure Motorsports to drive the No. 4 Kodak Chevrolet for the remainder of the year. The switch paid off, as Irvan scored the first win of his Cup career at Bristol Motor Speedway in August 1990. He then followed it up with the biggest win of his career in the 1991 Daytona 500.

In roughly three-and-a-half seasons with MMM, Irvan had scored seven wins. But his tenure with the team ended after a contract dispute in the middle of 1993, and he was signed by Robert Yates Racing to replace the late Davey Allison in the team’s flagship No. 28 car for the final nine races of the year.

What followed were signs of greatness. Irvan scored two dominant wins at Martinsville Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway to close out ’93, and he began 1994 on an absolute tear. Through the first 20 races of the 1994 season, Irvan had scored three wins, 13 top fives and 1,781 laps led in addition to pacing the field with the most laps led on nine different occasions. He was going toe-to-toe with Dale Earnhardt for the points lead all year, and it was shaping up to be a historic battle between the two with 11 races remaining.

But Irvan’s career year – and nearly his life – ended in one turn. During a practice session at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 20, Irvan crashed hard in turn 1 and suffered a basilar skull fracture.

With a minimal chance of survival, Irvan defied all odds not only by returning to
racing but also by winning three more times in his career. After missing the rest of 1994 and the majority of 1995, Irvan returned to victory lane twice in 1996 and scored his 15th and final Cup win at Michigan in 1997.

Irvan then elected to retire from racing in the middle of 1999.

If Irvan had never crashed at Michigan in 1994, who knows how different his career would’ve looked. Would he have won the ’94 title or another down the road? We’ll never know. But what is known is that his brief dominance and his successful return to racing deserve considerable praise. – Stephen Stumpf

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: Gone Too Soon

Sterling Marlin

Son of fellow NASCAR driver Coo Coo Marlin, Sterling Marlin’s NASCAR Cup Series career spanned 33 years, driving for top owners such as Billy Hagen, Junior Johnson, Morgan-McClure Motorsports and Chip Ganassi.

He cut his teeth at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, winning the track championship three years in a row (1980-82).

The Columbia, Tenn., native was the Cup Rookie of the Year in 1983, but it wasn’t until 1994 that he finally found victory lane. At 36 years old, he won in his debut with Morgan-McClure’s Kodak No. 4 on the biggest stage of them all, the Daytona 500.

Marlin repeated the feat the following year and won two more races to finish third in points — his first time in the top five. He was third again in the standings in 2001, Ganassi’s first year in NASCAR and Dodge’s first year back in 24 years.

But the 2002 season was the one where Marlin came closest to becoming a Cup champion. He won two races early in the year and led the points for 25 consecutive weeks. However, Marlin cracked a vertebra in his neck late in a late-season wreck at Kansas Speedway and was sidelined the rest of the year.

Marlin retired following the 2009 season, amassing 10 wins, 83 top fives, 216 top 10s, 11 poles and six top-10 points finishes. He continued to race locally at the Fairgrounds following his retirement and will never be forgotten for his big wins at the height of NASCAR’s popularity. – Michael Massie

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
Tiny Lund
Alan Kulwicki
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

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.

Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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

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