Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers: Stars From 1949-60

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.

Some of NASCAR’s earliest stars are in today’s spotlight, racers who helped shape the sport and make it what it was in its first decade-plus of existence.

Marvin Panch

After moving at a young age to California, Marvin Panch kicked off his career in stock car racing as a car owner. He eventually made his NASCAR debut at Oakland Stadium in 1951, driving his own Mercury to a sixth-place finish. 

By virtue of that strong start — and others like it locally — NASCAR founder Bill France and fellow driver Lee Petty invited Panch out East to race at Darlington Raceway in 1953, where he finished 28th

In 1956, driving a Ford for Tom Harbison, Panch scored his first of 17 NASCAR wins at Montgomery Speedway. In 1957, Panch scored three wins for Pete DePaolo and was hired to drive for the Holman-Moody Team, winning three more times that season for a total of six victories. 

Ford’s factory sponsorship derailed Panch’s career until 1961 when Smokey Yunick gave Panch a ride in the 1961 Daytona 500. Panch took advantage as he won the third running of the Great American Race. This opened the door for Panch to join Wood Brothers Racing in 1962.  Panch won eight races for the team between 1962 and 1966.

A notable NASCAR story involving Panch occurred when a fiery crash at Daytona International Speedway left him on the sidelines for the 1963 Daytona 500.  In that crash, fellow driver named Tiny Lund pulled Panch from his car. As a reward, Panch told Lund to drive his car in the Daytona 500.  Lund did so and won the race.  

In Panch’s final year of driving, he competed for Petty Enterprises and won the World 600. He was named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998 and was inducted into the NMPA Hall of Fame in 1987 and in the first class of the West Coast Stock Hall Of Fame.  -Chris Skala

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: Stars of the '80s & '90s

Marshall Teague

Between 1949 and 1952, Marshall Teague of Daytona Beach, Fla., competed in just 23 races in the NASCAR Cup Series. In that brief four-year stint in NASCAR, Teague’s contributions to the development of the sport as an owner, along with his seven Cup victories as a driver, earned him a spot on this list. 

In winter 1950, Teague walked into the headquarters of the Hudson Motor Car Company without an appointment. By the time he left Michigan, he had convinced the bosses of the independent automaker to fully underwrite a stock car racing program. He turned up to the first race of the season, a 39-lap affair on the Daytona Beach road course, and wheeled his No. 6 Fabulous Hudson Hornet to his first career Cup win and a spot in the history books as the first victor with factory support. He then won three of his next five starts for good measure. 

At season’s end, it was Herb Thomas in another of Teague’s Hudson Hornets who lifted the championship trophy. He’d entered 35 races to Teague’s 15, but it was maybe another member of the No. 51 team that had made the difference. Not long after the historic meeting with Hudson, Teague walked into the Best Damn Garage in Town and offered a young Smokey Yunick his first job in auto racing.

Teague withdrew from NASCAR competition before 1953 following a disagreement with Bill France, and competed in AAA and USAC IndyCar races until his death in 1959 attempting to set a closed-course speed record at Daytona International Speedway in a modified Indy roadster. -Jack Swansey

Speedy Thompson

Speedy Thompson was a journeyman driver in the early 1950s through the early ’70s. It is unclear when he received the nickname Speedy (his given name is Alfred), but he utilized it throughout his racing career.

Thompson made his first start in 1950. His first victories came in 1953 when he garnered two trophies driving for Buckshot Morris.

In 1955, Thompson was hired to pilot the famed Carl Kiekhaefer Chryslers and Dodges. He scored eight victories and finished third in points. In 1957, he drove
for Hugh Babb and himself. He was able to wrangle another third-place finish with two wins. 1958 was another third in points, driving exclusively in his own cars and managing four triumphs.

1959 marked Thompson’s final full-time season, managing another third at the end of the year. He made spot starts from 1960 through 1962 before retiring from racing at the premier level, choosing to focus on local short track racing. He returned in 1970 to compete in a few national races alongside his local schedule.

Thompson secured 20 trophies during his Cup career, the highlight of which was the 1957 Southern 500, driving his own car. Thompson led 210 laps on the way to the win.

On Easter 1972, Thompson entered a late model race at Metrolina Speedway in Charlotte. Thompson said he didn’t feel well but decided to race anyway. During the event, Thompson stopped on track, and when emergency personnel arrived at the car, he was not breathing. He was resuscitated but passed away en route to the hospital. The autopsy revealed he had died from a heart attack. -Mike Neff

Bob Welborn

Fans could see it all from the stands, thanks to the lack of hard top roofs on the racecars of the NASCAR Convertible Division. Though Curtis Turner routinely stole the show whenever he showed up, the consistent sight of the cigar-chomping Bob Welborn served as the backbone for the fledging, if short lived, series.

Welborn elected to focus on convertibles over traditional NASCAR Cup Series hard-top racing in part because of that wide-open view of the driver. Welborn was Chevrolet’s lead driver in the division, and it was a role he performed admirably.

Like Lee Petty in the Cup Series, Welborn’s hallmark was his smooth, consistent driving. In 1956, Welborn only had three wins to Turner’s 22, which set the mark for most wins in a season in either Cup or Convertible competition. But Welborn was able to best Turner in the championship battle on the strength of his 39 top-10 finishes in 45 starts.

In fact, Welborn won 19 of his 111 starts compared to Turner’s 38 in 79. But Welborn also had 87 top 10s, an outstanding mark even in a series where 20 or less cars usually showed up.

Welborn eventually tried his hand at Cup racing as the Convertible Division dried up and find success, winning nine races. One of those nine was the second-ever Daytona Duel, meaning that Welborn was the polesitter for the first-ever Daytona 500.

But Welborn decided to move on and retire at age 36 from racing in 1964, having won three of the four Convertible championships but seeming to not take to hard tops as much as he did the open cockpits. -Michael Finley

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

Rex White

A native of Taylorsville, N.C., born in 1929, Rex White is NASCAR’s oldest living champion.

While some fans may think of teams like Hendrick Motorsports, Junior Johnson & Associates or Richard Childress Racing as leaders of the Chevrolet brand in the last few decades, White is among the trailblazers for the bowtie, having been part of Chevrolet’s original racing team in NASCAR.

White moved to Spartanburg, S.C., to team with engine builder and mechanic Louie Clements, and the teaming of the two to form White and Clements Racing yielded fruitful results.

In his career, White, despite lacking the factory support of other front-running
competitors, forged his way to 36 poles and 28 wins in 233 races.

1959 to 1962 were especially sweet for the driver of the gold-and-white Gold Thunder No. 4, with 24 victories in that span, the high point coming with the series title in 1960 as he won six times. White nearly won the title again a season later in 1961, triumphing seven times and finishing second to Ned Jarrett. He’d reach a season-best eight wins in 1962, finishing fifth in points.

White, who in recent years was known to stop by Legends and Bandolero
races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of
Fame in 2015. -Brad Harrison

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
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
Marvin Panch
Marshall Teague
Speedy Thompson
Bob Welborn
Rex White

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

About the author

Jack Swansey primarily covers open-wheel racing for Frontstretch and co-hosts The Pit Straight Podcast, but you can also catch him writing about NASCAR, sports cars, and anything else with four wheels and a motor. Originally from North Carolina and now residing in Los Angeles, he joined the site as Sunday news writer midway through 2022 and is an avid collector (some would say hoarder) of die-cast cars.

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021, and also formerly covered the SRX series from 2021-2023. He now covers the FIA Formula 1 World Championship, the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and road course events in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Brad joined Frontstretch.com in 2020 and contributes to the site's 5 Points To Ponder column and other roles as needed. A graduate of the University of Georgia's Henry W. Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication, he has covered sports in some capacity for more than 20 years with coverage including local high school sports, college athletics and minor league hockey. Brad has received multiple awards for his work from the Georgia Press Association.

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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