Race Weekend Central

NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers: Jacks of All Trades

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.

Our final segment discusses drivers who weren’t just known for their racing ability.

AJ Foyt

The four-time Indianapolis 500 champion and 1967 winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans is best known for his exploits outside of NASCAR, but the driver known as Super Tex made 128 NASCAR Cup Series starts over a staggering 30-year career.

AJ Foyt won seven times in the Cup Series, including the 1972 Daytona 500, despite never once competing full time for the championship.

Seven wins isn’t all that impressive on its own, but Foyt’s influence on stock car racing — and racing as a whole — ensures his spot on the list.

From the mid-1960s onward, Foyt, along with Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney and Mark Donohue, had an important role in legitimizing Cup racing as a series in which the world’s greatest drivers competed. It may be hard to imagine now, but at the time the NTT IndyCar Series was the behemoth of American motorsports, and NASCAR a regional curiosity. Having Foyt on the roster went a long way toward building the prestige of the division in its most critical era. When the Daytona 500 was first televised in 1979, Foyt was one of the big draws.

And he almost won it. As he tells it, Foyt was running third on the final lap when leaders Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough came together, but as he was more familiar with USAC rules, he lifted when he saw the yellow flag. Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip blew right past him as they raced full throttle to the waving yellow flag.

Foyt’s final NASCAR start came in the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, more than 30 years after he made his debut. He finished 30th, four laps down. -Jack Swansey

See also
NASCAR's 75 Greatest Drivers: Stars From 1949-60

Junior Johnson

Dubbed the Last American Hero by Esquire‘s Tom Wolfe, Junior Johnson’s driving career started by transporting illegal moonshine throughout the North Carolina foothills.

Using techniques learned by outrunning the revenuers, the towering 6-ft., 5-in. Johnson made his NASCAR debut in 1953, but it was not until 1955 when he found his first win.

Many victories came quickly after, with Johnson amassing a total of 50 before his retirement in 1965. His pinnacle win came in the 1960 Daytona 500 while driving a Chevrolet for John Masoni. But Johnson’s specialty was the small dirt tracks in the South.

Throughout his driving career, Johnson is credited with many innovations that have shaped the sport today, including his discovery of drafting, a technique that uses a slipstream effect to pass other cars on superspeedways.

After hanging up his helmet, Junior Johnson & Associates became one of NASCAR’s most formidable teams. As a car owner, Johnson’s stable of drivers included 11 future Hall of Famers. Their accomplishments included 132 race wins between 1965 and 1994. Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip each gave Johnson three championships.

Johnson was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as apart of its inaugural class in 2010. Johnson passed away in 2019 at age 88. -Zach Gillispie

Cotton Owens

Union, S.C.’s Cotton Owens was a member of the US Navy and toured until 1946. After that, Owens went modified racing, earning the nickname King of the Modifieds.

Owens won over 200 features, including 19 wins in 23 starts in 1949. In 1950 and 1951 Owens won 24 straight features, a feat he also repeated later in his career.

Owens would earn three modified championships in 1950, ’53 and ’54.

Owens ran his first NASCAR Cup Series in 1950 and earned his first win at the Daytona Beach road course in 1957. He finished second to Lee Petty in the championship during NASCAR’s first season in 1959.

In 1964, Owens won his final race at Richmond Raceway.

He then moved to ownership. After focusing on Pontiacs in the early 1960s, Owens signed a deal with Dodge in 1963 as a factory team, fielding cars for David Pearson, Billy Wade and GC Spencer.

In 1971, the team known as Cotton Owens Garage fielded a Plymouth Roadrunner for Pete Hamilton. Hamilton scored a win in the 1971 Daytona 500 qualifiers.

In all, Owens would total 41 wins as a driver/owner.

Owens was inducted into the South Carolina Athletic Hall Of Fame in 2009, the International Motorsports Hall Of Fame in 2008, and in 2013, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall Of Fame. -Chris Skala

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

Tony Stewart

A jack of all trades when it comes to the world of motorsports, Tony Stewart is seen by many as a modern-day AJ Foyt. Whether it be dirt racing, open wheel or even sports cars, Smoke has done, and won, it all.

However, no part of his racing career has seen more success than that of his NASCAR exploits. When he first tackled NASCAR Cup Series racing in 1999, Stewart was already a USAC Triple Crown and NTT IndyCar Series champion.

His success in the lighter, faster open wheel cars of open wheel racing transferred over wonderfully into the heavier, louder V8s of stock car racing. During his rookie season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart earned three wins and placed fourth in the championship standings, a prelude to what would be a Hall of Fame NASCAR career.

Smoke’s fight to the very top didn’t take long. In 2002, he earned his first career Cup championship and followed it with another title in 2005.

While both titles were with JGR, Smoke took on a whole new challenge in 2009 when he began both driver and team owner roles with his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing. Donning his hero Foyt’s iconic No. 14, Smoke went on to win a third Cup title with his own team just three years later in 2011, when he beat Carl Edwards in a nail-biting championship finale that was decided with a points tiebreaker.

In 2014, SHR earned a second championship with Kevin Harvick.

At the end of 2016, Stewart retired from NASCAR racing with a total of 49 Cup wins and three championships and began his team ownership role from outside of the car.

Today, Stewart still co-owns SHR and is the founder of the Camping World SRX Series. -Dalton Hopkins

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
AJ Foyt
Junior Johnson
Cotton Owens
Tony Stewart

About the author

Never at a loss for words, Zach Gillispie is a young, talented marketing professional from North Carolina who talks and writes on the side about his first love: racing! Since joining Frontstretch in 2018, Zach has served in numerous roles where he currently pens the NASCAR 101 column, a weekly piece delving into the basic nuts and bolts of the sport. Additionally, his unabashedly bold takes meshed with that trademarked dry wit of his have made Zach a fan favorite on the weekly Friday Faceoff panel. In his free time, he can be found in the great outdoors, actively involved in his church, cheering on his beloved Atlanta Braves or ruthlessly pestering his colleagues with completely useless statistics about Delma Cowart.

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT

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.

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DoninAjax

Best of the best…Mario Andretti

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