Some careers start with a bang and end quietly with hardly a word. Some show great promise only to see it fizzle for some reason, whether it’s a lack of experience, a lack of funding, too steep a learning curve or more pressure than someone can handle.
For most drivers, though, it’s what happens in the middle that truly defines a career. Some show a glimpse of things to come from the start, but others struggle before finding a foothold. Some go out the way they came in and fill the middle with more of the same. Some spend years at the top of their game, only to one day find that something has passed them by. None of them know for sure when that last win will come.
What a driver does at the beginning or the end may not be what people remember. Surely it’s an incomplete story at best. Still, it’s worth noting what a driver did to bookend their career.
NASCAR’s 60-win club has 10 members today, with two of them still active at NASCAR’s highest level. To reach that level took years of excellence, but they all had to start — and end — somewhere.
Here’s a closer look at the first and last full-time seasons for those 10 drivers. Before the modern era, and even for the early part of it, it wasn’t uncommon for drivers to race partial seasons before running for a title — some rarely ran a full schedule. Many title contenders didn’t run every single race, though most ran the majority.
Listed here are the first years these drivers ran a full or nearly full slate of races, as well as their last full-time years. Some had multiple races under their belts, while others were raw rookies.
Richard Petty won Rookie of the Year honors in 1959, running a 21-race partial schedule. He didn’t find victory lane, but in 1960, running 40 of a possible 44 races, The King carted home three wins and a whopping 30 top 10s on his way to a runner-up finish in points. It wasn’t uncommon at the time for only a handful of cars to finish on the lead lap, so it’s not unusual that Petty finished in the top five more often than he finished on the lead lap.
In Petty’s final season, 1992, the title contenders included Davey Allison, son of rival Bobby Allison, and Petty’s own son Kyle. His own numbers were a far cry from the intervening years, during which Petty won another 197 races and a record seven titles. Perhaps he hung on too long, but Petty was (and still is) the face of the sport. His departure was a long goodbye, but there’s not much to be gleaned from the numbers because they’re overshadowed by everything else.
|Richard Petty (200)||First Year: 1960 (2nd)||Last Year: 1992 (26th)|
|Wins||3/40 (44 races on schedule)||0/29 (29 races on schedule)|
David Pearson didn’t run a lot of full seasons at NASCAR’s top level; when he did, he was a winner and almost always in contention for a title. He had three wins in 1961, three years before he attempted a full schedule. In that year, Pearson did something that by today’s standard is remarkable: Every race he finished, save one, he finished in the top 10. More than once, he failed to finish (something he did 22 times) and still finished in the top 10. Some of that is a product of the era, but it’s also a testament to Pearson’s grit.
Fourteen years and 88 additional wins later, Pearson ran the closest thing to a full season he’d run in the 1970s, winning four of 22 starts (he’d win twice more afterward on an even more limited schedule, something that would be a rarity today). He won seven poles and posted an average start better than he had in ’64. It’s a fittingly bookended career, though Pearson always left everyone wondering what he might have done if he had run full time for all of those years when he ran a partial schedule.
|David Pearson (105)||First Year: 1964 (3rd)||Last Year: 1978 (16th)|
|Wins||8/61 (62 races on schedule)||4/22 (30 races on schedule)|
Jeff Gordon is the first on this list to have raced the entirety of his career in the modern era. Title contenders now ran every race, but the schedule was shorter. Gordon’s rookie season suggested he had talent at just 22. He had a respectable 11 top 10s, but he also had … trouble bringing the car home in one piece.
He failed to finish as many races as he finished in the top 10, and while some can be attributed to handling, he had enough engine failures in a time when driver error was more likely to cause them than now to raise an eyebrow — and some crashes, too.
If you considered the season in November 1993, even though Gordon won rookie honors, and didn’t think he’d go on to post more than 90 wins and four titles, you weren’t alone.
In 2015, his final full season (he’d run a handful of races for injured teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016), Gordon wasn’t winning at the rate that made so many fans groan anymore, but he made the playoffs, and, back against the wall, won the final elimination race to give him one last chance at a title. He fell just short in third, but in that moment, Gordon was no longer the kid that fans loved to hate (or pretended they did) but the veteran that they all respected.
|Jeff Gordon (93)||First Year: 1993 (14th)||Last Year: 2015 (3rd)|
|Wins||0/30 (30 races on schedule)||1/36 (36 races on schedule)|
Darrell Waltrip talked the talk from day one, but he also backed it up, walking the walk whenever he had a competitive car. He had a couple of partial seasons behind him but put himself in the win column twice when he was finally able to compete all year. He didn’t finish on the lead lap as often as he scored a top five (still a product of the times) and, like Gordon, had a lot of races end early, many due to engine or transmission issues which may or may not have been caused by a hungry youngster overdriving the racecar.
Waltrip always drove a little hungry, and it wasn’t a lack of will that his final years were a shell of his heyday, when he won three titles and was the bane of many an existence. He left Hendrick Motorsports to start his own team in 1993 and never had competitive equipment. He had a handful of top 10s through 1998, the year he also drove for an injured Steve Park at Dale Earnhardt, Inc., and closed his career in 2000 running for Travis Carter, an effort that saw him fail to qualify six times (though his sponsor got him a seat for the Coca-Cola 600) with a best finish of 11th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of just two top-20 finishes he’d get that year.
Perhaps he hung on a little too long, that hunger too much to bear, and perhaps the cars had simply changed too much. But Waltrip’s last years shouldn’t cloud his best years.
|Darrell Waltrip (84)||First Year: 1975 (7th)||Last Year: 2000 (36th)|
|Wins||2/28 (30 races on schedule)||0/29 (34 races on schedule)|
While few drivers on the lead lap was common at the time, every time Bobby Allison finished on the lead lap in 1966, he was a winner. No, really. But what stands out about Allison is that, 22 years and 81 wins after his first win at age 29, he was still winning.
While 1987 was Allison’s last full season, he won in 1988, and that season was not meant to be part time — Allison suffered a career-ending injury at Pocono Raceway. His last win came at age 50, an age at which most of today’s drivers have already retired.
Allison’s final full-time year featured a top-10 points finish and an average finish that’s virtually equal to the one he posted in ’66.
|Bobby Allison (84)||First Year: 1966 (10th)||Last Year: 1987 (9th)|
|Wins||3/33 (49 races on schedule)||1/29 (29 races on schedule)|
Jimmie Johnson’s rookie year took people by surprise because he’d struggled in the NASCAR Xfinity Series with an underfunded team, posting one win and two low-end top-10 points finishes in two full years. He didn’t distinguish himself for much save, perhaps, that hair-raising crash at Watkins Glen International as a rookie.
The Cup cars suited Johnson compared to the lighter, less powerful Xfinity cars, though, and he won three times as a Cup rookie and became the first freshman in Cup history to lead the standings, eventually finishing fifth and showing the consistency that would serve him well.
The wins looked easy for Johnson, who won 80 after that rookie year, along with seven titles. But the wins abruptly stopped. Johnson won three times early in 2017, but then his numbers took a nosedive. He went winless in his last three seasons, his farewell tour marred by COVID-19, including Johnson having to sit out a race with the virus.
What happened? It’s hard to say, but the 2020 Cup car was similar in weight and horsepower to the Xfinity cars Johnson had never shined in. He didn’t forget how to drive — none of them do — but the cars outpaced his ability to adapt to them.
|Jimmie Johnson (83)||First Year: 2002 (5th)||Last Year: 2020 (18th)|
|Wins||3/36 (36 races on schedule)||0/35 (36 races on schedule)|
Cale Yarborough looked solid as a youngster, taking one win in 46 starts in 1965. He’d made starts in the previous seven seasons, but his first full championship run proved fruitful with a top-10 points finish. He went on, of course, to win all three of his titles in consecutive seasons (a record until Johnson posted five straight) from 1976-78.
Yarborough only ran two more complete seasons after his championships, the last coming in a six-win 1980 season in which he finished just 19 points short of another title. Yarborough ran about half of the next eight years and won at least twice a year through 1985, one of the last drivers to win consistently on a partial schedule.
|Cale Yarborough (83)||First Year: 1965 (10th)||Last Year: 1980 (2nd)|
|Wins||1/46 (55 races on schedule)||6/31 (31 races on schedule)|
Dale Earnhardt won rookie honors in 1979 on the strength of a solid season by any measure. He finished races, won once and posted an average finish of just over 10th. Earnhardt was rough and brash, but he was able to finish races and be consistent. He might have been aggressive, but he wasn’t foolish, and he won the first of seven championships in just his second season.
Earnhardt enjoyed a resurgence in 2000, finishing second on the strength of two wins and a 9.4 average finish at 49 years old, asserting himself a title favorite for 2001. That chance, of course, never came as Earnhardt’s untimely death stunned the racing world, but his final season stands out because … well, because title number eight will forever linger in the collective what if for race fans.
|Dale Earnhardt (76)||First Year: 1979 (7th)||Last Year: 2000 (2nd)|
|Wins||1/27 (31 races on schedule)||2/34 (34 races on schedule)|
Kyle Busch was just 20 years old at the start of his rookie season in 2005, and from the start, he was a bit of a throwback, reminiscent of drivers like Earnhardt or Yarborough or Waltrip, not afraid to drive aggressively. Busch’s checkers-or-wreckers style did cost him early on; he had two wins and his inherent talent was on full display, but his 21st-place average finish showed his lack of consistency.
He’d find that later. Busch has wins in every season since along with a pair of titles and the current honor of being the winningest full-time driver by one victory. He still has the occasional lapse that has resulted in perhaps a handful fewer top 10s or a slightly lower average, but Busch has mellowed a bit recently, and has many years left before his final chapter is written.
|Kyle Busch (61)||First Year: 2005 (20th)||Last Year: N/A|
Kevin Harvick’s first year will always be remembered as the year the racing world lost Dale Earnhardt, because it was Harvick who had the unenviable task of taking over Earnhardt’s car after his death. And when he won in just his second start, Harvick cemented himself in legend. Like Busch, Harvick was, perhaps, a little too aggressive and cost himself a better finish or two.
Harvick has announced that this year will be his last, but there’s plenty of racing left for him to write his ending. He’s adapted to every generation of car NASCAR has put on track with wins, with his career year coming in 2020 with nine victories. The 2014 Cup champion, Harvick’s driving style may be a bit more controlled, but perhaps the best word to describe Harvick is relentless. The rookie with too much to prove has become the veteran who doesn’t back down.
|Kevin Harvick (60)||First Year: 2001 (9th)||Last Year: N/A (2023)|
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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