NASCAR is 75 years old.
As is the custom with other sports as they hit age milestones, the head of stock car racing is putting out its list of the 75 best drivers in the history of NASCAR. As with any other sport, it is very easy to question the names on the list and easily point out some flaws in the selections.
The challenge with NASCAR is that the older drivers were afforded a longer schedule. There is also the difficulty of the list being NASCAR, and not just the Cup Series. The powers that be had tried to pay homage to the lower series, but have failed miserably in their efforts to include the support series.
Before we delve into the 75 list, let’s take a look back at the top 50 list from 1998, which has its own flaws.
The sanctioning body made the assumption that the top 50 list was infallible and didn’t remove anyone that was included on that list from the top 75. There are certainly some drivers who should have been left on pit road rather than being included in the list.
There are a handful and the most obvious is AJ Foyt. Foyt is the greatest racecar driver in the history of motorsports, but he simply didn’t do enough in NASCAR to justify inclusion in the list. Foyt did actually run 128 races in his career, which is a substantial amount, but he never ran more than seven in a season. He notched seven victories, which only ranks tied for 68th on the all-time list. Foyt is unquestionably the greatest driver in the history of motorsports, but he isn’t worthy of inclusion in the top 75 for NASCAR all-time.
There are a few other drivers that were included in the top 50 that very well should have been on the outside looking in at the top 75.
Ernie Irvan has zero championships in NASCAR and only 15 wins at the Cup level. In fact, his best points finish is fifth in the Cup standings. Alan Kulwicki does have a championship and he did have his career tragically cut short, but his attitude and stubbornness probably limited him to less than 15 wins in his career. Being a series champion does afford him some leeway, but his career statistics aren’t really top 75 worthy.
You also have Harry Gant, Neil Bonnett and Davey Allison, each with less than 20 wins in their career. Unlike Gant and Bonnett, Allison’s career was cut short and very well would have included many more wins and titles had that fateful day not taken place in Alabama in 1993.
Taking seven drivers out of the top 50 from years ago would already build in some breathing room for additional drivers to be added to the 75 list. That said, let’s look at the folks who were included in the final list of 75 that simply shouldn’t be there.
Ryan Newman is the most obvious.
Newman has 18 wins at the Cup level. Had one season where he finished in the top five in points and most of those 18 wins were due to fuel strategy or tire conservation. Newman has zero titles in NASCAR and his claim to fame is he is difficult to pass.
Kasey Kahne also managed 18 victories in his career. He also managed one top five point finish and no titles at the national level of NASCAR. Sterling Marlin probably has better credentials than Newman and Kahne, although he only managed 10 victories in his career. To be fair, he was on his way to a title in 2002 when he injured his back and killed his shot at the title, missing the last seven races of the season.
The last person included in the top 75 who has a questionable resume is Jeff Burton. Burton does have 21 wins, which is enough to put him in the top 38 in victories at the Cup level. However, that level of success doesn’t include a title in any of the three national series. Burton had a great four-year run from 1997 through 2000 where he was in the top five in points every season, but never finished above third in the final standings. At one point Burton was tabbed to be the replacement for Dale Earnhardt in the No. 3, but it didn’t come to fruition after that fateful day in 2001.
Looking at the list, we have removed 11 drivers, so we need to pick some replacements. There are a handful from the support ranks of NASCAR that deserve to be included in the list.
Philip Morris is the only other driver at the grass roots level with five national titles, to match Larry Phillips. Hot on Morris’ heals is Lee Pulliam who has won four national titles in his career. They are the three most successful drivers at the Advance Auto Parts National level and they should all be included to give credit to the support series.
With nine positions left, the other support series too look to is the Modifieds. Richie Evans, Jerry Cook and Mike Stefanik are all in the list already. That still leaves a couple more holes to be filled by the open wheel guys. Doug Coby has won the Whelen Modified Title a total of six times, including four in a row. Tony Hirschman is another driver who has wrangled a full hand worth of titles. Five titles in arguably the most competitive division in NASCAR is worthy of being included in the top 75 driver list.
There are still seven holes to fill so let’s turn our attention to the CraftsmanTruck Series. Ron Hornaday is on the list, but he is the only one who was a predominantly Truck Series driver. Jack Spraque is arguably the best short track driver in the history of the sport. That ability translated into Sprague winning three Truck series titles and scoring 28 wins, tied for third all-time in the Trucks. Another three-time title winner in the Trucks is Matt Crafton. While he only has 15 wins on his resume, three titles and two runner-ups is a formidable history.
Putting two more names on the list has us down to five holes left to fill. Next on the list would be Johnny Benson Jr. While he didn’t do too much at the Cup level, scoring just one win, he nabbed both a Truck and Xfinity title during his career. Similar to Benson, although still early in his career, Tyler Reddick has only scored four wins at the Cup level. That said, he won back-to-back Xfinity titles with two different teams. His four wins have come in just over three full seasons.
The final three spots can be filled through a variety of criteria. For starters, we’ll put Jim Paschal on the list with 25 career victories at the Cup level. Paschal never ran a full season and only managed a top five in the final point standings once. Had he been able to run the full schedule, who knows what he might have accomplished.
Next would be Jack Smith. Smith scored 21 wins, the same as Jeff Burton, in 264 starts, just over a third of the starts Burton had. He finished top five in points three times while never running a full season. Smith is one of the most unrecognized drivers with an outstanding resume in NASCAR.
The final spot in the top 75 belongs to the only Cup series champion who is eligible and not included in the Hall of Fame or the top 75 list from NASCAR. Bill Rexford is the second Cup Series title winner. He only has one win in his career but that came in his title winning season. The fact that he was the second winner has relegated him to obscurity and he is not receiving the accolades he should for his early success in the sport.
These lists are always subjective and will always strike a nerve with fans of drivers who are left out. Comparing different eras is always a challenge. Hopefully you can appreciate the attempt to be as objective as possible with this modified list. Celebrate 75 years, let’s hope for another 75.
About the author
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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