Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Going Out of NASCAR With a Bang

Everyone wants to be remembered.

We certainly remember drivers whose final NASCAR Cup Series win was a dramatic one: Richard Petty’s 200th, Dale Earnhardt’s drive through the field at Talladega Superspeedway, Jeff Gordon’s last-ditch drive to make the championship race.

So it’s only natural for a driver and their fans to expect a win in their final season, a sendoff worthy of a champion. If they don’t go out with a victory, will they be forgotten? Will their decision to retire be deemed too late?

But even among the sport’s elite, winning in the final season is no easy task. That memorable 200th of Petty’s? It was a record-setting, memorable win, but it was far from his swan song. Petty raced for years after his final win. 

NASCAR’s elite actually has a spotty record when it comes to walk-off wins. Among its three seven-time Cup champions, only Earnhardt had a win (two, in fact) in his final full season (2000). Petty and Jimmie Johnson did not triumph in their farewell seasons.

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Stat Sheet: A Modern Era Record Falls at Watkins Glen

And even Earnhardt is a bit of a mystery, because his fatal accident in 2001 marked the end of his career instead of a retirement tour and a rocking chair for his porch.

Among the 45 drivers voted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame (including newly minted but not yet formally inducted members Johnson and Donnie Allison), roughly a third can boast of going out with a win. And even then, it’s murky.

Before NASCAR’s Modern Era and into its first decade or so, it wasn’t uncommon for drivers to run partial seasons — sometimes half the races or so — after stepping down from full-time competition. That’s not unheard of in more recent years either, though it’s less common than in the past. Bill Elliott, for example, raced several partial seasons before stepping aside for good. Johnson has dipped a toe into Cup racing this year as well.

Further muddying the waters is that some drivers rarely, if ever, raced every race in a season or raced for a title in the years when skipping a few races didn’t preclude that feat. Others, like Earnhardt, had careers cut short by injury or fatality. A few came out of retirement in substitute roles.

And a few Hall-of-Famers, like Modified ace Jerry Cook, raced in an era when their series’ stats are largely lost to time. Cook, a six-time Modified champion, has almost no statistics listed on Racing Reference, NASCAR’s historical data site. Cook is credited with 341 Modified wins, but the season-by-season breakdown is missing from NASCAR’s data. Red Byron is another Hall member whose statistical breakdown is lost to the ether.

With that in mind, included on this list are drivers who won in their last seasons running more than three-quarters of the schedule as well as those who won running a partial schedule afterward. Conversely, that means drivers who didn’t win in post-career part-time rides are not excluded if they won in their final full-time (or close to it) season. 

Won in final full-time (>75% of races), intended full-time, or absolute final partial season 

Junior Johnson: Junior Johnson gets a minor exception. He ran 65% of the races (36/55) in 1965 and won 13 times. Jonson never ran a full season and only met the 75% mark twice in his career, so for all intents and purposes, his last full year was 1965.

Dale Earnhardt: Earnhardt won 2/34 races in 2000 and finished second in Cup points; he died in a racing accident in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Bobby AllisonBobby Allison won once in 13 starts in 1988. He did not complete that season due to injury, but the intent had been to run the full 29-race schedule. He was sixth in points leading into the first Pocono Raceway event, where he suffered a career-ending crash.

Lee PettyLee Petty’s last full-time run was in 1950, when he started 39 of 44 races and won five, finishing sixth in points. He also won once in 1966, running in just three races.

Richie Evans: Richie Evans was a nine-time champion in NASCAR’s Modified division. He won 12 of 28 starts in 1985 and won the series title. He was killed in a practice crash during the final race weekend of the year.

Herb Thomas: Won five of his 48 starts in 1956 and was runner-up in Cup points.

Cotton Owens: Won once in 37 starts in 1959. Cotton Owens also scored a total of six more victories afterward running part-time, including four of 17 starts in 1962 and once in two races in 1964, the last year he competed.

Fireball RobertsFireball Roberts won one of his nine starts in 1964, but died from injuries suffered in a crash at Charlotte Motor Speedway before the halfway mark of the season.

Tim Flock: Won 18 of 39 starts and the Cup title in 1955. He also won four times on a partial schedule the following year.

Bill Elliott: Elliott won one of 36 starts in 2003. He ran an additional nine partial seasons, anywhere between two and 20 starts without additional triumphs.

Alan Kulwicki: Won twice in 1992, winning the Cup title. Alan Kulwicki was killed in a plane crash after a winless five races in 1993. He technically misses the cut, as does Earnhardt, because both intended to run the full seasons in the years they died, but the deaths occurred so early in the season they deserve mention.

Davey Allison: Won one of 16 starts in 1993 but was killed in a helicopter crash in July of that year.

Jeff Gordon: Won one of 36 starts in 2015 and finished third in points. Gordon ran an eight-race schedule in 2016 substituting for an injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Tony StewartTony Stewart missed the first six races of the 2016 season with a back injury but came back to win once in the final 30 races.

Mike StefanikMike Stefanik won two titles in the ARCA Menards Series East and seven in the Modified Division. In 2005, his final year in East, Stefanik won two of 14 races. He also won twice and finished fifth in 2015, his last full season in Modifieds.

See also
Up to Speed: Points Gained & Points Lost for William Byron

That’s just 14 of the 45 drivers currently elected to NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.

For drivers like Kevin Harvick, a Hall of Fame lock who has yet to win this year, which he has announced as his final season, one more win is a point of pride. Harvick wants one last victory almost as much as he wanted his first.

But if he doesn’t win, it’s not a commentary on his career. It doesn’t take anything away from his 60 nods, 10th most of all time. It won’t hurt his Hall of Fame chances. He won twice in 2022, so it can’t really be said that he maybe hung on too long, something that has been a shadow over some drivers, like Darrell Waltrip and even Richard Petty and Jimmie Johnson.

The reality is that any win could be a driver’s last. Drivers don’t forget how to wheel a racecar as they age. There could be an injury. A driver could step into a ride they felt was right but never had competitive equipment. Sometimes the cars change so much over the years they might leave a driver behind eventually.

Every driver wants to be remembered. But an elite career casts a long shadow, and if no win comes in that inevitable last time around, that’s not that for which the driver will be remembered. It’s just a nice footnote to an already great career.

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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Now take the same list and write an article ” which driver sold the most tickets in his “swan song” year? I’ll make the research easy for you. The Georgia state troopers are still directing traffic out of Atlanta speedway from November 1992.

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