NASCAR's Most Colorful Drivers of All Time

James Williams@WordmandcAnalyst IIIFebruary 13, 2012

NASCAR's Most Colorful Drivers of All Time

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    NASCAR is a sport built on colorful personalities who at times seem larger than life. From the early days when drivers came from running moonshine to the present day driver who like their predecessors were willing to live life on the edge. 

    Some of the sports biggest champions were also colorful characters who made the sport what it is today. 

    So here are the "Ten Most Colorful Drivers in NASCAR history."     

#10 Darrell Waltrip

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    Darrell Waltrip, known to many as "D.W," was one of NASCAR's best drivers winning over 84 Cup Races, three drivers Championships, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Waltrip was known as a great talker but someone who clearly could back up everything that he said.  

#9 Curtis Turner

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    Curtis Turner  once told a reporter from Sports Illustrated that "I like drinking and parties more than racing, but I am better at racing."

    Turner loved to fly airplanes,once took his single engine plane and flew it to his Mount Airy, N.C., home landing on the main street and then parking his plane at the local diner for breakfast.

    He was the first driver in NASCAR to win two Grand National races in a row from the pole by leading every lap Rochester, New York and Charlotte, North Carolina in July 1950.

#8 Lee Petty

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    Lee Petty was part driver, part businessman, and a tough competitor who backed away from no one. He won the first ever Daytona 500 and built Petty Enterprises passing the No. 42 on to his son Richard.

    A Hall of Fame driver Petty won 54 races over his 17 year racing career.    

#7 Bobby Allison

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    Bobby Allison  was part of the famed Alabama Gang.  Allison won 84 NASCAR Cup races, tying him for third on the all-time list. Allison won the Daytona 500 three times, including in 1988, when he held off his son, Davey in a thrilling 1-2 finish. Allison, a 2011 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, won the 1983 Cup championship, but his best season may have come in 1971 when he won 11 races for three different teams, including his own.

    Allison’s career ended in 1988 when he suffered a severe head injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway. Ironically, both of Allison’s sons, Clifford and Davey, were killed at race tracks in 1992 and 1993, respectively.

#6 Junior Johnson

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    Junior Johnson is a genuine folk hero, once dubbed “The Last American Hero” in an Esquire article. He honed his driving skills as a moonshine runner and in 1956 was arrested by federal agents at his father’s moonshine still and served 11 months in federal prison. He returned to NASCAR, and used his moonshine-running skills to become one of NASCAR’s top drivers. Johnson’s biggest victory came in the 1960 Daytona 500, when he invented the art of drafting and used it to slingshot past faster cars.

    An aggressive driver, Johnson drove for a variety of team owners, but had his biggest season in 1965, when he won 13 races for his own team. He retired as a driver the following season with 50 career wins. He went on to became one of the most successful car owners in NASCAR history, winning 132 races and six championships with drivers Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip. Johnson was inducted into the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.

#5 Tony Stewart

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    Tony Stewart’s hero is A.J. Foyt, and that is only fitting. Stewart won this year's Sprint Cup Champion, and he is one of the most gifted drivers in the series.

    He is just like his hero Foyt; he is an outspoken person both on and off the track. His abilities as a driver backs up his sometimes brash ways of handling issues.  

    He got the nickname "smoke" from his roots IndyCar. Stewart, the 1997 IndyCar champion and a former USAC champ, has proven to be just as talented in stock cars since winning NASCAR Cup rookie of the year honors in 1999. In 12 seasons, Stewart has won 39 races and three Cup championships (2002, ’05 and 2011). Stewart, whose fiery personality and propensity for controversy mirrors the career of his mentor, won 33 races and two championships for Joe Gibbs Racing before starting his own Stewart-Haas Racing team in 2009.

    Love him or hate him, Stewart is always entertaining.  

#4 Cale Yarborough

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    As we established, NASCAR racing is a sport built by moonshiners and outlaws and all sorts of colorful characters bumping and banging and fighting their way around speedways all around the Southeast. But none were rougher and tougher than Cale Yarborough.

    A former semi-pro football player and Golden Gloves boxer, Yarborough snuck into Darlington Raceway as a kid and later lied about his age so he could enter a race as a teenager.  He made his NASCAR debut in 1951 at age 18 and won 83 Cup races during his 31-year career, including four Daytona 500s and five Southern 500s. Yarborough is one of only two drivers to win three straight Cup championships, winning the title for Junior Johnson from 1976-78 with 28 wins in 90 starts over three years. Yarborough is also known for brawling with Bobby and Donnie Allison in the infield grass at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500, a race that put NASCAR on the map.

#3 Richard Petty

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    Richard Petty. When TV came to NASCAR, Petty became the sports biggest star. He is NASCAR’s Babe Ruth, both in terms of accomplishment and legendary status. Petty, who raced from 1959-1992, owns almost every NASCAR record, including most starts (1,185), most wins (200), most poles (123), most Top 5 finishes (555), most Top 10s (712), most championships (seven) and most autographs signed (countless). His 200 career victories are a record that likely will never be broken. Likewise, his 27 wins in 1967, including 10 in a row, rival Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak as one of the most remarkable records in sports history.

     As dominant as Petty was on the track, he has been even greater off of it, becoming NASCAR’s chief ambassador and an iconic figure who is still a fixture in the sport today. Wearing his trademark cowboy hat and sunglasses, he set the standard for fan interaction and sponsor relations, becoming perhaps the most popular driver and personality in NASCAR history. The only knock against Petty – and the only caveat that keeps him from being No. 1 on this list — is that he accumulated most of his wins and championships in the 1960s and 70s, when NASCAR’s top stars ran 40 to 50 races a year, often against inferior competition at small-town short tracks across the country. Of Petty’s 200 career wins, 140 came prior to the modern era (1972), when he averaged 44 races per season.

#2 Dale Earnhardt

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    Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are the two most famous names in NASCAR history, linked by a significant achievement — they each won a record seven NASCAR Cup championships. The difference is that Earnhardt won his in a much more competitive era, dominating the 1980s and early 90s — NASCAR’s boom era in terms of competition and popularity. Earnhardt won his first race and rookie-of-the-year honors in 1979. The following season, he captured his first championship, winning five races for car owner Rod Osterlund. When he rejoined team owner Richard Childress in 1983, the move defined his career. From 1986-94, Earnhardt won six Cup championships driving for Childress, capturing back-to-back titles three times.

    Earnhardt became NASCAR’s biggest star and an almost mythical figure in the sports world. He was “The Intimidator” and “The Man in Black,” a driver who was feared on the track and worshipped off of it. As talented as he was behind the wheel, he was even more successful at building a legendary fan base and developing an iconic image that helped him earn a fortune in sponsorship and souvenir sales. A blue-collar man, Earnhardt was NASCAR’s Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and James Garner all rolled into one. His death in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 made headlines worldwide — his funeral was televised live by CNN — and his legend has only grown since his death. His influence and impact on the sport is still felt today.

#1 Glenn "Fireball " Roberts

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    Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was to NASCAR what Arnold Palmer was to golf. When the sport needed a colorful hero who would gain them mainstream fans, it was Roberts who was that man.

    He won the 1962 Daytona 500 and he was never a NASCAR Champion, but he won 33 races, collected 122 Top 10 finishes and gathered 32 poles.

    Roberts was named one of NASCAR's 50 Best Drivers of All Time as well as enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

    He died at the age of 35 in a crash at the Charlotte World 600 in 1964. Roberts crashed and died six days later of burns he suffered as a result of the crash. On the day Roberts died, drivers Eddie Sachs and David  MacDonald also died at the Indianapolis 500.

    As a result of their crashes, both NASCAR and the Indy Racing group began to develop cars that were safer and more fire resistant.

    Some writers have called Roberts the Buddy Holly of NASCAR, a bright star who died well before he had a chance to really shine.