Motorsport is one of the most evolutionary forms of sports on the planet, often changing from one standard to another, unrecognizable one in a matter of years. As such, the NASCAR of today and the NASCAR of even 20 years ago share little in common, from the cars to the manufacturers to the schedule to the sponsorship obligations.
In fact, the differences are so great that were you to take some of the sport's top drivers in their prime out of their era and put them into today's NASCAR exactly as they were, there's a good chance that a lot of them would struggle.
It's true that different strategies and personalities work in different eras. In fact, the differences may be so large that any sort of comparison like this is impossible to accurately make. But with deeper fields, wins at a premium and most importantly, far more money in the sport, some of these drivers, despite all possessing Hall of Fame-worthy talent, wouldn't have half as many wins as they eventually totaled in their careers.
With that in mind, let's go through 25 drivers whose careers would likely be radically different in this era:
Allison drove in an era when manufacturers seemed to matter less, scoring wins for AMC as well as Buick's final championship in 1983. But as any driver today can tell you, being saddled with a second-tier manufacturer can put a serious dent in any championship hopes; remember, if not for Joe Gibbs Racing joining the fold, Toyota would likely still be an afterthought in the series.
Winning a NASCAR championship these days is all about doing well in the final races of the season. The Chase for the Sprint Cup seems like something that Allison would have suffered in at his peak; in 1991, he endured four finishes outside the top 15 in the final 10 races while he lost the 1992 championship after crashing with the point lead in that year's final race.
Bodine drove for four different teams over the course of six years from 1989-94, moving from Rick Hendrick's squad to Junior Johnson's, Bud Moore's and eventually his own. A lack of continuity is often a hindrance for drivers in the modern era; few drivers click with their new teams in the first third of the season after switching rides, so bouncing from car to car year after year may have torpedoed Casey Mears' career entirely.
During the peak of his career, Bonnett was stuck racing a second car for Junior Johnson while teammate Darrell Waltrip stood out. Bonnett's best season in points came in 1985 when he finished fourth while Waltrip took his third career championship. It doesn't seem like a stretch to think that, had Bonnett's been the primary car in Johnson's organization, he could have been the driver contending for championships.
Byron only raced in NASCAR in its first few years, making only 15 Cup starts and scoring only two victories on the way to the first championship in the sport. But the first years of any sport are always somewhat of a crapshoot, and the depth of those early fields wasn't of a particularly high quality. Byron didn't run long enough to establish much of a career, but the World War II veteran might have had a tough fight with a field full of cars equally capable of running well.
There's a reason why Kevin Harvick sold off the racing aspects of his own team to Cup owner Richard Childress this past offseason: The time restrictions of running one's own operation in this day and age while driving for another are a major deterrent in focusing on the task at hand, a Sprint Cup title.
No matter who was handling the day-to-day operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc., it's still his name and reputation on the line in securing drivers, sponsors and solid employees, and the stress of running a team while focusing on one's own driving career would've contributed to a slip down the standings for The Intimidator.
Flock won a whopping 18 races and 19 poles in his 45 starts on the way to the 1955 championship, but it's important to note a few things: first, owner Carl Kiekhaefer was disproportionately rich compared to the rest of the owners in the series at the time, and second, many of the fields that season were half as large as they are today.
More competitive cars and a more even playing field suggests that Flock's championship wouldn't have been so easy in the modern era.
Foyt's success in racing came partially due to his expertise in running his own organization, which he did from 1968 through the end of his career. But he didn't bring that operation to NASCAR until 1977, five years after he scored his last Cup win.
Foyt, in his prime, may have been too hands-on for the liking of modern owners whose major investments in technology are designed to keep the driving in the hands of the driver; the responsibilities of an owner-driver in this day and age have proven overwhelming to most drivers.
Ingram made his name in what is now known as the Nationwide Series, but in a time before that division really attracted Cup names. Instead, the two-time series champion was the best of a proper development series, one generally untouched by Cup influence except on the few weekends they ran in the same place. Sure, the fact that Cup drivers can't score Nationwide points would help, but Ingram's stats would likely suffer.
More than once Jarrett faded in the standings over the second half of the season due to disappointing finishes. He had been leading the points in 2001 as late as July before ultimately falling to fifth, and he did the same in 1996, holding the points lead for seven races after his Daytona 500 win before settling into fourth for much of the year.
Jarrett had a few seasons where he put together better second halves than first ones and would have won the Chase in 1997 had it existed, but doing well at the beginning of the year effectively guaranteed enough of a dropoff in the second half to remove him from the title hunt.
Kulwicki's 1992 championship came on the strength of his engineering prowess and his ability to make his low-budget team one of the most efficient in the sport. But it's 2012, not 1992, and big teams now have multimillion-dollar complexes with seven-post shaker rigs and technology that was only a pipe dream to Kulwicki during his time.
The outfit that won the championship 20 years ago wouldn't stand a chance these days.
Labonte won the 1996 championship with only two wins to Jeff Gordon's 10, but consistency can only do so much in such a lopsided matchup. Gordon only lost the title that year by 37 points and would have won it if the Chase had been in effect. In fact, Labonte wouldn't have won his other title in 1984 either had the Chase existed.
Lund's only major success came in the 1963 Daytona 500, which he won for the Wood Brothers as a substitute for the injured Marvin Panch. That helped revive a career that had been dead in the water, but in this day and age, that might not be enough to land a full-time ride or sponsor.
In fact, Trevor Bayne won last year's Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers and still can't secure enough sponsorship to run a full-Nationwide schedule, never mind Sprint Cup.
For an upcoming NASCAR Hall of Famer, Owens' resume is actually remarkably short. He scored nine career wins in only 160 starts, four of which came in a part-time 1961 schedule. Owens finished second in points in 1959, the only year where he ran enough races to challenge for a championship, but he only scored one win that year.
As Carl Edwards can tell you from last year, one win isn't enough to take home a title.
Parsons' sunny, cheerful attitude was the hallmark of his broadcasting career, but he'd stick out like a sore thumb among modern NASCAR drivers who often seem like anything but.
Friendly seems to get a driver nowhere these days, especially when the only driver to seem consistently cheerful (and headed to a broadcast booth when he retires) is Carl Edwards who has never had quite enough in the tank to take a championship win.
Ever notice how Mark Martin has never taken a race victory in his years running a part-time schedule but won plenty in 2009 while racing full-time? That would be Pearson's issue, as he tired of running full schedules after his third championship win in 1969. Pearson continued to take victories every year through 1980, but a deeper field and less seat time greatly reduces the chances of a part-timer scoring a lot of victories.
Sure, many of Petty's 200 wins were taken with the same sort of shallow fields that Flock faced to win his 1955 title. But also keep in mind the strength of the Petty Enterprises organization, with engine builder Maurice Petty and crew chief Dale Inman, without which Petty's successes may have never been possible. In fact, when Inman left in early 1981, it signaled the beginning of the end for Petty who only won eight career races without Inman atop the pit box.
Richmond was a charismatic figure both on and off the racetrack, but his lack of discipline outside the racecar greatly affected his ability to climb into it. Illness limited him to eight starts in 1987, although he scored two wins in his appearances.
Richmond had been coming off of his finest season in 1986 which saw him score seven wins and finish third in points. His illness and eventual death meant he could never realize his true potential in the car, and in an even more hectic atmosphere as is the one that exists today, it's possible that off-track distractions would still overcome his on-track talent.
Of the owner-driver operations of the 1990s, Rudd's was by far the most successful as he managed to continue his epic streak of one win per season for five years in his own equipment.
But one win a year does not a champion make, and despite three finishes in the top 10 in points as an owner-driver, Rudd fell to an abysmal 31st in the standings in 1999 before rocketing back to fifth in Robert Yates' Ford the next year.
Because so much of his prime was spent with his own team, it's hard to tell whether or not Rudd could have won a championship driving for somebody else.
Being an owner-driver in this racing environment is particularly difficult, but for the majority of his career, that's exactly what Thomas was in his Hudson Hornet.
Thomas won two championships and finished second twice exclusively in his own equipment, something that would be unheard of today. The truth is, even with manufacturer support, the amount of stresses that come with running one's own team in this day and age are exponentially greater, and they've affected the on-track performance of many a great driver.
Turner was a heavy partier, a shrewd businessman and a hell of a driver, everything that makes for a great legend in the future and a public relations nightmare in the present.
From his aggressive driving to his strides towards forming a driver's union, he offered NASCAR plenty of trouble during a much stricter time in the sport's history. That might not be a deterrent so much in the modern era, but a driver like Turner wouldn't make it easy on himself no matter the time period with his reputation.
In 706 career Cup starts, Wallace scored 55 wins and 202 top fives, but only 349 top 10s. Compare that ratio to chief rival Earnhardt who scored 428 top 10s in his 676 career starts. Wallace also suffered 117 DNFs to Earnhardt's 95.
The point here is that if Wallace wasn't running in the top five, he was far more likely to come home with a disappointing finish than Earnhardt, and those middling to disappointing finishes serve as an absolute killer to a driver's championship hopes in such a deep field as today's.
Weatherly developed a reputation for outrageous behavior, from taking practice laps in a Peter Pan suit to partying late into the night, but still managed to win the 1962 and 1963 championships. However, he scored those titles while splitting time between Bud Moore's limited schedule car and those of many other owners.
If jumping from car to car every year has hurt many drivers, imagine doing so from week to week.
The sport's first three-time consecutive champion took 83 career victories, including 28 in his title-winning years of 1976-78. Of course, Yarborough was dominant in those years, only finishing outside of the top 10 in 16 out of the 90 combined races. A run like that is unheard of in an era where 10-15 cars have the chance at winning every week; in 1976, only seven drivers won races while last year the total was more than double that.
The 1969 Daytona 500 winner had his career cut short in his prime by a combination of factors: Ford's withdrawal from racing after 1970, his split with Junior Johnson and a series of nasty accidents that altered his personality and led to institutionalization. Perhaps the SAFER barrier would have helped lengthen Yarbrough's career, but beyond that, he was a private person in a sport whose popularity would never render him any privacy.
Imagine a major driver in this era who wasn't up for sponsorship obligations or readily available to the media.