Ranking the 5 Greatest NASCAR Drivers of Every Decade

Michael GuadalupeFeatured ColumnistNovember 4, 2012

Ranking the 5 Greatest NASCAR Drivers of Every Decade

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    NASCAR has been around since the late 1940s.  With its history, there have been drivers in every decade who stand out above the rest.

    Even though NASCAR itself has changed since its beginnings, there are still those who stand out. And every decade has a solid group of drivers who that remember as NASCAR continues moving forward.

    Some drivers span more than one decade and were dominant in the NASCAR scene for over 20 years.  Others are still racing and continue to set new records as NASCAR adds even more years to its history.

    Most of the drivers on this list have won one or more championships.  In a sport like NASCAR, winning races is great, but winning the grand prize, the Sprint Cup title, is the ultimate goal.  Even drivers who have only one it once should be considered some of the best in the history of NASCAR.

    When names like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. have each dominated more than two decades of NASCAR, beating one of them and winning the title is a real accomplishment.

    Drivers were taken from all aspects of a decade, from ones who dominated earlier in a decade to ones those came alive at the end.

    NASCAR started in 1948, so to make the decades somewhat even, I started the list with 1948-1959.

    Here are the top five drivers from every decade in NASCAR.

1948-1959

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    Yes, this isn't technically a decade, but NASCAR officially started in 1948, so I tacked on the sport's first two years to the first decade of NASCAR.

    Honorable Mentions: Fonty Flock, Curtis Turner, Bill Rexford 

     

    5. Buck Baker

    When Herb Thomas crashed in 1956 and got taken out of the standings, Buck Baker capitalized.  Baker also won the championship the following year.

    Buck was a tough driver, and he was known for getting into it with other drivers if he felt that they bumped him during a race.  He won the Southern 500 three times and was an extremely good driver in unfamiliar equipment.

    Baker won races in eight different makes of cars.

    He eventually retired in 1968, but Baker's dominant years were in the 1950s.

     

    4. Tim Flock

    Tim Flock of the famous Flock family played a huge role in NASCAR from 1948 to the late 1950s.  He won the NASCAR title in 1952 and 1955.  He had 188 starts in his career and won 39 times.

    Flock also drove with a rhesus monkey in his car at one point, and he even won a race with the monkey as his co-pilot.

    Tim Flock came from a big racing family, and he easily had the most success out of the entire gang.

     

    3. Red Byron

    Red Byron won the NASCAR Modified point’s race in 1948 and 1949.  In 1948, he started in 34 races and won 11 of them.  In 1949, there were only six races, but Byron won two of them.

    He only competed in 15 races from 1949 to 1951, but winning the NASCAR Strictly Stock title in ’48 and '49, which would eventually become the Sprint Cup series, puts Byron on the upper level of drivers in the early years of NASCAR.

    And he managed to do all this with a bad left leg, as Byron served in World War II and hurt his left leg in the war.

     

    2. Herb Thomas

    In just seven full years of racing, Herb Thomas was the first driver to earn more than $100,000 in career earnings. He won two NASCAR championships (1951 and 1953), managed to win at Darlington three times and won a total of 48 races.

    Thomas pushed his cars to the limit.  If he didn't win, he managed to blow his car up or wreck it in the process.

    Thomas was on schedule to win a third title in 1956 until he ended up in a bad accident.  He suffered from a cracked skull and needed brain surgery, which ended up taking him out of the rest of the season. He managed to make two appearances in 1957, but eventually retired.

     

    1. Lee Petty

    Lee Petty started the dominant family of Pettys in NASCAR.  Lee himself was a dominant driver throughout the 1950s.

    Petty won the NASCAR title in 1954, '58 and '59. Throughout his legendary career, he started in 427 races, won 54 and had 231 top-five finishes. He also finished in the top 10 an incredible 332 times. 

    Lee Petty was extremely consistent, always in the mix and became a household name.  His consistency played a big part in why he dominated in the 1950s.

1960-1969

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    Honorable Mentions: Rex White, Fireball Roberts, Dick Hutcherson

     

    5. Junior Johnson

    Junior Johnson is an interesting driver.  He was good in the 1950s, but ended up getting arrested because of his involvement in moonshine.  Eventually, Johnson came back, but he didn't really take off until the 1960s.

    He won the Daytona 500 in 1960, driving an underpowered Chevrolet.  He went on to win at Darlington and Charlotte that year as well.

    His best year was in 1965, where he won 10 races and 13 poles. He completed 7144 laps and led 56 percent of them.

    Junior eventually retired in 1966 at the age of 34. He'd recorded 50 wins. And he then went on to establish his own racing team.

    He was a major factor throughout the '60s, and his involvement with moonshine made him one of the last drivers to be connected to NASCAR's moonshining roots.

     

    4. Ned Jarrett

    Jarrett won the NASCAR championship title in 1961 and 1965.  In '61, he only won one race. But with 23 top-fives and 34 top-10s, Jarrett managed to pull ahead of Rex White and win the championship.

    In 1965, a much more seasoned Jarrett won 13 races, had 42 top-fives and 45 top-10s.  With two championships and being a constant title contender throughout the 1960s, Ned Jarrett proved to be of the best drivers of the '60s.

     

    3. Joe Weatherly

    Weatherly won the 1962 and '63 NASCAR championship titles.  He was a constant competitor throughout the 1960s, especially in the early part of the decade. Weatherly started in 230 races and won 25 of them.

    In 1963, Weatherly drove for nine different teams and used five different makes of cars. 

    When General Motors cut back on its racing program, Weatherly had to focus on the bigger events.  He didn't give up racing on the short tracks, though, and instead picked up rides with other teams.

    The equipment he drove on short tracks was far below what he drove on the superspeedways. But he drove the best he could without completely ruining the equipment.  He refused to give up and ended up winning the 1963 championship.

    Switching between nine different teams and still being able to win a championship is no easy feat, and it's something that hasn't been done again.

     

    2. David Pearson

    The Silver Fox was not only one of the greatest drivers in the 1960s, but also one of NASCAR's greatest drivers ever. He won the NASCAR championship in 1966, '68 and '69. 

    Pearson had no intent of being a NASCAR driver and ended up being partly funded by his short-track fans in South Carolina.

    After winning his third championship, Pearson decided not to run full time in the NASCAR circuit.  He had four full seasons and won three of them.

    In his career, he started in 574 races, won 105 of them and placed in the top five 301 times.  Pearson turned out to be one of the best drivers in the late '60s, and he proved it with three NASCAR championships.

     

    1. Richard Petty

    The son of Lee Petty turned out to be even more dominating than his father. 

    Richard Petty won the NASCAR championship twice in the 1960s (1964 and '67).  With nine wins and 37 top five finishes in 1964, he pulled ahead of Ned Jarrett and won the championship.  And in 1967, Petty showed his dominance by winning 27 races and winning the championship by more than 5,000 points.

    In addition, Petty also helped put NASCAR on the map as a sport.

    He was a huge part of NASCAR in the '60s, and it would continue into the '70s as well.

    The King's feats are legendary.  He started cementing his legacy in the '60s

1970-1979

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    Honorable Mentions: Richard Childress, Darrell Waltrip

     

    5. Bobby Isaac

    Bobby Issac won the championship in 1970.  With 37 wins and 308 starts, he was one of the top competitors in the early 1970s.

    Isaac began to take off toward the end of the '60s, but didn't see real success until the 1970s. With 11 wins, 32 top-fives, and 38 top-10s, Isaac ran away with the championship.

    He grew up poor and used NASCAR to elevate himself from that life.  He used his skill as a driver to give himself a better life, and in the 1970s, Isaac was one of NASCAR's top competitors.

     

    4. Benny Parsons

    When Parsons won the title in 1975, it was under unique circumstances.  His racing team, the Dewitt Team, had no sponsorship and only had three cars to run the entire season with.  Also in 1975, points were awarded for every lap completed plus overall finishing position.

    He only won one race, but completed 9311 laps out of 10,258.  Completing so many laps helped him win the championship. 

    Parsons was voted one of the 50 greatest drivers of all time. And with only three cars to his name in 1975, he proved he was one of the best drivers in the '70s.

     

    3. Bobby Allison

    Allison didn't win a championship in the 1970s, but he was still one of the top drivers.  And he was the runner-up to the championship in 70, 72 and 78.

    Allison managed to lead in every race from September 16th, 1971 to October 22nd, 1972, leading a total of 39 consecutive races.

    He remained a title contender throughout the '70s—and with tough competition like Petty and Yarborough, that was no easy feat. 

    The famous 1970 Daytona brawl (at the first televised race) is something Allison was also a part of.  As Allison and Cale Yarborough (see below) brawled after the televised race, NASCAR gained new fans.

     

    2. Cale Yarborough

    Cale was another of the best drivers in the 1970s.  He won three consecutive titles: '76, '77 and '78. 

    In '76 and '77, Cale beat out Richard Petty to win the championship.  In '78, he held off Bobby Allison to win his last title.

    While "The King" Richard Petty might have been the man to beat in the 1970s, Yarborough came alive at the end of the '70s and gave Petty a run for his money. 

    Yarborough was also involved in the infamous last-lap crash at the 1979 Daytona 500.  His fight with Bobby Allison helped bring a whole new audience to NASCAR.

    Yarborough was one of the best in the 1970s, and he's also one of the best drivers to ever race in NASCAR.

     

    1. Richard Petty

    Petty continued to dominate NASCAR well into the 1970s.  He won the championship in 1971, 72, 74, 75 and 79. 

    He is referred to as "The King" for a reason, and winning five championships proved Petty was indeed The King in the 1970s. 

    On top of a total of seven total championships, The King won 200 races and started in 1184 throughout his career.  He had most of his success in the 1970s and was the man to beat in NASCAR. 

    Petty had tough competition, but still managed to win five titles from 1970-1979.  Clearly, the King was the top driver in the '70s.

1980-1989

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    Honorable Mentions: Tim Richmond, Terry Labonte

     

    5. Rusty Wallace

    Rusty Wallace was a big part of the NASCAR scene throughout the late 1980s.  He had been in NASCAR throughout the '80s, but really took off and became a title contender in 1986.

    He eventually won the title in 1989.  It wasn't easy, but Wallace overcame Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt to win the championship. 

    Earnhardt and Wallace battled for the championship until the very last race of the season.  Eventually, Wallace won, but only by 12 points. 

    Beating Earnhardt was never easy.  Keeping your lead with only a handful of races made it even harder.

    Wallace stopped The Intimidator and proved he was one of the best drivers in the 1980s.

     

    4. Bill Elliott

    Bill Elliott made national headlines in 1985 when he won the Winston Million.  A $1 million bonus to any driver who could win three of the four crown jewel races of NASCAR, Elliott ended up winning the Daytona 500, Talladega 500 and the Southern 500.

    This accomplishment wasn't all Elliott had in store, though.  In 1988, Elliott won the then-Winston Cup championship, holding off Rusty Wallace.

    He led the standings from June until August. But Elliott stumbled and found himself behind with five races left in the season.  Even though Wallace won four of the five final races, Elliott placed well enough in each race that he regained the points lead and won the championship.

    Winning a title, and the Winston Million, made Bill Elliott one of the best drivers in the 1980s.

     

    3. Bobby Allison

    Allison was a top driver in the '70s, and he continued to be a top driver in the 1980s as well.

    In 1985, Allison held off Darrell Waltrip to win his first championship.  He won three straight races—Darlington, Richmond and Dover—to stop Waltrip from taking the lead.

    His career lasted until 1988, and when it came to an end, Allison had won 85 races.  He was always a fan favorite, and he still remains one of NASCAR's greatest drivers of all time.

     

    2. Darrell Waltrip

    If Earnhardt was the man to beat in the '80s, Waltrip was the man trying to beat him.

    And he succeeded.

    Waltrip won the championship in 1981, '82 and '85. 

    While Waltrip had been in NASCAR since the 1970s, he wasn't a top, championship driver until the 1980s. He joined forces with Junior Johnson in 1981 and ended up winning a championship as a direct result. 

    Waltrip still wasn't liked by a majority of the fans until 1989, though, when Rusty Wallace spun him out during the All-Star Race. 

    Waltrip was one of the best drivers in the 1980s, and he has the championships to prove it.

     

    1. Dale Earnhardt

    Dale Earnhardt was the man to beat in the 1980s.  He won the championship in 1980, 1986 and 1987. 

    When he won the title in 1980, it was be the first time in NASCAR that a driver won Rookie of the Year one year, and the championship the next.

    He started driving for Richard Childress in the mid 1980s. It took a couple of years to get the team working well together, but when it got going, Earnhardt won the championship in '86 and '87.

    Dale was the top driver in the 1980s and the driver everyone wanted to beat.

1990-1999

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    Honorable Mentions: Davey Allison, Mark Martin

     

    5. Terry Labonte

    Terry Labonte was a top driver in the 1980s, when he managed to win his first title, but 12 years later, he managed to do it again—this time against even tougher competition.

    The seasoned veteran beat out teammate Jeff Gordon to win the NASCAR title in 1996, beating him by 37 points.  He also set a new record in 1996, beating out Richard Petty for the most consecutive starts.

    He was a title contender throughout the 1990s and was always running for the win.  What made him one of the top drivers in the ‘90s, though, was that his competition increased and he still managed to win a title.  Out-racing drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett, Labonte successfully competed with them 12 years after winning his first title.

     

    4. Dale Jarrett

    Dale Jarrett, son of the famous Ned Jarrett, had been around racing his entire life.  When he entered the NASCAR series, though, his best years started in the latter part of the 1990s.

    He was a title contender in 1996, '97 and '98, but Jarett finally won the championship in 1999, dominating through the entire year.  He took the points lead in May and never looked back. The runner-up, Bobby Labonte, finished 201 points behind Jarrett.

    When Jarrett won the championship, he and his father became the second family to have a father and son win the NASCAR championship.

    Jarrett had 32 wins out of 668 starts in his career.

     

    3. Alan Kulwicki

    Alan Kulwicki's title run in 1992 was nothing short of amazing.  Kulwicki was one of several drivers who entered the season as a real underdog; he ran his own team and had lost a major sponsor in Maxwell house in 1991.

    At one point in the season, Kulwicki found himself trailing in the standings.  But with solid finishes, he managed to move up the standings once again.  Eventually, points leader Bill Elliot ran into some bad luck, and Kulwicki capitalized on it.

    When he won the championship in 1992, it was an example of a small team beating out the bigger teams that were loaded with sponsorships.  It was a true underdog story and was part of the reason why Alan Kulwicki was one of the best drivers in the 1990s. 

    Sadly, Kulwicki died in 1993 when a plane he was riding in crashed six miles from its destination.

     

    2. Jeff Gordon

    Jeff Gordon came onto the NASCAR scene and dominated in the 1990s.  Despite having less experience than most of his competitors, Gordon raced against some tough veterans and beat them all.

    He won his first title in 1995 at the age of 24.  And he won the championship again in '97 and '98 as well.  He almost won again in 1996, but ended up losing by a narrow margin to Terry Labonte, even though Gordon managed to win 10 races that year.

    Gordon was clearly one of the biggest drivers in the 1990s.  The young driver might not have been loved by fans, but he was impressive.

     

    1. Dale Earnhardt

    Earnhardt continued to be the dominant driver as NASCAR moved into the 1990s. He started off the '90s by winning a championship and then won the title again in '91, '93 and '94.  He hit a bit of a slump in the late '90s, but he remained the top driver through the early and mid years of the decade.

    Earnhardt's domination might have continued into the turn of the millennium, but tragically, he died in 2001 following a crash in the Daytona 500.

    In his career, Earnhardt amassed 76 wins and started in 676 races.  He helped NASCAR achieve new heights in both the 1980s and the 1990s.

    Earnhardt was the man to beat in the '80s, and that remained the same as NASCAR entered the 1990s.

2000-2009

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    Honorable Mentions: Kurt Busch, Mark Martin

     

    5. Bobby Labonte

    Bobby Labonte started the turn of the century by winning the NASCAR championship.  He gave team owner Joe Gibbs his first win as a team owner.

    Labonte took the lead in April and held onto it for the entire year to win his first championship.  He won four races that year and managed to hold off Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s late-season surge to win the championship.

    The competition was tough when NASCAR entered the new millennium. But Labonte held his fellow competitors back and won the championship by more than 200 points.

    With his championship win and his competitiveness throughout the early part of the decade, Labonte was one of the top drivers of the 2000s.

     

    4. Matt Kenseth

    Matt Kenseth brought Jack Roush his first championship win in 2003.  After years of attempting to win a title with Mark Martin—and getting close four times—Kenseth was the driver to get it done for Roush.

    He didn't do it with wins, but instead, Kenseth did it with consistency.  He only won one race in 2003, but managed to hold the points lead for most of the year.  Kenseth only had two DNF's for the entire year.

    Leading the points after 33 of the 36 races in 2003, Kenseth led the points standings more than any driver since Richard Petty led after 41 of 48 races in 1971. 

    Kenseth was the final champion crowned by the Winston sponsor.  He's also the last driver to win the championship prior the Chase setup in NASCAR.

    Kenseth had a nearly perfect year in 2003, grabbing the points lead early and never looking back.  He continued to be a threat for the championship throughout the 2000s and was one of the best drivers of the decade.

     

    3. Jeff Gordon

    Gordon continued to be one of the top drivers into the 2000s.  He won the title in 2001, winning six races that year.  The championship was a close battle during the first half of that year, but eventually, Gordon gained momentum and left the competition behind.

    He won the championship by 349 points.

    Gordon continued to be a title contender throughout the rest of the decade, though he didn't manage to win another championship.

    Gordon was one of the top drivers in the 2000s, and he still continues to be one of the top drivers in NASCAR.

     

    2. Tony Stewart

    Tony Stewart—known by fans as "Smoke"—has been a major part of NASCAR ever since he debuted at the end of the 1990s.  In the 2000s, though, Tony saw a lot of success, winning the championship in 2002 and 2005.

    In 2002, he managed to comeback from a last-place finish in the season-opening Daytona race to being a title contender by the end of the season.  He came through at the end of the season and pushed forward to win the title.

    In 2005, he had five wins, 17 top-five finishes and 25 top-10 finishes.

    Stewart has been known for his hot temper, and while it has gotten him in some trouble with the NASCAR officials, it's also made Stewart somewhat of a fan favorite. 

    With his championships alone, Stewart is easily one of the top drivers of the decade.  Mix in his consistent winning and title contentions, and Stewart ranks among the best.

     

    1. Jimmie Johnson

    Jimmie Johnson was one of, if not the, best driver in the 2000s era of NASCAR. 

    Winning the title from 2006 to 2010 is not easy feat.  Clearly, Jimmie was the man to beat, and no one was able to do so during the second half of the decade.

    Johnson, though, was a factor to win the championship throughout the 2000 decade.  He was the first rookie to lead the point’s standings (2002), and he also became the first rookie to win both races at a track during one season.

    His accomplishments speak for themselves, like winning 10 races in 2007.

    Johnson was the best driver in the 2000s, and he continues to remain one of NASCAR's best to this very day.

2010-Present

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    Honorable Mentions: Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch

     

    5. Jeff Gordon

    Gordon may not be as dominant as he was for the last two decades, but he is still one of the top drivers in NASCAR. 

    Gordon has made the Chase for the last couple of years, but he's failed to win a title since 2001.  He may not win another title this decade, but he is still one driver who can get the job done.

    This year alone, when Gordon needed to make it into the Chase after a rough start to the season, he did so in the last race prior to the Chase, going from a lap down to a second-place finish.

    Expect Gordon to continue winning races throughout the decade, and he'll always be a title contender.

     

    4. Brad Keselowski

    It's hard to put Brad Keselowski on this list when you look at his previous seasons.  He didn't really impress in 2010 or 2011, but this year, Keselowski has been one of the best drivers.

    If this season is an example of how much improvement Keselowski has made and what's in store for the future, Keselowski should be one of the top drivers by the time this decade is over.  He has been a major factor in the Chase so far this season. 

    He's won five races this season—two of which have come in the Chase. 

    For a relatively new driver, Keselowksi has emerged as one of the top drivers and one to watch in the future.

     

    3. Denny Hamlin

    Denny Hamlin played runner-up to Johnson's title run in 2010.  He struggled a little in 2011, but still made the Chase. 

    But Hamlin turned his luck around this season.  He started strong and was a title contender until last week at Martinsville.

    With so much time left in this decade, it's still too early to rank the best drivers. But so far, Hamlin has been one of the best in these early years.

    This season alone, Hamlin has five wins. And while he might be too far down in the standings to win the championship this year, he should still be a favorite to win at least one more race—as well as a possible championship sometime this decade.

     

    2. Tony Stewart

    Stewart has clearly been one of the best drivers so far this decade. He dethroned Jimmie Johnson in 2011, the first year he was also a team owner.

    While he hasn't had major success so far this year in the Chase, the beginning of the season looked good for Smoke. He won three races, and though he started to slip back in the standings, he still made it into the Chase.

    He sits too far back in the standings now to win the Chase this year, but with plenty of time left in this decade, don't be surprised to see Stewart win another championship.

     

    1. Jimmie Johnson

    While Stewart ended Johnson's championship streak, Jimmie is still the current man to beat in NASCAR.  Winning the championship in 2010, and now on the verge of winning another title this year, Johnson is such a dominant driver that he could end up winning the most championships in NASCAR history.

    He has plenty of time left, and with the way he's has been performing so far this decade, he has a good chance of winning several more titles.

    Johnson seems refocused this year, and he seems to be approaching the Chase in a different way.  Long gone are the days where Johnson would win 10 races a year—the competition is just too tough.  Instead, Jimmie has been extremely consistent, winning four races this season and running well enough to take the points lead as this season begins to come to a close.

    Johnson has a chance to win another title this year, but even if he doesn't, he is one of the best drivers in NASCAR and should be expected to win even more championships before the decade is over.