5 All-Time NASCAR Greats Who Would Struggle Today

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2012

5 All-Time NASCAR Greats Who Would Struggle Today

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    It's always fun to compare NASCAR drivers.

    While it's pretty easy to compare drivers that are currently active, it's a bit more difficult to compare drivers of today with drivers of other eras.

    Racing today is so much different from racing back in, say, the 1970s. There were more competitors and races back then, the style of racing was different and there certainly were nowhere near the improvements in the sport today like SAFER barriers, head and neck restraints and a state-of-the-art new car that maximizes driver safety.

    Because of the disparity between then and now, it's hard to compare drivers head-to-head from then and now. Still, we came up with five drivers of the past who, while they did good back then, might have been less successful in today's racing game.

    The comparisons are not meant to disparage the former drivers whatsoever. It's just that they were of a different era and a different time than today, and racing was a much different situation then than it is now.

Richard Petty

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    I can already sense the immediate reaction from readers. How could arguably the greatest driver in NASCAR history, winner of a record-tying seven championships and a record 200 races, struggle if he was racing in the modern era.

    The answer boils down to numbers.

    First, Petty had 1,184 starts in his 35-year career. That's because NASCAR back in the day often had more than 40, 50 or sometimes even 60 races in a season, as opposed to the 36-race schedule today.

    If Petty was racing today, he'd probably be lucky to make 700 to 800 starts, given NASCAR's shorter schedule (by comparison, Mark Martin has raced for 30 years and has only 854 starts).

    Second, because of the fewer races today, Petty also likely would win only a portion of the 200 races he won during his time. There'd be no 27 wins in a season like he earned in 1967. And given how close the competition is today, we could see him winning maybe four or five championships, but not seven.

    Still, given his God-given racing talent, we feel Petty would be a force if he was racing today, but certainly nowhere near the dominator he was in his own era, when it was The King against the rest of the sport.

Herb Thomas

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    One of NASCAR's first champions, Herb Thomas won the Grand National title in 1951 and 1952.

    He was known for his all-out style of racing, taking chances where most other drivers wouldn't. Be it on a race track or on a beach course, Thomas was a picture of dominance and determination.

    He won 48 races in 228 starts, a 21.053 winning percentage, tops in NASCAR history. Broken down a bit more, that means Thomas won one out of just under every five races he started.

    But Thomas' no-fear approach behind the wheel back then would not work in today's far more controlled and strategic racing game.

    Pit stops are far different than they were back in his day. Speeds were significantly lower. And the talent level today is far superior to the competitors Thomas raced against back in his day.

    Still, given his talent, Hall of Famer Thomas likely would have been a good driver today, just not the great driver he was in his own era.

Bill Elliott

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    Awesome Bill From Dawsonville (Ga.) won 44 races and one Winston Cup championship in his career. Not only was he the most popular driver in the sport for much of the 1980s, Elliott was also one of the most feared drivers by his opponents.

    But Elliott's reign was fairly short-lived. For example, he won 39 of his 44 races in just a 10-year span from 1983 through 1992.

    And as he reached his 40s, Elliott's success tapered off dramatically (which can be expected), while current drivers in their 40s like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are still winning and productive.

    Granted, Elliott did have a great comeback year in 2003, when at the age of 47 he finished ninth in his last full-time season in Cup racing, but even when he continued driving part-time after that, he was never anywhere close to the old Bill.

    Elliott still makes occasional forays on the racetrack—he's had 97 Cup starts since 2004—but he's had just one top 10 finish in that time.

    Sure, he's 57 years old now, but if was racing in his prime today, we feel Elliott would be good, but just not as good as he was back then, when it was not only a different time, but a different style of racing, as well.

Bobby Allison

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    We went back and forth on whether Bobby Allison should make this list. He not only was a great champion (1983, plus five seasons as runner-up) and won 84 races in his career, he also saw that great career abruptly ended by the near-fatal crash that ended his racing career in 1988 at Pocono.

    Who knows how many more races and potential championships Allison may have won had the wreck at Pocono never occurred.

    Allison was a combination of aggressiveness and finesse behind the wheel. Who can forget the many great fender banging battles he had with other greats of his time, including Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and more.

    But if Hall of Famer Allison was racing today, the aggressive style he had back then probably would not have translated as well to racing today. Sure, there'd still be a spot for Allison's aggressiveness, but compared to the last three Cup champions—Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski—Allison would not be able to simply out-muscle everybody else.

    Johnson, Stewart and Keselowski are aggressive in their own rights, but they also are more strategic and deep-thinking in their approach. That's why they became champions.

    Call it finesse, which Allison certainly had, but in today's racing game, brain is oftentimes more important than brawn, where playing the mental game today is more important than the muscle game of Allison's era.

Ned Jarrett

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    This selection also gave us pause. You don't win 50 races and two championships (1961 and 1965) in your career without being a great driver, and NASCAR Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett certainly was that in his era.

    But at the same time, Jarrett didn't earn the nickname "Gentleman Ned" for nothing. He was one of the most mild-mannered, religious and nicest drivers you'd ever want to meet.

    Behind the wheel, Jarrett was a fierce competitor, but he also cared about his fellow drivers. During the 1964 World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte, Jarrett watched as Fireball Roberts crashed and was trapped in the burning wreckage. Jarrett stopped his car, rushed to the mangled vehicle and pulled Roberts to safety. That's the kind of man Ned Jarrett was and still is today. Sadly, though, Roberts died 39 days later from his injuries.

    In the patriarch of the Jarrett family, who sired former drivers Dale and Glenn, you likely can't find a more patient, forgiving and affable racer than Ned Jarrett.

    But in today's age, that kind of personality probably would work against the elder Jarrett. The sport has gone from one where drivers would help other drivers, as in Jarrett's era, to today's group where it seems it's every driver for himself, and where egos are full of more hot air than the four tires on a race car.

    While the old saying goes "Nice Guys Finish Last," nice guys like Jarrett are the exception today rather than the rule. Still, we won't completely dismiss Jarrett's talent if he were in his prime today.

    Would he win two championships and 50 races in the modern era? Unlikely, given the parity of today's competition. But then again, since it indeed is a new era and far different world today than when Jarrett was racing, maybe if he couldn't beat 'em fair and square in 2013, he'd have no choice but to join 'em and become No More Mr. Nice Guy.

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