Power Ranking the 20 Most Aggressive Racers in NASCAR History
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Other than possessing a strong will to win, there are few constants in the driving styles of successful NASCAR competitors.
Some, like Matt Kenseth and Terry Labonte, have made their mark by racing calmly and cleanly throughout their careers. In the right car and season, that can be an incredibly effective strategy—just ask Kenseth about his one-win championship season in 2003, or Labonte about winning the 1996 title despite winning two races to Jeff Gordon's 10.
This is not a list celebrating those drivers.
This is a list celebrating the folks who have made their mark on the sport in another way—driving through their competitors to take scores of victories and championships over the sport's history. It's a style that was prevalent in the sport's early days and still has its value today.
Some of these drivers have earned reputations for being dirty, while some have not—a lot of that depends on fan perception and history turning a kind eye to their accomplishments. But being aggressive and being dirty can come from the same root mentality, so it's not totally out of the question to use the two words interchangeably in some places here.
Without further ado, here are 20 drivers who know how to use their cars to muscle their way to a victory.
20. Kyle Larson
The hottest prospect in racing has made a name for himself by making it clear that he won't back down over a win for any reason. Never was that made more clear than at this year's Battle of the Beach, a late-model race on the Daytona backstretch. Kyle Larson, in a fully funded car, wrecked C.E. Falk, who prepares his own vehicles, to secure the victory.
He's got a long way to go, both in his career and on this list, but Larson is making it clear that he's not afraid to get his nose dirty in a battle for the win.
19. Denny Hamlin
He's been attracting more attention of late for earning fines and feuding with ex-teammates, but Denny Hamlin will go all-out in a big way if he thinks he has a shot at gaining a couple of spots at the end of a race.
Consider Phoenix, the second race of this season, when a daring move to the inside of the track's dogleg on the final lap gave him a chance to jump from fourth place to second at the finish. Jimmie Johnson got by him to reclaim second, relegating Hamlin to third, but it was a prime example of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver driving without fear.
18. Brett Bodine
Now the pace car driver in Sprint Cup events, Brett Bodine ignited a family feud in the 1994 Brickyard 400 while racing for the lead with brother Geoff. On a Lap 100 restart, Geoff bumped Brett to get past him, who responded by wrecking his older brother. The two had been having family problems earlier in the season, leading Geoff to accuse Brett of transferring his frustrations to the track. Brett had also been penalized five laps earlier in 1994 for an incident with Morgan Shepherd at Dover.
17. Geoff Bodine
As mentioned, Bodine had a well-publicized feud with brother Brett during the mid-1990s, but his biggest rivalry occurred in the 1980s when he battled Dale Earnhardt week in and week out, such as in the video here from Riverside in 1987.
Other key examples came at Charlotte in May 1987, when the two battled for the win in the Winston All-Star race and a still-angry Bodine bumped Earnhardt late in the following week's Busch Series event. The two were known to race one another without reservation, perhaps owing to Earnhardt's North Carolina heritage and Bodine's "Yankee" background as a New Yorker.
16. Robby Gordon
He's left NASCAR behind in favor of the Dakar Rally and his own Stadium Super Trucks series, but while Robby Gordon was running stock cars, he wasn't exactly the sport's calmest driver.
In a 2007 Busch race at Montreal, Gordon was spun by Marcos Ambrose in a battle for the lead; after a caution, which was thrown for a different accident, he ignored NASCAR's orders to restart in 14th, reassumed the lead and wrecked Ambrose, handing the victory to Kevin Harvick.
15. Brad Keselowski
The defending Sprint Cup champion won the first race of his career at Talladega in 2009 after an aggressive move on the race's final lap. Ducking low to pass Carl Edwards in the tri-oval, Brad Keselowski made contact with the No. 99, sending it into Ryan Newman's car and flying into the catchfence.
Keselowski has had more incidents with Edwards and Denny Hamlin since, though his title win was characterized by aggressive yet relatively clean driving.
14. Carl Edwards
For all of the value placed in Carl Edwards' media-friendly persona, there's nothing to say that he doesn't have an angry side. Back when he and Matt Kenseth were still teammates at Roush Fenway Racing, Edwards threatened to punch out the 2003 champion after a race at Martinsville in 2007, and it didn't look like play fighting.
On the track, his best example of wrecking another driver came at Atlanta in 2010, when the desire to exact revenge on Brad Keselowski led him to spin his rival on the frontstretch, sending Keselowski's car flipping and leading NASCAR to park Edwards.
13. Kyle Busch
With a nickname like "Rowdy," borrowed from the Days of Thunder character modeled after the late Dale Earnhardt, it's pretty clear that Kyle Busch has an aggressive streak in him.
Never was that more clear than in a feud with Kevin Harvick that ran through 2011; an incident at Darlington led him to spin Harvick's unmanned car on pit road after the race when Harvick got out to confront him, while the bad blood spilled over to a truck race at Texas that fall when Busch spun Harvick driver Ron Hornaday under caution. The latter earned Busch a suspension from that weekend's Sprint Cup race and a temporary leave of absence from sponsor M&M's.
12. Kevin Harvick
While he's calmed down in recent years, "Happy" is an ironic nickname that came from aggressive tactics early in Harvick's career. 2002 in particular was a watershed year for that perception; he fought Greg Biffle after a Busch Series race at Bristol in March and earned a suspension from the Cup race at Martinsville in April after aggressive driving and ignoring NASCAR orders in the truck race two days prior. The latter incident marked the first time the sport had suspended a driver from a Cup race for an incident in another series.
11. Richard Petty
Just because Petty is known as "The King" and a fan favorite for his legendary accomplishments doesn't mean he wasn't aggressive on the track.
Take the 1972 Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville, for example, when he ignored NASCAR orders to allow leader Bobby Allison to lap his slower car and greatly damaged Allison's car in a wreck after coming all the way back to battle for the lead. Petty also tried to keep David Pearson at bay in the 1976 Daytona 500 with aggressive blocking tactics, although those backfired when the two wrecked and only Pearson could limp across the finish line.
10. Juan Montoya
The Colombian ex-CART and Indianapolis 500 champion has earned a reputation for having a fiery personality on and off the track. Juan Pablo Montoya wrecked Kyle Busch at New Hampshire in summer 2008 after multiple on-track incidents between the two that day, while a wrecking match with Ryan Newman at Richmond in spring 2011 reportedly ended with a fistfight in the Darlington garage the very next week.
9. Darrell Waltrip
Darrell Waltrip earned the nickname "Jaws," humorously enough, from another of the sport's most aggressive drivers—Cale Yarborough. In a battle for the lead in the 1977 Southern 500, Waltrip bumped the lapped car of D.K. Ulrich, triggering a wreck that collected both Waltrip and Yarborough to end their respective chances of winning.
Yarborough was referring to Waltrip's habit of running his mouth, but the moniker did just as much to describe his shark-like driving style. Waltrip also had many battles with rival and friend Dale Earnhardt, including this one at Richmond in 1986 that saw both drivers wreck.
8. Jimmy Spencer
Drivers don't earn nicknames like "Mr. Excitement" for no reason. The two-time Cup race winner and longtime SPEED analyst earned the reputation by driving a lot of low-funded cars to their limit early in his career, but cemented it with a hot temper that included incidents with Ken Schrader at Martinsville in 1994 and Kurt Busch throughout the early 2000s.
Regardless, Jimmy Spencer managed to channel the aggression for good in July 1994, winning his first race at Daytona by ducking past Ernie Irvan on the final lap and taking away Irvan's momentum with a bump heading to the finish line.
7. Tony Stewart
One of NASCAR's most beloved active drivers, Tony Stewart has moved past anger management and attitude issues off track to become a fan favorite as an owner-driver and dirt track operator.
But he's still prone to questionable moves on track, with two recent restrictor-plate races serving as good examples; not only did his aggressive block cause the last-lap wreck at Talladega last October that claimed 25 cars and sent him on his roof, but he also triggered a wreck in this year's Sprint Unlimited that claimed a handful of cars in his wake.
6. Ernie Irvan
Ernie Irvan wasn't always the sympathetic figure that he became after suffering life-threatening head injuries in 1994 and making a full recovery and comeback. Earlier in his career, he earned the nickname "Swervin' Irvan" for his wild driving style; he caused incidents that injured both Neil Bonnett and Kyle Petty.
To be fair, however, Irvan learned from those errors, apologizing to his fellow drivers at a drivers' meeting at one point becoming a much smarter driver as his career progressed.
5. Kurt Busch
He's earned the nickname "The Outlaw" in recent years for his unrestrained temper, but the truth is that Kurt Busch drove like an outlaw long before his firing from Penske Racing. Consider the June 2007 race at Dover, when aggressive driving against Tony Stewart led to an accident, forcing NASCAR to park the 2004 champion.
Unsurprisingly, Busch was unrepentant, but perhaps that's because the two drivers had a history: Stewart got loose in that year's Daytona 500 and took out Busch in the resulting spin, eliminating two of the race's best cars from contention.
4. Bobby Allison
One of the sport's most legendary drivers, Bobby Allison hated losing so much that he won 84 Cup races (or 85, depending who you talk to). He couldn't stand the competitive advantages that Petty Enterprises had, or the behavior of a driver like Darrell Waltrip (who had been his friend earlier in their careers).
Allison also made headlines for stepping into the argument between Cale Yarborough and brother Donnie Allison at the end of the 1979 Daytona 500 and helping escalate it into a full-blown fistfight.
3. Cale Yarborough
The first driver to win three Cup titles in a row was a part of one of the sport's most famous finishes—the 1979 Daytona 500. Refusing to yield to competitor Donnie Allison, both drivers made contact while fighting for the lead down the backstretch, a battle which ended with both drivers in the wall short of the finish and fighting in the infield as Richard Petty took the checkered flag.
It was just one example of Yarborough doing whatever it took to win, and one of the few times it backfired; he won 83 races in a career that lasted from 1957 to 1988.
2. Curtis Turner
Take every championed stereotype and bad habit of stock car racers in NASCAR's infancy, throw them together, and you'll come up with Curtis "Pops" Turner, a timber magnate whose greatest claim to fame (among many) was a failed attempt to unionize NASCAR drivers and subsequent blacklisting from the sport.
On track, he would do whatever it took to win, and would not accept defeat graciously; after Fred Lorenzen held him off in a rough-and-tumble battle for the win in the 1961 Rebel 300, Turner slammed his Wood Brothers Ford into Lorenzen's Holman-Moody machine, ruining the front end in the process and walking back to the garage.
1. Dale Earnhardt
There's no doubt, if you watched him race, that "The Intimidator" tops this list, hands down. Few drivers during Earnhardt's era of dominance could say that they hadn't been in the vicinity of his front bumper, as the seven-time champion wasn't afraid to wreck drivers to win.
Never was that more clear than at Bristol in 1999, when Earnhardt responded to a clean pass from Terry Labonte by wrecking him on the last lap—earning a rare shower of boos in victory lane.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.