There's no question that winning drivers are the best of the best, but they don't just start out as winning drivers.
Rather, the best drivers in NASCAR get that way not just by winning, but by having incredible consistency first. Finishing second doesn't always mean you're the first loser, regardless of what Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights says.
In 65 years of NASCAR history, the following are the most consistent drivers the sport has seen.
And if you think that means the drivers with the most wins, well, you might just be in for a few surprises.
Although many modern fans may never have heard of Thomas, he was one of the most dominating and uber consistent drivers in NASCAR history in a relatively short period of time.
Thomas made 228 starts, winning 48—an incredible 21 percent winning percentage. But he also had 122 top-five finishes and 156 top-10s, along with 39 poles.
His best seasons were 1953 and 1954, when he won 12 races in each and had a combined 46 top-five finishes in 69 starts. He also won the Grand National Championship in 1951 and 1953.
Mark Martin has made 867 career starts in the Cup series dating back to 1981. While he's run primarily a part-time schedule for four of the past seven seasons, the numbers tell the story: 40 wins, 271 top-five (61 runner-ups) and 452 top-10 finishes (that means Martin has finished in the top 10 in more than half of the starts in his Cup career). He also has 56 poles.
The sad thing, however, is Martin has finished runner-up in the season standings five times, but he has never won a Cup championship. And at the age of 54, it's likely he never will.
His numbers are even more astounding in the Nationwide Series: In 236 career starts, he has 49 wins, 112 top-five and 152 top-10 finishes, plus 30 poles. He also has an average start of 9.9 and average finish of 12.3.
It doesn't get much better than that.
Three Sprint Cup Championships, 519 Cup starts, 48 wins, 178 top-five (42 runner-ups) and 288 top-10 finishes (plus 14 poles).
Stewart is unquestionably one of the best drivers the Cup circuit has ever seen. And even though he's struggled a great deal thus far this season, he is perhaps one of the most dangerous drivers when the chips are on the line.
Remember 2011? He didn't even win a race in the first 26 races, but once he qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Stewart went on to win five of the 10 races in the Chase and ultimately captured his third Cup crown—by a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards, no less.
It's no surprise that Junior Johnson was one of the five individuals who made the first induction class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
Not only did he win, on average, every sixth time he raced in the Grand National Series (313 starts, 50 wins), he also had 121 top-five and 148 top-10 finishes, as well as 46 poles.
Ironically, however, he never finished any season higher than sixth in the standings, mainly because he never competed in a full season.
For example, when he won seven races and had 22 top-10s in 1961—when he finished sixth in the standings—he competed in 41 of 52 races. Who knows where he would have ended up, not to mention how many more wins he might have accomplished, had he ran the other 11 races on the slate that season.
Or how about 1958, when he started just 27 of 51 races, yet came home with six wins, 12 top-five finishes and 16 top-10s.
And while he never won a championship as a driver, Johnson won six titles as a Cup series owner—three with Cale Yarborough as his driver and three others with Darrell Waltrip behind the wheel.
The man who made "boogity, boogity, boogity" a household phrase unquestionably struggled in the latter years of his career. In his final six seasons, he managed 182 starts and recorded no wins and just six top-five and 16 top-10 finishes.
But take those six seasons away and Waltrip was one of the winningest and most consistent drivers ever: In his other 627 starts, he managed 84 wins (an average of one win in every 7.5 starts), 270 top-fives (including 58 runner-ups) and 384 top-10s.
And let's not forget his three-year span from 1981-83, when he won 30 races, plus had 60 top-five and 70 top-10s in 91 starts (an average of one win in every three starts). In addition to winning Winston Cup Championships in 1981 and 1982, he also won the Cup crown in 1985.
To put things in the best perspective on why he was a first-ballot inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, one need only look at Rusty Wallace's career to realize just how awesome a driver he was.
Sure, he only won one Winston Cup title in his career, but he had 55 wins, 202 top-five (including 42 runner-up showings) and 349 top-10 finishes in nearly half of his 706 starts. What's more, even at the age of 48 and in his final year as a racer, he still had top-10 finishes in nearly half (17) of the 2005 season's 36 races, not to mention eight top-five showings the same year.
What made Wallace one of the most consistent drivers not only of his time but in all of NASCAR history was his uncanny ability to get the most out of his race car every given week. Even if he couldn't see a checkered flag, he invariably found a way to get the best finish he could.
Far too often, if a driver has a bad car, he'll let the car dictate his finish and give up trying to improve his position, laying total blame on his ride. Not Wallace. He found a way to make lemonade even when he had a lemon of a car.
Or maybe we might say he found a way to make sweet tea (one of his favorite drinks) out of lemons.
Sure, Jimmie Johnson will forever be hounded by some of the less-than-pleasant things he and his team went through earlier in his racing career, including several suspensions of crew chief Chad Knaus for violating NASCAR rules.
But even with the repercussions of those violations, you can't say Johnson is not one of the greatest drivers NASCAR has ever seen—both when it comes to wins and overall consistency.
Five straight championships from 2006 to 2010, 418 career starts, 64 wins, 174 top-five (including 41 runner-up showings) and 261 top-10 finishes, 30 poles and the one active driver who has ranked No. 1 the most of any other driver in the weekly standings in the past decade.
And even though Johnson is soon to turn 38 (September 17), given the season he's had thus far, he's the odds-on favorite to win the championship this season, which would put him just one title behind the seven crowns won by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
If we had to predict, we see Johnson winning another 25 to 30 races in his Cup career over the next decade. And as for championships, no one in recent years has even come close to challenging him, so it's not out of the realm of possibility to see him win another two to three more crowns in his lifetime.
Three consecutive championships (1976-78), 560 career starts, 83 wins (including four Daytona 500 triumphs), 255 top-fives (including 59 runner-ups) and 319 top-10s, along with 69 poles.
If that's not consistency, I don't know what is.
Unfortunately, Cale Yarborough could have had an even greater career if, like David Pearson and Junior Johnson, he ran more races. In fact, of the 31 years he spent on the Grand National and Winston Cup circuit, Yarborough ran full-time campaigns in just seven seasons.
Still, the numbers he put up without question show just how consistent the South Carolina native was.
Jeff Gordon is not only a four-time Winston Cup champion, he has been the epitome of consistency that began in the final race of 1992 and has continued on through till today.
Gordon started his 708th consecutive race Sunday at New Hampshire. He has 87 career wins, 302 top-fives (including 87 runner-ups) and 421 top-10s, along with an eye-popping 72 poles (an average of one pole in every 10 starts).
And while he has admittedly had struggles thus far in 2013—with no wins, just four top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 19 starts—he also has a history of being a second-half season driver.
Is he the same driver he was in his prime? No. But then, who ever is once he's passed 40? Still, even at soon-to-be 42 (August 4), Gordon remains one of the biggest threats in the Cup series.
All he needs to do is catch a little fire in the second half of the season and he could give guys like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and others all they can handle between now and the season finale at Homestead.
Sure, Dale Earnhardt shares the record for most Cup Championships in NASCAR history with Richard Petty (seven each). And Earnhardt also had 76 wins in 676 career Cup starts in his career.
But perhaps the best example of his incredible consistency as a driver is in top-fives and top-10s in his career. On average, he finished in the top five in every third race he started (281 top-fives, including 70 runner-up showings) and had an outstanding 428 top-10 finishes...meaning that he had a top-10 finish in every 1.6 starts in his career.
Plus, with an average start of 7.0 and average finish of 12.0, it's pretty apparent why Earnhardt was known as The Intimidator in his career.
Even in the year before he was tragically killed in the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt was still a picture of consistency, with two wins, 13 top-five and 24 top-10 finishes in 34 races, finishing second in the standings for the third time in his career.
Much like Earnhardt, Bobby Allison was a picture of consistency throughout his career, as well.
Allison raced until he was 50 before a near-fatal wreck that ended his career. Even so, Allison was one of the oldest drivers to win a Daytona 500, just months before his fateful wreck at Pocono.
Still, in 25 years on the Grand National and Winston Cup circuit, he amassed the fifth-highest number of wins by any driver in NASCAR history (85), along with an outstanding 336 top-five (including 87 runner-up finishes) and 446 top-10 finishes.
Allison was also one of those rare drivers who had an innate ability to turn a bad race car into a good race result. Other drivers might settle for a 20th or worse finish, but not Allison. More often than not, he'd turn a 20th or worse car into a 10th-place-or-better finish.
The pride and joy of Elmhurst, Ill. (a suburb of Chicago), Fred Lorenzen had movie star-like looks, an infectious smile and was a big fan favorite.
Unfortunately, he had a relatively short career. While he competed in parts of 12 seasons, he started just 158 races.
But what starts those were: In that span, Lorenzen won 26 races, had 75 top-fives and 74 top-10s, along with 32 poles.
His best season was 1963, finishing third in the Grand National standings. But that ranking was all the more outstanding when he competed in just 29 of the season's 55 races, with six wins, 21 top-fives and two other top-10s, along with eight poles, adding up to a minimum of a top-10 finish in 23 of his 29 starts.
Now that's consistency.
And believe it or not, Lorenzen had an even greater campaign the following year, and in less starts. In just 16 starts of the 62-race schedule, Lorenzen had eight wins and 10 top-five finishes, not to mention seven poles.
Lorenzen, for whom a push is on to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, retired from racing at the far too early age of just 32. Had he continued on, who knows how much greater he would have become.
No list of the most consistent drivers in NASCAR history would be complete without "The King," who celebrated his 76th birthday earlier this month.
Richard Petty made 1,184 career starts in the Grand National and Winston Cup Series, earning 200 wins, or an average of one win in less than every six starts. As if that wasn't enough, Petty also has 157 runner-up finishes. He also shares the record for most championships with Dale Earnhardt (seven each).
And it's unlikely any driver will ever snap Petty's incredible run of 10 consecutive wins in 1967, a season that included 27 victories overall, both paragons of consistency.
But even with a wins record that will likely never be broken, the seven-time Daytona 500 champ also compiled 555 top-five finishes and 712 top-10 finishes (along with 123 poles). That means Petty earned a top-10 finish in every 1.6 starts in his illustrious career. No other driver comes close—and likely never will.
While many might consider Richard Petty the most consistent driver in NASCAR history, Tim Flock had an uncanny record of consistency that no one else could match.
He won nearly 22 percent of the races he started (39 wins, 187 starts), along with 102 top-five and 129 top-10 finishes. He also won 39 poles, which equaled his number of career wins.
A two-time Grand National champion (1952 and 1955), Tim came from a family of racers but was unquestionably the biggest and brightest of the Flock family.
One other note about Flock's consistency that no driver, not even Richard Petty, can match: Of the 23,280 laps he completed in his NASCAR career, Flock led more than a fourth (6,937) of those laps.
To say the least, before there was "Front Row Joe (Nemechek)," there was Front Row Flock.
Picking the top most consistent driver in NASCAR history was difficult. Tim Flock, Richard Petty and Fred Lorenzen could all easily have taken the top spot.
But after looking at all the stats, our pick as the most consistent driver in NASCAR history is David Pearson.
Consider: In 27 years, Pearson had just two full seasons on the Grand National and Winston Cup circuits. He made 574 starts, won 105 races (second most of any driver in the history of NASCAR's top series) and had 301 top-five (including 89 runner-up finishes) and 366 top-10 finishes, along with an incredible 113 poles (practically one pole for every five starts).
And even with all that, Pearson still managed to win three Grand National Championships.
But the numbers that stand out the most to us are Pearson's average start (6.2) and an 11.0 average finish. Not only that, he led 25,294 of the 135,020 laps in his career, meaning he led the field an average of every 5.33 laps.
Had he not been a primarily part-time driver, Pearson would likely have had even greater numbers. But the numbers he did compile were pretty awesome nonetheless.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.