Ranking the Top 10 NASCAR Drivers of the 1990s

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IAugust 20, 2013

Ranking the Top 10 NASCAR Drivers of the 1990s

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    The 1990s were a great decade for NASCAR. Interest in the sport began to rise as a young upstart driver, Jeff Gordon, became the newest rival for the wily old veteran, Dale Earnhardt.

    Together, these two, along with plenty of other talented drivers helped usher in a new generation of fans and helped in the continuing effort to make NASCAR a global sport.

    But who was the greatest driver during the final decade of the 20th century? Was it the driver of the DuPont car, or was "The Intimidator" still the best in the business?

    Clearly, many factors come into play when trying to pick the best of the best. A drivers win total, number of top-10 finishes, championships and overall consistency must all be taken into account when evaluating their decade-long success.

    In the slides ahead, we are going to count down the 10 best NASCAR drivers over the course of the 1990s.

    While the top five drivers of the decade are all either current or future Hall of Famers, only one of them is the best.

Honorable Mention: Bill Elliott

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    Bill Elliott was one of NASCAR's best drivers during the '80s, and the '90s saw him continue to have success, though not as much as in the previous decade.

    Elliott ran all but eight of the 309 races run in the '90s. During that time span he recorded eight wins with five of those coming in 1992. 

    He scored 110 top-10 finishes and finished inside the top 10 in points in six of the ten years in the decade. 

    1992 was Elliott's best year of the decade as he finished second in the point standings for the third time in his career.

Honorable Mention: Ricky Rudd

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    Ricky Rudd was one of five drivers to compete in all 309 races during the 1990s. This helped him later become NASCAR's "Iron Man" as he set the record for consecutive starts in the Sprint Cup Series with 788.

    Rudd scored 10 wins during the decade. He scored at least one win in every year of the '90s except for 1999, though 1997 was the only season that saw him record multiple victories.

    Rudd posted 132 top-10 finishes in the decade and finished inside the top 10 in points each season from 1990 through 1996.

    He scored a runner-up finish in the point standings in 1991. It marked the first time in his career that he finished inside the top five in points.

10. Terry Labonte

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    Terry Labonte won his second, and last, series championship during the '90s. His championship season of 1996 was statistically the best season of his career.

    Though he only won two races that year, he posted a career high in top-10 finishes with 24. His 21 top-five finishes were also the most of Labonte's career.

    In total, "Texas Terry" as he was affectionately called, notched 11 wins and 139 top-10s.

    Labonte finished inside the top 10 in points in six of the 10 years of the decade, and like Rudd, he competed in all 309 races during the 1990s.

9. Alan Kulwicki

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    Alan Kulwicki pulled off one of NASCAR's biggest upsets in 1992 when he won the series championship as an owner/driver. He was the last person to accomplish this feat until Tony Stewart did likewise in 2011.

    Kulwicki's chance to defend his championship was lost when he was tragically killed in an airplane crash in April 1993.

    Kulwicki made just 92 starts in the decade prior to his death. He scored four race wins and finished in the top 10 in 44 events. 

    He finished eighth and 13th in the point standings in the two seasons leading up to his '92 championship. Kulwicki was ninth in the standings after five races in 1993 at the time of his tragic passing.

8. Bobby Labonte

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    Bobby Labonte made his full-time Sprint Cup Series debut in 1993. In total, he competed in 224 races during the '90s.

    His best season of the decade was 1999 when he finished runner-up in the series standings. During that year, he posted career bests in all major statistical categories.

    Labonte notched five poles and five wins during the 1999 season. He also recorded 26 top-10 finishes with 23 of them ending inside the top five. 

    He finished the season 201 points behind Dale Jarrett for the championship.

    In total, Labonte was a 12-time winner during the decade. He finished inside the top 10 in points in four of his seven full-time seasons.

7. Ernie Irvan

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    For Ernie Irvan the 1990s were a decade of success, near-tragedy and one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history.

    Irvan was a championship contending driver in the early part of the decade. But it was 1994 when he really began to make a name for himself.

    Through 20 races that season, Irvan had three wins and was second in the point standings. At no time through the first 20 races of 1994 had he been outside of the top two in the points.

    Then, in a practice session in Michigan, Irvan nearly lost his life. Irvan crashed hard into the Turn 2 wall, and was flown to a local hospital.

    At the hospital, Irvan was diagnosed with severe brain and lung injuries and given just a 10 percent chance of survival.

    Not only did Irvan survive, but just over one year after his near-fatal injury, he was back behind the wheel of a race car.

    In total, Irvan scored 15 wins in 254 starts during the '90s. He finished tenth or better in the points in four seasons, but if not for his injuries that total would surely be higher.

6. Davey Allison

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    Davey Allison became the second NASCAR driver to lose his life in 1993. Allison was killed when the helicopter he was attempting to land at Talladega Superspeedway crashed.

    Allison made his full-time debut in NASCAR's top series in 1987 and immediately made an impact. By the time the '90s began, Allison was already a six-time winner.

    The early part of the decade saw Allison's success continue. In just 103 starts in the '90s, he scored 13 wins and posted 51 top-10 finishes.

    He finished third in the point standings in both 1991 and 1992. At the time of his death 16 races into the 1993 season, Allison was fifth in the standings.

    It is impossible to predict what would have happened, but it seems likely that had tragedy not struck, Allison surely would have been higher on this list.

5. Dale Jarrett

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    At the start of the decade, Dale Jarrett was a journeyman driver. By the time the 1990s ended he had solidified himself as a future Hall of Famer.

    Jarrett started all but five of the 309 races run in the '90s, but it wasn't until the 1996 season that his career really picked up steam.

    In the last four seasons of the decade, Jarrett scored a total of 18 wins and never finished worse than third in the championship standings. He won his lone series title in 1999.

    That 1999 season saw Jarrett win four times and set personal bests in top-10 and top-five finishes, with 29 and 24 respectively.

    In total Jarrett won 22 times during the '90s, including both the 1993 and 1996 Daytona 500. 

    The 159 top-10 finishes that Jarrett recorded in the decade were the fourth-most during the 10-year stretch.

4. Rusty Wallace

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    Rusty Wallace came into the 1990s as the defending series champion, having won the title during the 1989 season. His defense fell short as he managed just a sixth-place finish during the 1990 season.

    The decade saw Wallace continue to build on the success that he had found in the 1980s. He won at least one race in every year of the '90s, including a career-high 10 wins in the 1993 season.

    In total, Wallace won 33 races and scored 169 top-10 finishes.

    He ended the season inside the top 10 in points each year of the '90s except for a 13th-place effort in 1992. 

    Wallace was one of the five drivers that started all 309 races in the decade.

3. Mark Martin

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    Mark Martin was also one of the five drivers to compete in every race of the 1990s and statistically there were few better drivers than he was.

    Martin won 30 races during the decade. His 217 top-10 and 151 top-five finishes were tops among all drivers. The only thing missing from his resume during this time is the one thing that has eluded him for his entire career, a series championship.

    If not for a 46-point penalty incurred at Richmond early in the season, Martin would have been the 1990 series champion by a 20-point margin.

    The second-place points finish in 1990 was the first of three runner-up finishes during the decade for Martin. 

    Martin finished sixth or better in the season-ending points standings every year of the 1990s. No other driver was even able to finish inside the top-10 in every year of the decade.

    The 30 poles that Martin won were also tied for the most over the ten-year span.

2. Dale Earnhardt

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    This may not be the popular choice, but Dale Earnhardt was only the second-best driver of the 1990s. 

    He was the fifth driver to compete in all 309 races during the '90s. In total, "The Intimidator" scored 35 wins during the decade, and won the last four of his seven championships during the era.

    The 1994 season, the year of his final championship, saw Earnhardt post career highs in both top-10s with 25, and top-five finishes with 20.

    He spent every year except 1992 inside the top 10 in the point standings, and other than 1997, he won at least one race in every year of the decade. 

    While there is no denying that Earnhardt was great during the '90s and anyone could certainly make the case that he was the decade's best driver, there was another young driver who put up even more astounding numbers in a shorter number of races.

1. Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon didn't become a full-time Sprint Cup Series driver until 1993, but he still managed to lead the series in wins during the decade.

    The 49 wins that Gordon posted in the '90s were 14 more than Dale Earnhardt had, and he did it in 86 fewer starts.

    Gordon won three series championships during the era, all of which came while Earnhardt was still competing. Earnhardt meanwhile won four championships, but only two of them came while Gordon was a competitor.

    The two championships that Earnhardt did win once Gordon became a full-time driver were in his first two years in the series.

    Gordon posted 144 top-10 finishes in his 223 starts. That means that 64.5 percent of the time, Gordon ended a race in tenth place or better. Earnhardt's top-10 percentage was slightly lower, at 63.1 percent.

    Gordon posted double-digit wins in all three seasons from 1996 through 1998. During that time he also posted at least 20 top-five finishes each year.

    He won the championship in 1997 and 1998 and was the runner-up in 1996.

    While the popular vote would probably see Earnhardt take the title of "King of the '90s," the statistics say that it was in fact Gordon who was the driver that dominated the decade.