Ranking the 10 Worst Cup Title Defenses in NASCAR History
NASCAR has been filled with edge-of-your seat races, daring drivers who constantly push the limit and thrilling championship runs.
It’s also been filled with several title defenses that didn’t work out the way drivers had hoped for.
Not every champion was able to come back the following year and successfully defend his title. In fact, it was a rare occurrence for someone to win back-to-back titles.
Not everyone had a bad title defense, though. Some drivers came back and barely missed winning for a second straight year. They battled hard but came up just short of successfully defending their title.
Other champions, though, struggled throughout the season or ran into other problems that prevented them from being a factor in their own title defenses.
Not everyone can come back and run as well as they have the previous year; we’re seeing it firsthand this season with Brad Keselowski, and these 10 drivers had the worst title defenses in NASCAR history.
10. Bobby Labonte: 2001
When you look at Bobby Labonte’s defending year in 2001, you might believe it was a pretty good year. Labonte, after all, managed to finish all but nine laps of the 2001 season.
The problem he had, though, was that he didn’t win a single race until August.
Because of his struggles to win, he was never a contender for the title. He went from being a champion in 2000, to failing to even contend for a title defense.
Labonte was also involved in big wrecks that year, one that saw his teammate, Tony Stewart, land on his hood during the Daytona 500.
9. Tony Stewart: 2003
Tony Stewart won the 2002 championship by winning three races, having 15 top-five finishes and 21 top-10s.
Realistically, his title defense year in 2003 was very close to his championship season. He didn’t have as many wins, top-fives or top-10s as he did in 2002, but the numbers were barely off. He had 18 top-10s in 2003, for example.
Yet he finished the season in seventh place.
Except for Gibbs making the switch to back to Chevy in 2003, Stewart's other issue was his overall finishes.
In 2002, his finishes averaged out to 12.6; in 2003, it dropped to 14.6. Now while this might not seem like a huge deal, it was enough for Smoke to finish in seventh for the season.
What Stewart did in 2002 might have been enough to win the championship that year, but when he had a similar year in 2003, it just wasn’t enough.
8. Matt Kenseth: 2004
Matt Kenseth started out great during his defending year in 2004. He managed to win two of the first three races, and after winning the championship by only winning one race in 2003, things were looking good for Kenseth.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t get better than those two wins for the defending champion. Kenseth would struggle throughout the year, and even into the Chase.
When the Chase did start, Kenseth basically summed up his season when he crashed into the pit wall during the Dover race.
With eight top-five finishes and 16 top-10s, he finished the year in eighth place.
7. Jimmie Johnson: 2011
Not everyone is a fan of Jimmie Johnson.
So by the time he had won his fifth straight title in 2010, fans all around NASCAR were breaking out their voodoo dolls to do what they could to keep Johnson away from his sixth championship.
The 48 team went into 2011 as one of the stronger groups, but it seemed like there was friction between Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus.
Johnson would also have issues with Kurt Busch, battling the then-Penske driver on different tracks that year.
He made the Chase, of course, but before the postseason could even come to an end, Johnson had already been knocked back enough that he wouldn't be winning the championship.
Wrecks and bad finishes took him out of title contention.
Did he let Busch get into his head? Or maybe his issues with Knaus were too much that year, but for whatever reason, Johnson didn't even come close to defending his five straight title wins.
6. Alan Kulwicki: 1993
Alan Kulwicki was an underdog when he won the title in 1992.
Everything needed to go his way during the last race of the season at the Hooters 500 at Atlanta, and it did.
Kulwicki's title defense in 1993, though, is different from the other drivers on this list.
No one will ever know how well he could have defended his title, as Kulwicki tragically passed away in an airplane accident in April of 1993 and had only started in five races that season.
After what he was able to do with limited sponsors in 1992, Kulwicki would have been a sure bet to be in the title chase at the end of the 1993 season.
Instead, he was one of NASCAR's greatest drivers who were taken from the sport way to early.
And because we will never know how much more Kulwicki would have been able to do in his career, his title defense is one of the most tragic, and worst.
5. Brad Keselowski: 2013
While Keselowski still has a very slim hope of making the Chase, more than likely the blue deuce won't be seeing the postseason.
After a year where Brad was a big underdog, going up against a giant like Jimmie Johnson, the No. 2 team would come out of 2012 looking like one of the best in NASCAR.
Penske Racing switched to Ford, and it also picked up Joey Logano as another driver, and it looked like the organization would be near the top in 2013.
Now, though, with only one race left to make the Chase, Brad has almost no chance to see the postseason. He hasn't managed to win a race this season, and bad luck along with car problems have knocked him out of the top 10 in the standings.
As NASCAR gets ready to enter the postseason, we know that there won't be a back-to-back championship driver.
4. David Pearson: 1967
David Pearson is one of the greatest drivers to ever race in the sport of NASCAR.
He would win his first championship in 1966, and dominated the season with 15 wins.
When 1967 came around, though, the Silver Fox would only win two races and started just 22. Pearson had joined a new team that year, but he didn't run a full schedule.
To go from winning 15 races to just two won't help you defend a title, especially when you don't even run a full season. Pearson's failure to defend his title, though, opened the door for Richard Petty who would win the championship that year.
The Silver Fox would eventually run a full schedule again, and he won the title in 1968 and 1969.
After 15 wins in 1966, though, it's hard to imagine why Pearson would need to switch teams a year later.
Regardless, it cost him a solid chance to defend his title.
3. Kurt Busch: 2005
After winning the championship in 2004, Kurt Busch would come back a year later and have one of the worst defending years of a NASCAR champion.
To his credit, he would win three races, but he was so inconsistent throughout the year that he was never able to gain solid ground when the Chase started.
He started off the Chase with a wreck at New Hampshire and ended the year by being suspended from the final two races.
Busch had a run-in with police near Phoenix International Speedway, and because the trouble he had caused was bad for publicity, his organization at the time, Roush Racing, decided to punish the defending champion.
He finished 10th in the standings that year, and he is still trying to win another championship.
2. Dale Earnhardt: 1992
Yes, that's right, arguably the greatest driver to ever race in NASCAR has also had one of the worst title defenses in the history of the sport.
In 1991, Dale Earnhardt went on to win the title by having four wins, 14 top-five finishes, and 21 top-10s.
The Intimidator had a lead of over 200 points over second-place driver Ricky Rudd.
1992, though, was a different story for Earnhardt.
With one win, six top-fives and 15 top-10s Dale would finish the season in 12th place. 1992 was a year dominated by Ford cars, and Earnhardt's only win came at the Coca-Cola 600.
He would bounce back a year later, winning the championship in 1993, but finishing 12th in '92 and only being able to win one race is no way to defend your title.
1. Red Byron: 1950
After winning the NASCAR title in 1948 and 1949, decorated war hero Red Bryon was a strong bet to win the title again in 1950.
By late October, Byron was ranked sixth in NASCAR and was steadily defending his championship. Unfortunately for Red, though, he didn't realize just how strict NASCAR could be.
In the early 1950s, NASCAR was still fighting to hold its ground and become the dominate organization for stock car racing. So when Byron decided to participate in a non-sanctioned NASCAR race at Atlanta's Lakewood Speedway, the organization stripped him of his 1,315.5 points and ended his chances to defend his title.
Whether Byron knew or not that his racing in a non-sanctioned NASCAR race would make the organization upset is unclear, but to go so far into the season only to have all of your points stripped away is not the way a driver wants to lose his title defense.
Byron would never get another shot at the title, as his declining health forced him to retire in 1951.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!