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The Greatest NASCAR Driver from Each Decade

Paul CarreauAnalyst IJanuary 2, 2014

The Greatest NASCAR Driver from Each Decade

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    Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon dominated the 1990s.
    Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon dominated the 1990s.Credit sportsillustrated.cnn.com

    Since the birth of NASCAR in 1949, the sport has seen a large number of stars grace its race tracks. In the early days, drivers like Herb Thomas and Lee Petty dominated the sport, while today, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart are the top-tier drivers.

    From the sport's beginnings all the way through to today, every decade has its stars. Some of these drivers are multi-time champions, and all boast an impressive resume full of wins.

    But which driver was truly the best in each decade? Which pioneer can claim to be the best of the '50s? Was it Pearson or Petty who dominated the '60s? And how about the '90s? Is it Earnhardt or Gordon who takes the top spot?

    In the slides ahead, I will take a look at each of NASCAR's first six decades and, once and for all, pinpoint which driver was the best of the bunch.

1950s Honorable Mentions

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    Herb Thomas led the '50s with 48 wins.
    Herb Thomas led the '50s with 48 wins.credit allsportspeople.com

    Herb Thomas

    While he's not the most famous name in NASCAR history, Herb Thomas is one of the most successful. Thomas was a 48-time winner in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. All 48 victories came between 1950 and 1956.

    He's a two-time series champion, winning the title in 1951 and 1953. And three other times he finished as the championship runner-up.

    In 223 starts during the decade, Thomas posted 155 top-10s, with 121 of those ending inside the top five. His 21.5 win percentage is the second-highest all time among drivers with at least 100 starts in the series.

     

    Lee Petty

    The patriarch of the Petty racing family, Lee Petty was very active as a driver in the 1950s. He competed in 373 events over the 10-year period, winning 47 of them, including the inaugural Daytona 500.

    Petty won a series-best three championships in the decade while also scoring the most top-10s and top-fives in the era—292 and 203 respectively.

    Aside from winning three championships, Petty also had one runner-up finish in the year-end standings and never finished worse than fourth during the decade.

     

    Other Honorable Mentions

    Curtis Turner, Buck Baker and Fireball Roberts

     

1950s Greatest Driver

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    Tim Flock was one of the sport's first dominant drivers.
    Tim Flock was one of the sport's first dominant drivers.(RaceWeekIllustrated.com)

    Tim Flock

    Another name that may not be familiar to today's casual NASCAR fans, Tim Flock was one of the first dominant drivers in the sport. When he showed up at a race track, he instantly became the favorite to win, and if he was not going to win he was almost a top-10 guarantee.

    Flock posted all 39 of his career victories during the '50s. While his win total is less than that of either Herb Thomas or Lee Petty, Flock won nearly as many times in significantly fewer starts than the other competitors. His career win percentage is 22.5 percent, which is the highest among all drivers with at least 100 starts in the series. 

    Flock earned 122 top-10s during the 1950s, and only 22 of those were not top-five finishes. 

    Flock won the series championship in both 1952 and 1955. He is a part of the fifth class to be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame and will be inducted in 2014.

1960s Honorable Mentions

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    David Pearson was a three-time series champion in the '60s.
    David Pearson was a three-time series champion in the '60s.(Auto.HowStuffWorks.com)

    David Pearson

    David Pearson, one of the sport's all-time greatest drivers, found plenty of success in NASCAR during both the 1960s and the 1970s. In 332 starts during the '60s, he won all three of his series titles and earned 57 of his 105 career victories.

    Pearson scored 222 top-10s during the decade, with 178 of those ending inside the top five. He led the series in wins twice during the '60s and earned the Rookie of the Year Award in the first year of the decade.

    Pearson would go on to become the sport's second all-time wins leader and earn a spot in the Hall of Fame as part of the second class, inaugurated in 2011.

     

    Ned Jarrett

    Almost mirroring Pearson's statistics during the 1960s, Ned Jarrett was another one of the sport's dominant drivers during its second full decade. Jarrett competed in 325 events during the decade, though his career came to a close following the 1966 season, when Ford withdrew from the sport.

    He won 48 of his 50 career events during the '60s. He posted 232 top-10 finishes and won two series championships. His title in 1965 came in his final full-time season in the sport.

    Jarrett was a 2011 Hall of Fame inductee. 

     

    Other Honorable Mentions

    Junior Johnson and Joe Weatherly

1960s Greatest Driver

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    Richard Petty won his first two championships during the 1960s.
    Richard Petty won his first two championships during the 1960s.(Auto.HowStuffWorks.com)

    Richard Petty

    Not surprisingly, Richard Petty is the greatest driver of the 1960s. After running a handful of races to end the 1950s, Petty became a NASCAR fixture beginning in 1960. He earned his first three wins that season before ending the year ranked second in the standings.

    Over the course of the decade, Petty led most statistical categories, with the exception of series championships.

    His 101 wins, 319 top-10 finishes and 63 top-fives were all easily the most in the sport during the 10-year stretch. 

    Petty won the first two of his seven series championships during the '60s. He also scored four runner-up finishes in the standings, along with two third-place results. Two of his seven Daytona 500 victories also came during this time.

1970s Honorable Mentions

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    Cale Yarborough became the sport's first driver to win three consecutive series titles.
    Cale Yarborough became the sport's first driver to win three consecutive series titles.(AutoFoundry.com)

    Cale Yarborough

    Before Jimmie Johnson's amazing run of five consecutive championships, Cale Yarborough was the only driver to ever win at least three titles in a row. He accomplished that feat from 1976 through 1978. 

    Yarborough competed in 234 events during the 1970s. He was victorious 52 times and earned 168 top-10s. Only 17 of his top-10s failed to end in a fifth-place finish or better.

    While Yarborough is clearly one of the greatest drivers of the '70s, as well as of all time, he is arguably most remembered for his role in the 1979 Daytona 500.

    Racing for the win with Donnie Allison, the two drivers crashed on the final lap. When the drivers emerged from their cars they attempted to sort out the details of what happened. Donnie's brother Bobby then pulled into the infield, got out of his car and the Allison brothers began a brawl with Yarborough.

    This was the first 500-mile race broadcast live on national television.

     

    David Pearson

    For the second time in as many decades, David Pearson is one of the sport's top drivers, but not its best. 

    Competing in nearly half as many events as he did in the '60s, Pearson nearly matched his win total from a decade prior. He earned 47 wins in just 186 starts and a total of 126 top-10s. Remarkably, 118 of his 126 top-10s ended inside the top five. 

    Pearson's best points finish during the decade was only a third-place effort posted in 1974. This stat may be a little deceiving, however. He never competed in more than 22 events in a season during the '70s.

     

    Other Honorable Mentions

    Bobby Allison and Benny Parsons

     

1970s Greatest Driver

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    Richard Petty won five series championships in the 1970's.
    Richard Petty won five series championships in the 1970's.(SportsIllustrated.CNN.com)

    Richard Petty

    For the second consecutive decade, Richard Petty earns the distinction of being NASCAR's top driver. During the '70s, Petty's win, top-five and top-10 percentages were significantly higher than those that he posted during the previous decade.

    He made 326 starts between 1970 and 1979. He was an 89-time winner and posted 253 top-10s, with a staggering 221 of those ending in fifth place or better.

    Petty won five series championships during the '70s, and he also posted two runner-up finishes, along with a fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place finish.

    He won the Daytona 500 four times during the 1970s. Three of those wins came in seasons where he eventually won the series title.

1980s Honorable Mentions

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    Dale Earnhardt won his first three series championships during the '80s.
    Dale Earnhardt won his first three series championships during the '80s.(Forums.CarTown.com)

    Dale Earnhardt

    The sport's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, won the first series championship of the 1980s. It was his first of three during the decade. 

    Earnhardt competed in all 296 events that took place during the '80s. He posted 38 wins in the 10 years and ended his day inside the top 10 on 180 different occasions.

    After spending the majority of the decade in a yellow and blue Wrangler Jeans-sponsored car, Earnhardt adopted his trademark black paint scheme and Goodwrench sponsorship beginning with the 1988 season.

     

    Bill Elliott

    After racing part-time in the Sprint Cup Series from 1976 through 1982, Bill Elliott became a full-time competitor starting with the 1983 season. It was in that season that he earned his first career win and finished the season ranked third in the championship standings.

    1983 began a run of six straight years in which Elliott finished fourth or better in the points. This included his lone series title in 1988.

    In total, he competed in 249 events during the '80s. He was a 32-time winner and finished inside the top 10 156 times.

1980s Greatest Driver

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    Darrell Waltrip became a three-time champion in the '80s.
    Darrell Waltrip became a three-time champion in the '80s.(Autos.Yahoo.com)

    Darrell Waltrip

    After finding success in the late '70s, Darrell Waltrip carried that momentum into the 1980s. His two best seasons came early in the decade, in 1981 and 1982. During both seasons, Waltrip won 12 races and was the series champion.

    In total, the current Fox broadcaster was a 57-time winner during the '80s. 198 times, he finished inside the top 10, and 158 of those races resulted in a top-five. Waltrip competed in all 296 events during the decade.

    He also won another series title during the decade, taking the trophy in 1985. 

    During the 10 seasons of the decade, Waltrip only finished outside the top five of the championship standings one time, his seventh-place finish in 1988. He won at least five races in a season six different times during the '80s.

1990s Honorable Mentions

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    Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt combined for 67 wins during the '90s.
    Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt combined for 67 wins during the '90s.(SportingNews.com)

    Dale Earnhardt

    For the second consecutive season, Dale Earnhardt is the second-best driver of the decade. His statistics during the 1990s were nearly identical to those that he posted in the '80s.

    Earnhardt started all 309 races during the decade and posted 37 wins. He finished better than 10th 195 times with 126 top-fives.

    Earnhardt won four series titles during the '90s, including the final one of his career in 1994. That season saw him post his career high in top-10 finishes with 25. He finished fifth or better in the standings seven times throughout the decade.

     

    Mark Martin

    If not for a 46-point penalty incurred during the second race of the decade, Mark Martin may not be known as "the greatest driver to have never won a title." That season, he lost the championship by 20 points to Dale Earnhardt, thanks in large part to the early loss of points.

    Martin competed in all 309 races during the '90s. He scored 30 wins during that time. The 217 top-10s and 151 top-fives that he scored were both series highs during the decade.

    While he never won a championship, Martin finished sixth or better in the standings in every season of the '90s. He was the runner-up three times, and an additional three times, he finished third.

1990s Greatest Driver

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    Jeff Gordon won his first three titles between 1995 and 1998.
    Jeff Gordon won his first three titles between 1995 and 1998.(SportingNews.com)

    Jeff Gordon

    After debuting in the 1992 season finale, Jeff Gordon became a full-time Sprint Cup competitor in 1993. After posting a respectable rookie season, he solidified himself as a superstar the following season.

    Gordon was a two-time winner during his sophomore season, including in the series' first race held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

    But he really broke through the following season. 1995 saw him win seven times and earn the first series title of his career.

    Overall, Gordon participated in 223 races during the decade. He won 49 of them and posted a total of 144 top-10 finishes. In the three years from 1996 through 1998, he won an astounding 33 races, an amount unheard of in the modern era.

    Besides his 1995 championship conquest, Gordon won the title back-to-back in 1997 and 1998. He was also a two-time Daytona 500 winner during the decade.

2000s Honorable Mentions (Includes 2010 Through Present)

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    Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are still two of the sport's best drivers.
    Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are still two of the sport's best drivers.Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Tony Stewart

    In 1999, a young rookie took NASCAR by storm. He won three races and finished fourth in the championship standings. That first-year professional was Tony Stewart.

    After one of the most successful rookie campaigns in history, Stewart carried that momentum straight into today. He has earned at least one victory in every year of his career.

    Since the turn of the millennium, Stewart is a 45-time winner with 269 top-10s in 487 starts. He is a three-time series champion and has qualified for the Chase eight times in nine seasons (not counting 2013, when he missed the final 15 events of the year due to a broken leg).

     

    Jeff Gordon

    Gordon dominated the 1990s and was still one of the top drivers in the early part of the 2000s. While his recent results have declined, his overall body of work is still worth noting.

    Since 2000, Gordon has won 39 races and scored 287 top-10 finishes.

    Gordon won his fourth, and up to this point last, championship in 2001. Since the implementation of the Chase, he has qualified nine out of 10 years. He has finished third or better three times in the Chase era.

     

    Other Honorable Mentions

    Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth

2000s Greatest Driver (Includes 2010 Through Present)

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    Jimmie Johnson is a six-time series champion.
    Jimmie Johnson is a six-time series champion.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson

    Jimmie Johnson has been nearly untouchable since joining the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2002. During his rookie season, he won three races and finished fifth in the standings. And things have only gotten better for the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet.

    Johnson has competed in 435 races since debuting in 2001. He has won 66 times, easily the most over that span. He has won multiple events in every one of his full-time seasons, and in eight of those 12 years of Sprint Cup competition, Johnson has won at least five times.

    Johnson has a knack for winning the big races. He's won each the sport's four biggest races—the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Coca Cola 600 and Southern 500—at least two times each.

    In 2013, Johnson won his sixth series championship. The first five of his career came consecutively from 2006 through 2010. In 2008, he became only the second driver to win three titles in a row, and in 2009, he became NASCAR's only competitor to win at least four consecutive championships.

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