NASCAR: Ranking Sprint Cup's Toughest Competitors
Ask any NASCAR fan a question regarding the identity of the toughest competitor in the sport's history, and you'll likely get the same response.
The "Intimidator" was a force on the track, willing to race anyone no holds barred to the checkered flag. His finishes with Terry Labonte at Bristol were among some of the most thrilling in NASCAR's history.
After his death in 2001, there has yet to be a true heir to Earnhardt's throne of the sport's toughest competitor.
Some drivers are "tough" because of their actions on the track. Some drivers are "tough" because of the illnesses and ailments they battle through to get behind the wheel.
Without further ado, here are 10 of the toughest active drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
10. Brian Vickers
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Vickers cements his spot on this list because of what he's had to experience throughout most of this season.
Instead of driving the No. 83 Toyota for Red Bull Racing, Vickers has been relegated to wearing street clothes after the discovery of blood clots in his legs and lungs. As a result, the 26-year-old was forced to give up his seat following the Mother's Day weekend race at Darlington.
As he enjoys a dramatically-increased amount of free time away from the track, there is no doubt that it must be very difficult for him to miss each race.
Vickers will return to his seat for the 2011 season, and he's earned it after a very tough wait.
9. Martin Truex Jr.
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Truex earned his spot on this list after racing in the March 2009 race at Atlanta with a kidney stone.
It's hard to imagine how difficult it could have been for the New Jersey native to drive through such pain. Even harder to imagine is how a driver could manage a top-10 finish in that pain.
However, Truex managed to do both, making him pretty tough in the process.
8. Elliott Sadler
Just watch the video.
7. Jeff Gordon
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Jeff Gordon may not strike most fans as tough.
However, a little-publicized injury that plagued him for a year and a half may change that view.
Gordon drove with back pain from the start of the 2008 season to the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, when an MRI revealed that he drove with mild arthritis.
That seems pretty tough to deal with, especially for 18 months.
6. Kevin Harvick
I'd attempt to explain why Kevin Harvick was a tough guy in the early stages of his NASCAR career, but I'll let the videos speak for themselves. For example, the video to the left is from an incident between Harvick and Greg Biffle during a March 2002 Nationwide race at Bristol.
Here's Harvick arguing with Ricky Rudd after a Sept. 2003 Sprint Cup race at Richmond.
Harvick knocking the late Bobby Hamilton out of the lead during an Oct. 2001 race at Martinsville.
He has certainly calmed down since then, as his cool head showed during this summer's short feud with Joey Logano.
Harvick certainly is tough.
5. Bill Elliott
(Before anyone complains, Elliott is still active.)
"Awesome Bill from Dawsonville" has suffered from a pair of maladies throughout his lengthy career, including a dislocated hip caused by this crash that cost him a few weeks in 1996.
Elliott, as defending Sprint Cup champion in 1989, broke a wrist in Daytona testing which caused him to utilize the support of a relief driver through most of the season's campaign.
Elliott certainly is tough.
4. Denny Hamlin
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Denny Hamlin's spot on this list is earned through what he accomplished this season.
Hamlin drove most of the season while suffering from a torn ACL, receiving surgery in late March.
To the competition, however, Hamlin looked perfectly fine, as the Virginia native won a race at Martinsville prior to his surgery and won at Texas three weeks after the procedure.
For driving through the pain and claiming victory, Hamlin certainly is tough.
3. Kyle Busch
Much like Kevin Harvick's inclusion on this list, I'll stick to the videos to provide evidence of Busch's toughness, like his punting of Earnhardt Jr. in the May 2008 race at Richmond.
Here's his classic incident with Brad Keselowski at Bristol last August.
Also, a confrontation with Steve Wallace at Richmond in May 2008.
Kyle Busch has earned the right to be tough.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr. earns a spot on this list after surviving this horrific crash during practice for an American Le Mans Series race in 2004, receiving minor burns.
Those minor burns forced him to get relief from Martin Truex Jr. in the following weekend's Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire.
Surviving this crash alone makes Earnhardt Jr. tough.
1. Tony Stewart
Stewart would be on this list for surviving that crash without injury alone.
However, his gruff and aggressive demeanor on the track have earned him the nickname "Smoke," always willing to open his mind if the situation allows him to.
In his first two years in the sport, Stewart had feuds with both Jeff and Robby Gordon.
After he calmed down a bit with age, the Indiana native memorably drove cars through grass at Daytona, and become a fan favorite as he won two Sprint Cup championships.
He's still without a Daytona 500 trophy.
Wait, where have we heard this before?
What are your thoughts on this list? Leave them in the comments section below.
Ryan Papaserge is a junior Journalism/Mass Communication student at St. Bonaventure University and a writing intern at Bleacher Report.