There are numerous factors to take into account when trying to determine who the greatest at something is. When selecting the greatest NASCAR driver, the same holds true.
How do you determine greatness? Do you have to have the most wins? How many championships do you need to be called the best? Is being dominant in one series more important than domination in another series?
All of these are legitimate questions when trying to come up with a list of the best drivers. Over the course of NASCAR history, it is usually agreed upon that Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in either order, are the two greatest drivers of all time.
But what about over the last 10 years? I have compiled my list of the 30 greatest drivers since the turn of the century.
Keep in mind, that there is no mathematical formula that can clearly say one driver is better than another. This is purely my opinion, based on wins, championships, top 5's and 10's, which of the top three national series you were primarily a part of and how you stacked up against the competition of that particular series.
Plagued by blood clots, Vickers' 2010 season was cut short after just 11 races. There were questions that maybe the 27 year old Vickers' career could be over, but it looks like he may now be able to return to his seat at Red Bull Racing.
While Vickers' career numbers won't blow anyone away, he has just two career victories in Sprint Cup competition, and just three in the Nationwide Series, he gets the nod here for his constant improvement, and his Nationwide Series championship in his only full time season in the series.
2009 was a career year for Vickers, as he had a victory, as well as setting new personal bests in top 10's, with 13, and poles, with six. The best was supposed to be to come for Vickers, until the aforementioned blood clot issues put Vickers on the sideline for the remainder of the year.
For anyone that doesn't pay attention to the truck series, Jack Sprague may not be a household name. Over his career, Sprague has spent a few unsuccessful years in the Sprint Cup Series, and nine years in the Nationwide Series where he experienced some mixed results.
In 2002, Sprague earned his only win in the series, and also collected 15 top 10 finishes, with nine of them being in the top five. He also finished that season fifth in the point standings.
But, it was in the trucks that Sprague made a name for himself. Prior to the turn of the century, Sprague amassed 16 wins in truck competition, and continued his success into the new millennium.
Since 2000, Sprague, no longer in active competition, grabbed 12 more wins and earned 91 top 10 finishes in 175 starts in the Truck Series.
For all intents and purposes, Jarrett's Hall of Fame career was over after the 2006 season. He would go on to spend another season and five races driving for Michael Waltrip's start up team, but would struggle immensely.
Prior to that, the 2000's were fairly kind to Jarrett. He won 10 times earlier in the decade, including the first Daytona 500 of the new century and 49 of his 93 top 10 finishes ended in the top five.
Also, coming off a Sprint Cup Championship in 1999, Jarrett backed that up with three consecutive finishes in the top 10 in the point standings.
So, while Jarrett has not run in well over two years, the success he had in the early part of the last 10 years is enough to consider him one of the top 30. And, not that it gives any extra points in this list, he really isn't that bad in the announce booth either.
Mike Skinner is another driver who has less than desirable results outside of the truck series. After an unsuccessful full time stint in the Cup Series in the early part of the decade, Skinner made his return to the truck series full time in 2004, and has been a front runner ever since.
Since his return to truck competition, Skinner has won 12 races, and 103 times has finished inside the top 10, in 179 starts.
The one glaring omission on the resume of Skinner, is the lack of a championship. Although, he has never won the big prize in any of the top three series', Skinner has been a consistent threat in the truck series.
In each of the last six seasons, Skinner has finished in the top 10 in points in the trucks, including a runner up finish in 2007.
As a driver in NASCAR's top tier, Jeff Green was only mildly successful. In 2002, Green had his most successful season in Sprint Cup. He posted a career best six top 10's, and four top five finishes, while he finished the season 17th in the point standings.
But, it was his previous Nationwide runs that earn him a spot on this list. During the three year stretch of 2000-2002, Green accumulated 12 victories in 87 starts in the series, and finished in the top 10, an impressive 69 times over that same stretch.
Green won the first Nationwide Series championship of the 2000's, and backed it up the following season with a runner-up finish in the point standings.
So, while Green has found very limited success outside of the Nationwide Series, he was once upon a time ago, the man to beat in NASCAR's second tier series.
Prior to being diagnosed with neck cancer in early 2006, Bobby Hamilton was quickly becoming one of the dominant forces in the Camping World Truck Series. Hamilton ran just 12 races in the truck series to begin the decade, and earned two wins in those 12 events.
In the three seasons between 2003 and 2005, Hamilton ran full time in the trucks, and amassed 10 more wins. On top of that, he scored 46 top 10 finishes with 28 of them being finishes in the top five. Hamilton won the 2004 Truck Series Championship, and finished sixth in points each of his other two full time seasons.
For me personally, one of the images of NASCAR I will never forget, was Bobby Hamilton's last career win in the Sprint Cup Series. It came at Talladega in 2001, in a caution free race, that saw an exhausted Hamilton give his victory lane speech sitting on the ground, leaning against his race winning car.
Unfortunately, Hamilton's race career, and ultimately his life, were cut short by his cancer. But he still earns a spot, as one of the top 30 drivers of the last 10 years.
Some people may argue this one, claiming that Keselowski hasn't been around long enough yet. I would disagree, and say that his recent dominance of the Nationwide Series are more than enough to warrant his place.
While Keselowski is very young in his Sprint Cup experience, he has already pulled off one victory, in what may be one of the biggest upsets in recent NASCAR history. While this season hasn't been as successful as everyone had hoped, he has earned six top 10 finishes in his first 52 starts, and did grab his first career pole.
The Nationwide Series has been a different story though. In his 139 career starts in the series, Keselowski has 12 wins, and an amazing 82 top 10 finishes. Only twice in his three full time seasons in the Nationwide Series, has Keselowski failed to be running at the finish.
And to put a ribbon on things, Keselowski earned the Nationwide Series Championship in 2010 after finishing third in each of his two previous seasons of full time competition.
Martin Truex Jr. had two dominating seasons in the Nationwide Series in 2004 and 2005 and since then, has had five average seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.
In 103 career starts in NASCAR's number two series, Truex has 13 trips to victory lane, 61 top 10's, and 40 finishes inside the top five. In his only two full time seasons of Nationwide competition, Truex was crowned the champion both times, a feat that sent him straight up to the Sprint Cup level.
In his 189 starts at the top level, Truex has only visited victory lane one time, which is far fewer than what was expected out of him. But Truex has still been very solid. He has amassed 44 top 10 finishes, and qualified for the Chase in 2007, the same season that he scored his lone victory.
The last two seasons have been filled with nothing but disappointment, and searching for a ride for Johnny Benson. After winning the truck championship in 2007, his first in the series, Benson has been without a full time ride ever since.
Prior to the loss of his ride, Benson was a constant front runner in the truck series as well as a former winner in the Sprint Cup Series as well.
Since 2004, Benson racked up 14 wins and 81 top 10 finishes in truck competition. In four full time seasons in the series, Benson finished in the top 10 in points each season. Of those four top 10s, he earned one championship, had a runner up finish, and a third.
Prior to joining the truck series, Benson also found some success in Sprint Cup competition. Benson earned his lone victory in 2002, and amassed 32 top 10 finishes in 136 starts in the series since 2000.
In limited action in both the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide, Ted Musgrave has done very little. But in the truck series, Musgrave is one of the all time greats.
In the first half of the decade, Musgrave was in contention for the Truck Series Championship every year. In 2005, he claimed his first and only championship in the series after finishing third the previous three seasons, and runner up to the title in 2001.
Since his first full time season in the truck series in 2001, Musgrave has visited victory lane 17 times in 189 starts. He has 117 top 10 finishes, with 80 of those finishes resulting in top fives.
So, Musgrave may not be familiar to Sprint Cup or Nationwide success, but in the Camping World Truck Series, Musgrave has had more success than most.
Until 2010, Jamie McMurray had been labeled as an underachiever, and just an average driver. Then, 2010 became a dream season for McMurray.
He started the season by winning the Daytona 500, and backed it up a few months later by winning the Brickyard 400. And just to add another bit of icing on the cake, McMurray won at Charlotte late in the season.
For his career, McMurray has six wins in Sprint Cup competition, to go along with 92 top 10 finishes. His best career points finish is an eleventh place effort.
McMurray has also found success in the Nationwide Series. He has also earned eight victories at that level, to go along with 65 top 10 finishes. And just for good measure, McMurray, has also earned a victory in the truck series.
Though he has bounced around from ride to ride over the last couple of years, Bobby Labonte began this decade as one of the top drivers in the sport, and can always lay claim to being the first Sprint Cup Champion of the twenty first century.
Over the last 10 years, Labonte has scored 10 victories, while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. Over that same time period he has scored 101 top 10 finishes with 58 of them resulting in top fives.
Labonte has also, sparingly, done some racing in both the Nationwide Series as well as the Truck Series. He has scored a victory in each of those series as well over the last 10 seasons.
While Labonte has struggled in recent years, driving for underfunded teams, he remains one of the leaders in the garage, and there is no denying that he has been one of the top drivers for a long time. And with his move to the No. 47 car in 2011, Labonte has his best chance to once again find victory lane in a long time.
Clint Bowyer may be one of the most underrated drivers currently on the Sprint Cup circuit. Bowyer has been at NASCAR's top level for five seasons. In that time he has scored just four victories, but always seems to run near the front.
Aside from the wins, he has scored 79 top 10 finishes, and has finished in the top 10 in points on three different occasions, including a career best of third in 2007, his second full time season on the circuit.
Bowyer has also had a very solid Nationwide career. He has won eight races, and earned 108 top 10 finishes in just 169 starts. He has run the full Nationwide schedule three different times. In those three seasons, Bowyer has finished third, second, and first, winning the championship in 2008.
Bowyer has also scored two wins in eight career truck starts, including a win in his only start in 2010.
Kasey Kahne burst on to the Sprint Cup scene in 2004, and quickly became the hard luck story. On five different occasions in his rookie season, Kahne finished runner up, and ended the season without finding victory lane.
After another second place finish early in the 2005 season, Kahne finally broke through for his first victory at Richmond in May of 2005.
Since that time, Kahne has totalled 11 wins and 87 top 10 finishes. He is also known as one of the better qualifiers in NASCAR, as he has rattled of 20 poles in his short seven year career.
In the Nationwide Series, Kahne has added seven more wins to his racing resume, and in his very brief truck series career he has been near flawless.
In just three starts in truck competition, Kahne has won twice, and finished in the top five in all three events.
In recent years, it has been almost uncommon to not see Ryan Newman starting on pole position for a Sprint Cup event. Newman has mastered the art of qualifying, as he has racked up 46 poles in his career, including an astonishing 11 in 2003.
Newman's skill is not just limited to qualifying. For his career, he has picked up a total of 14 wins, including a series high of eight in 2003.
His signature win came in 2008 when he won the season's opening race, the Daytona 500.
Newman has never run a full season in either the trucks or in the Nationwide Series, but has had success in both, nonetheless. In 62 Nationwide starts, he has seven wins and 34 top 10 finishes. While, in the Truck Series, Newman has one win in his three career starts, and all three starts have resulted in top five finishes.
The other statistic from Newman's career that many people often forget, is that it was he, and not Jimmie Johnson, who won the rookie of the year honors in 2002.
Never in NASCAR history has there been a driver with the expectations that Dale Earnhardt Jr. carries. While it is safe to say, that he has failed to live up to most of the expectations, Earnhardt has still had a solid career.
Since the turn of the century, Earnhardt Jr. has competed in all 394 Sprint Cup races. He has only amassed 18 wins over that time, as well as compiling 150 top 10's, with 91 of those finishes being in the top five.
His Nationwide Series tenure over that time has been a little more impressive. He has made just 44 in the lesser series, and has scored the win in 10 of those events. He has finished in the top 10 in 29 of those starts.
While some will argue that Earnhardt Jr. should be higher on this list, he only makes it this high because of his lack of top finishes in the point standings. He has only finished in the top 10 in points four times, with a career best of third, back in 2003.
Ron Hornaday will go down in history as one of the greatest Truck Series drivers of all time. While his brief stint in the Sprint Cup Series failed to make any lasting impressions, he has been quite successful in both the Nationwide and the Camping World Truck Series.
Since 2000, Hornaday has made 175 starts in the Nationwide Series. In that time, he has earned four wins and 70 finishes inside the top 10. In his only two full time seasons in the series, 2003 and 2004, Hornaday finished third and fourth respectively in the point standings.
But it is in the trucks that Hornaday, has really shined. He has made 153 starts in the Truck Series since 2000, and has been the victor in 22 of those events. He has also totalled 97 top 10 finishes in those starts.
Each of the last six seasons, Hornaday has run the full Truck Series schedule, and finished well within the top 10 in points in each season. He has finished seventh two different times, finished fourth, second, and been the champion on two different occasions.
Another driver whose name will go down in the Truck Series history books is Todd Bodine. Much like Hornaday, Bodine found limited success in the Sprint Cup Series, but has been solid in the Nationwide Series, and more than impressive in the Truck Series.
Bodine has made 120 starts in Nationwide competition since 2000, and has scored five wins over that time. Also impressive, is that of his 50 top 10 finishes in that time span, 34 of them were in the top five. In his lone full time season in the series, Bodine finished fourth in the point standings.
Again, much like Hornaday, Bodine has found his niche in the Camping World Truck Series. He has run in 160 races since 2004, and has found victory lane 21 times. He has amassed 106 top 10 finishes with 81 of them running in the top five.
In six full seasons of truck competition, Bodine has finished fourth in the points twice, third twice, and two times, including 2010, Bodine has been crowned the champion.
Jeff Burton has long since been regarded as one of the more respected drivers in the garage, as well as being one of the leaders building the safest possible race cars to put out on the track.
That respect has translated to success on the racetrack for Burton. Since 2000, Burton has scored 10 wins in the Sprint Cup. The most impressive victory for Burton came in 2000, when at Loudon, Burton lead all 300 laps of that race, en route to the victory.
Burton has also found success running part time Nationwide Series schedules over the years as well. In 112 starts, Burton has finished in the top 10, 81 times while scoring victories in 17 of those events.
While a championship has eluded Burton thus far, he has finished in the top 10 in points five different times since 2000, including a third place effort in the first year of the new century.
In 2009, Mark Martin was the feel good story of the year. The 50 year old Martin, grabbed five wins that season, and for the fifth time in his career finished runner up in the Sprint Cup standings. But Martin was not just a one trick pony.
He has amassed a total of nine wins since 2000 in Sprint Cup competition, as well as recording 170 top 10 finishes which ranks fifth, over that time period.
Martin has made 44 starts in the Nationwide Series and grabbed eight wins, while finishing in the top 10 35 times.
Martin also had one of the most impressive seasons in truck series history in 2006. He only attempted 14 events that season, and finished in the top 10 in 12 of them, with 11 going for top fives. Furthermore, in six of those starts, Martin earned the checkered flag.
And while Martin has never won a championship in any of the top three series, he is the all time wins leader, as well as a five time champion of the IROC series.
Denny Hamlin's young career has really started to take off. Hamlin has been in the Sprint Cup Series for a little over five seasons and has scored 16 wins in that time, including a series high, eight, in 2010. He has finished in the top 10 in more than half of his career starts in NASCAR's top series.
In each of his five full time seasons, Hamlin has qualified for the Chase for the Championship, and has finished in the top five on three different occasions, including runner up in 2010.
His Nationwide Series resume is just as impressive. He has earned 10 wins in 123 starts, and again has recorded top 10 finishes in more than half of his starts in that series as well.
He ran two full time seasons in the Nationwide Series and finished fourth and fifth respectively in the points. Hamlin also finished thirteenth in the standings in 2007 while only competing in 22 events.
In 2004, NASCAR introduced its Chase for the Championship. Kurt Busch took advantage of the championship format, and after starting the Chase in the bottom half of the standings, rode a string of nine top 10 finishes to end the season, to his first career Sprint Cup Championship.
Over his career, Busch has accumulated 22 wins, along with 153 top 10 finishes. Of his 22 victories, five of them have come at Bristol Motor Speedway, where for a time, Busch was the undisputed king of the short track.
Busch's success in Sprint Cup cars is very impressive especially considering his lack of time in either the Nationwide or Truck Series'.
Between the two series, Busch has only made 36 career starts, but has 26 top 10 finishes in those starts, including six trips to victory lane.
In 2001, Kevin Harvick was given the unenviable task of replacing the legend, Dale Earnhardt. While, there is no replacing a driver like Earnhardt, Harvick has certainly done a great job in the No. 29, but he has more than made a name for himself.
One of the most memorable moments in NASCAR history occurred when Harvick scored his first career victory in just his third start, and promptly gave the crowd a three finger salute, in honor of the late Earnhardt.
Harvick has gone on to add 13 more victories to that one in Sprint Cup competition, and rebounded from a disappointing 2009 season, with a career year in 2010.
Harvick is also the 2006 Nationwide Series champion, in a series where he has won 37 times, and scored 194 top 10 finishes in 264 starts since 2000.
He has also appeared in 38 Truck Series races since 2001, and scored 31 top 10 finishes, with nine of them going for wins. On top of all that, he is also a championship owner, with Ron Hornaday in the truck series.
For a time, Matt Kenseth was one of the most consistent drivers in NASCAR. You never expected Kenseth to wind up in victory lane, but you always expected him to be in contention. It was that consistency that earned Kenseth the Sprint Cup Championship in 2003.
And depending on who you ask, it was Kenseth's championship run that prompted NASCAR to implement the Chase for the Championship.
Kenseth has been involved in all 394 races since the start of the 2000 season, and has scored 18 wins over that time period. He has amassed 189 top 10 finishes, and in 2010 was one of only two drivers to be running at the finish of every race, while failing to complete only seven of the 10,778 laps run during the year.
Since the turn of the century, Kenseth has also competed in 162 Nationwide Series races, and has finished in the top 10 in 117 of them with wins in 18 of the starts.
If there is another underrated driver currently in NASCAR, it is Greg Biffle. Since the turn of the century, Biffle has captured championships in both the Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, and has had both a second and a third place finish in Sprint Cup points.
Biffle has been a full time Sprint Cup driver since 2003, and over the course of that time, he has collected 16 victories, and has had just one winless season, 2009, since his full time career began.
He has been one of the more active Sprint Cup regulars in the Nationwide Series as well, with plenty of success. He has collected the checkers 20 times and been in the top 10 149 times in 247 starts since 2001.
And, although it has been six years since he last appeared in a truck race, the handful of times he did race them in this decade, were again, with much success. In 29 starts, Biffle won five times, and 20 of his 23 top 10 finishes were inside the top five.
Carl Edwards has only been active in NASCAR competition since 2002. In that time, between all three of the top series, we have been able to witness Edwards' patented victory backflip, 53 times.
Edwards' first full season in NASCAR was in the Truck Series in 2003. He recorded three victories that year, followed up by three more the following season, his only other full season driving a truck.
Starting in 2005, Edwards began running both the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series on a full time basis. The results have been impressive in both series.
In Nationwide competition, Edwards has scored 29 wins with 146 top 10 finishes. In six full seasons of Nationwide competition, Edwards has never finished worse than third in the point standings. He did that one time, to go along with four runner up finishes, and a championship run in 2007.
In Sprint Cup action, Edwards has 18 wins, including a series leading nine in 2008. He has scored 118 top 10 finishes in just 229 starts, and has point finishes of second, third, and fourth, one time each.
Some worried that when Tony Stewart left Joe Gibbs Racing, his career might suffer as a result of running a race team. That has not been the case, as Stewart continues to be one of perennial favorites to win, week in and week out. And consequently, Stewart has never had a season in his career, in which he failed to find victory lane.
Stewart is another driver who has been around for every race run in the 21st century, and his results are impressive. In that time span, he has cranked out 36 wins and 226 top 10 finishes. Only one time in his career has he finished outside of the top 10 in points, an eleventh in 2006, and twice he has won the Sprint Cup.
Stewart, on two separate occasions, has also been able to kiss the bricks at Indianapolis, which was a lifelong dream for the Indiana native.
He has only made 54 starts in the Nationwide Series in the new millennium, but he has made them count. He has won nine time in the series, including his only appearance in 2010, at the season opening race at Daytona.
It was a tough call between Stewart and Jeff Gordon for third place on the list. They have very similar numbers, but in the end, Gordon gets the nod for slightly better points finishes, and for two seasons that would have been championships using the traditional points method.
Since 2000, Gordon has won 33 times, three less than Stewart, but had 234 top 10 finishes, which are nine more than Tony. Much like Stewart, Gordon has finished in the top 10 in points every season since 2000 except for one. And, he also finished eleventh the season he failed to crack the top 10.
Gordon has won the championship just once since 2000, but he has also had a runner up finish, two third place finishes, and two fourth place finishes.
And, while the win totals have greatly diminished for Gordon over the last few years, there is no denying that he is still a very legitimate threat to get to victory lane each and every week, and still after all this time, is still not only a championship threat, but still one of the best in the business.
Is there anything that Kyle Busch can't take to victory lane? Whether it's in the Sprint Cup, the Nationwide Series, or in the Truck Series, Busch is going to win races.
In the top series, Busch 19 wins in 222 starts with 103 finishes inside the top 10. While Busch is clearly one of the top drivers in the sport, his points finishes in the Cup Series, have failed to reflect how good he really is. His best points finish is surprisingly only a fifth place effort, back in 2007.
In Nationwide competition, Busch may just be the best. He has 43 wins in only 202 starts. In 2004, his first full time season in the series, Busch finished runner up in the point standings. In 2010, Busch managed a third place in the points while not running in six of the 35 events. And that is coming off the heels of a series championship the season before.
He is just as dominant when he runs in the Truck Series. In 85 starts Busch has amassed 24 victories, while being among the top 10 finishers 65 times.
And the scariest thing about Busch, is that he is still just 25 years old, and continuing to get better.
Surprising choice at number one isn't it? Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. In 91 career starts, Johnson only has one victory. That's right, one victory, and he only has 23 top 10 finishes as well.
But that's where the bad statistics stop. Everything else about Johnson is mind boggling. In 327 starts in the Sprint Cup, Johnson has won 53 times, and finished in the top 10 203 times, with 134 of those finishes being inside the top five.
In his nine years of full time Sprint Cup action, Johnson's worst points finish is fifth, having done so two times. The only thing not on Johnson's racing resume, is the surprising fact, that, as mentioned earlier, he failed to claim rookie of the year honors in 2002. That honor went to Ryan Newman.
Johnson has never had a season with less than three wins. He has never had a season where he failed to record at least 20 top 10's, he has won at Indianapolis three times, won the Daytona 500, and he has even claimed 25 poles in his career.
And in case you haven't heard, Johnson is now a five time defending Sprint Cup champion.