NASCAR Sprint Cup: The 25 Classiest Drivers in Stock Car Racing History

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IFebruary 21, 2011

NASCAR Sprint Cup: The 25 Classiest Drivers in Stock Car Racing History

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    NASCAR drivers are a microcosm of society in general when it comes to personalities.  It just so happens they chose to race stock cars for a living.

    Drivers in the top series of NASCAR have ranged from the low-key, mild-mannered type to those who left a night of heavy parties to head to the track for a race.

    Class can be defined as a number of persons regarded as forming a group by reason of common attributes, characteristics, qualities or traits.

    There is a group of drivers in the top layer of NASCAR that has been known by many series titles including Strictly Stock, Grand National, Winston Cup and Sprint Cup, who exhibited class throughout their careers in a manner that outshined most of their peers.

    The classiest drivers were not necessarily champions and perhaps did not even win many NASCAR races.

    What set these drivers apart was the ability they had to conduct themselves professionally, garner respect from those who knew them and generally be recognized as class acts within NASCAR.

    Let's take a look at 25 of the classiest drivers in the top series of NASCAR history.  They are in no particular order. 

No. 1 Alan Kulwicki

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    Alan Kulwicki, nicknamed "Special K," was the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) Champion but only had five wins in the nine years he raced in the series.

    Kulwicki was a quiet thinker who had a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin.

    Many thought of the driver from the north as a loner who demanded excellence from those who worked on his cars.  It was not unusual to see him walking through the garage in his drivers suit with a briefcase.

    Though he was driven to perfection, perhaps obsessively, it was acknowledged by those who knew him that he was brilliant.  Ray Evernham called him a "genius."

    Kulwicki may not have been Mr. Personality, but he was highly respected by those in NASCAR.  He died in a plane crash in 1993 at the age of 38.

    He was known for his Polish Victory Lap where he turned his car around after a win and drove clockwise around the track.

No. 2 Dale Jarrett

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    Dale Jarrett, the son of racing legend Ned Jarrett, was the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) Champion with 32 career wins to his credit in the series.

    Jarrett could have pursued a full golf scholarship at the University of South Carolina, but he chose to go racing.  At the time, his dad owned the famous Hickory Motor Speedway.

    The North Carolina native won his first Cup race in 1984 and had three Daytona 500 wins before retiring as a driver in 2008.

    Jarrett became a broadcast announcer for NASCAR racing.  He was always highly respected by his fellow drivers, conducted himself professionally and is now well-recognized as a racing commentator.

No. 3 Jeff Burton

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    Jeff Burton drives the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.  His record in the top series of NASCAR shows 21 wins since his first Cup race in 1993.

    Burton is well-spoken and is respected by NASCAR and other drivers for the way he conducts himself personally and on the track as well.

    He has managed to establish himself as a clean driver who for the most part has stayed away from controversial situations, but he will say what he thinks without hesitation.

No. 4 Rex White

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    Rex White, born in 1929, overcame polio to become one of the hottest Chevrolet drivers in the Cup series during the early '60s.  He won more races than the likes of Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and Joe Weatherly during that time.

    White won the 1960 NASCAR title in the top series.  His record shows 28 wins over the relatively brief nine-year racing career.

    The man who is slight of stature has a big heart and warm personality.  He can often be seen at vintage racing events and remains interested in NASCAR despite it's dramatic changes from his days behind the wheel.

No. 5 Bill Elliott

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    Bill Elliott, nicknamed "Awesome Bill from Dawsonville," was the 1988 NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) champion and has 44 career wins since his first Cup race in 1976.

    Elliott is soft-spoken and has gained the respect of the drivers who raced with him because of his clean driving, yet he was a very tough competitor. 

    The Georgia native drove for top teams in NASCAR, and during the past several years, he has been driving part-time.  His son, Chase, has been signed to drive for Hendrick Motorsports in other series, and he is only 15 years old.

No. 6 Mark Martin

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    Mark Martin is the driver of the GoDaddy.com No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.  The 52-year-old driver has 40 career wins but has only managed to be runner-up for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

    Martin is best known as the driver of the No. 6 Ford for Roush Racing.  His relationship with Jack Roush lasted some 19 years.

    Though he is in his final year of racing at HMS, he has no intention of stepping away from racing.  He is a driver who is respected for his racing knowledge and ability.  Often up-and-coming drivers go to Martin for advice.

No. 7 Fred Lorenzen

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    The good-looking, Fred Lorenzen, was charismatic and fan-friendly in addition to being quite the talent behind the wheel of a stock car.

    He was smart, a total-package type driver with 26 Cup wins to his credit.  Lorenzen was the first driver to win $100,000 in one season.  In 1964, he won eight of the 16 events he entered.

    Who knows what the Illinois native could have accomplished had he not surprised everyone with retirement from racing at the age of 33?

     

No. 8 Terry Labonte

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    Texas native, Terry Labonte, is the 1984 NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) champion.  His record shows 22 Cup wins since his first race in the series during 1978.

    Labonte may be soft-spoken, but he was tough behind the wheel of a race car.  The driver raced for top owners including Junior Johnson and Rick Hendrick.

    Labonte was always a clean driver, highly-competitive and well-respected by other drivers.  He cut his racing back to part-time after the 2004 season but continues to fulfill his desire to drive a Cup car.

No. 9 Marcos Ambrose

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    Australian racing star, Marcos Ambrose, made his first Cup start in 2008 and has found himself tossed around a bit with team ownership.

    Currently, he will drive the No. 9 Ford for the new Richard Petty Motorsports.  Ambrose has yet to find his first win in the top series of NASCAR.

    The driver from down under is very personable and well-liked by fans and fellow racers.  He is a clean driver with a lot of talent, especially on road-course tracks.

    With the stability and funding issue no longer problematic at RPM, look for Ambrose to finish well more consistently.

No. 10 Ned Jarrett

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    Ned Jarrett won the 1961 and 1965 NASCAR Grand National (Sprint Cup) title and has 50 wins during the 13 years that he raced in the series.

    The North Carolina native is nicknamed, "Gentleman Ned Jarrett."  It serves as testimony to his reputation as a person and a race car driver.

    This Jarrett, the father of NASCAR Champion Dale Jarrett, passed his calm demeanor and intense racing skills on to his son.

    Jarrett will be inducted into the second class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame this year.  He retired from racing at the age of 34 and later became a television racing commentator.

    Jarrett is often seen at race-related events and remains a class act who is always friendly to the media and fans.

No.11 Dave Marcis

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    Dave Marcis was best known for his winged-tip driving shoes and his ability to maintain an independent team.

    He qualified for every Daytona 500 from 1968 until 1999.  His record shows five wins over the 35 years he raced, but he did have 222 top-10 finishes.

    Marcis was respected for his talent as a driver who was able to keep the car in one piece.  He tested cars driven by Dale Earnhardt for Richard Childress Racing.

No. 12 Jimmie Johnson

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    Jimmie Johnson is the record setting five-time, consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion.  He drives the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

    HMS driver, Jeff Gordon, brought him into the fold as a driver for Rick Hendrick in 2002.  Since then, Johnson has won 53 Cup races.

    Johnson is a new-style racer much different from those old-school drivers.  The California native presents a passive demeanor and has been called vanilla because many fans find him boring despite his amazing accomplishments.

    Johnson is intense with his focus on just the Cup series, his physical conditioning, mental conditioning and his drive to win.  He is well-spoken and presents himself well to sponsors and to the public.

No. 13 Pete Hamilton

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    New England native, Pete Hamilton, was nicknamed "The Gentleman Racer."  He moved to the south to go racing in 1967.

    He ran 64 races in six years and scored four wins with his most notable being the Daytona 500 in 1970 when he drove a "superbird" for Richard Petty.

    He was the first Cup driver to win $100,000 on a superspeedway in a single season.  At the height of his career, he retired because of neck problems and started building cars.

No. 14 Bobby Labonte

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    Bobby Labonte, younger brother of Terry Labonte, is the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) champion and has 21 career wins in the series.

    The Texas native may be best known as the driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries for Joe Gibbs Racing.

    Labonte is a soft-spoken, tough competitor very much like his brother.  He has struggled a bit with finding a good, stable team with quality equipment, but he stills has the will to race.

    In 2011, he will be replacing Marcos Ambrose at JTG Racing behind the wheel of the No. 47 Toyota Camry.

No. 15 Marvin Panch

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    Marvin Panch is from California, but Bill France Sr. convinced him to come east in the early 1950s.  During his 15 years as a driver, he ran 216 races with 17 Cup wins.

    Panch drove Fords for Holman-Moody and Wood Brothers among others.  In 1961, he drove for legendary mechanic, Smokey Yunick, in a year-old Pontiac which he took to Victory Lane at the Daytona 500.

    Panch can often be seen at race-related events.  At the age of 84, he claims he is going to run a racing series called GAS in a class where the driver must be at least 45 years of age.

    The Florida resident is a gentleman, always willing to chat with race fans and can certainly be considered a class act.

No. 16 Darrell Waltrip

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    The brash, young Kentucky native, Darrell Waltrip, burst into the top series of NASCAR in 1972.  He went on to win three NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) Championships in 1981, 1982 and 1985.

    Waltrip won 84 Cup races and had 390 top-10 finishes out of the 668 races he ran over a period of 29 years.  He was the first driver to win $10 million in 1990.  The awards and recognition he has received goes on and on.

    Fans didn't really like the handsome young driver who was stealing wins from the old-school favorites they were fans of.  He finally won the fans over by 1989 and 1990 when he was NASCAR's Most Popular driver.

    He drove for top owners like Bud Moore, Junior Johnson and Rick Hendrick.  His final race was in 2000 when he retired as a driver and became a television commentator for FOX. 

    Ironically, his first broadcast was the 2001 Daytona 500 when his brother, Michael Waltrip, won and Dale Earnhardt lost his life.

    Waltrip was the complete package as a driver.  He was well-spoken, good-looking, charismatic, talented behind the wheel and able to attract quality sponsorship.

    Today, he remains popular, and his opinions on NASCAR issues are taken to heart.  He is a class act who is always willing to chat about racing stories and share his knowledge of the sport.

No. 17 Ricky Craven

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    The New England native, Ricky Craven, came up through lower series and ran his first Cup race in 1991.  He ran 278 races with 41 top-10 finishes and two wins over a period of 11 years.

    Perhaps, one of his best known rides was the No. 25 Budweiser car for Hendrick Motorsports.  His racing became more sporadic after a bad crash and the effects of a concussion.  He came back several times, but was forced to run for lesser teams.

    Craven's last Cup race was in 2005.  He is a commentator for NASCAR racing on ESPN.  The 44-year-old is a great proponent of NASCAR, is well-spoken and well-liked.

No. 18 Darel Dieringer

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    Darel Dieringer ran his first NASCAR Cup race in 1957 on the beach course at Daytona but didn't run well until 1963,

    He ran 181 races over 12 years with seven wins and 79 top-10 finishes.  Dieringer raced for 2011 Hall of Fame Inductee, Bud Moore and others.

    In 1967, the Indiana native won seven poles in 19 starts and continued a part-time schedule through 1968.  In 1969, he ran one race then stayed out of Cup racing until 1975 when he ran one race and announced his permanent retirement from racing.

    Though many may not know his name, he knew how to care for equipment and was a gentleman racer.

No. 19 Davey Allison

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    Davey Allison was the son of NASCAR legend and 2011 NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductee, Bobby Allison.  As a young kid, the son of a racer was destined to become a racer as well and worked on building his own car.

    Allison became a proven racer and worked his way up to Cup racing in 1985 where he ran 191 races over nine years with a record that showed 19 career wins and 92 top-10 finishes.

    The young driver was best known for driving the No. 28 Texaco/Havoline Ford for Robert Yates Racing.  Allison was a very popular driver with fans, raced his fellow drivers clean and had great potential in NASCAR racing.

    Ironically, his first Cup race was at Talladega Superspeedway, his first win was there and he also lost his life while landing his helicopter at the track in 1993.

No. 20 Benny Parsons

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    Benny Parsons worked at a gas station and drove taxi cabs in Detroit before becoming a race car driver.  Some strangers towing a race car pulled into the gas station and invited him to the track.  The driver never showed up, and Parsons drove the car.

    Parson worked his way through several series until he made it to the top series of NASCAR in 1963.  He became the 1973 NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) Champion.  His record showed 21 wins and 283 top-10 finishes out of the 526 races he ran in 21 years.

    He raced for several top owners and ran his last race in 1988 other than a few random races.  He became a television broadcaster for NASCAR in 1989.

    Parsons was well-respected by all who knew him, especially in NASCAR.  Drivers were comfortable talking with him, and his knowledge of racing made him an excellent commentator on the sport.

    Parsons died from complications of the treatment he received for lung cancer in 2007.

No. 21 Morgan Shepherd

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    Morgan Shepherd began racing modified moonshine cars on weekends to earn extra money.  His first Cup race was at Hickory Speedway in 1970.  He didn't seriously run in the top series of NASCAR until 1977.

    His Cup statistics show four wins and 168 top-10 finishes.  Shepherd drove the No. 21 Citgo Ford for Wood Brothers Racing and the No. 15 Motorcraft Ford for Bud Moore along with other less known teams.

    Shepherd always knew how to take care of his equipment and was respected in the garage area.  His record in the NASCAR Nationwide series outshines his Cup performance when it comes to wins.

    At the age of 69, he runs his faith-based Nationwide team and receives a lot of assistance with equipment from other owners.  Because of his caring spirit, he attracts help from those in the racing community and plans to field a second car in 2011 for at least part of the season.

No. 22 Jamie McMurray

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    Jamie McMurray worked his way through the second and third tier of NASCAR and ran his first Cup race in 2002 when he substituted for an injured Sterling Marlin.

    In 2003, McMurray was the NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) Rookie of the Year.  Since then, he has six wins and 92 top-10's to his credit.

    His first win came in 2002, but he had inconsistent runs with a variety of teams.  In 2005, McMurray asked to be released from a contract with Chip Ganassi who hesitated to release him but eventually did.

    In 2010, McMurray returned to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and a dream season that had him winning the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and the fall race at Charlotte.

    McMurray will be driving his No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/McDonalds Chevrolet for several more years after signing a contract extension.

    The 34-year-old racer may be proof that nice guys do finish first.  He is popular with drivers and fans, is a clean racer and a talented driver.

No. 23 Harry Gant

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    The driver known as "Handsome Harry" was best known as the driver of the No. 33 Skoal Bandit in the NASCAR Cup series.

    Harry Gant ran his first Cup race in 1973, then went on to run 526 races over 21 years.  His record shows 21 wins and 283 top-10 finishes.

    Gant holds the record as the oldest driver to win a race in the top series of NASCAR at the age of 51 years, 219 days.  At the end of the 1994 season, he retired from driving in the top-two series of NASCAR but ran a few truck races.

    The North Carolina native was humble about his accomplishments as a driver and thought he was a better carpenter.  Gant was respected by his fellow drivers and popular with fans.  He handled himself with class and dignity throughout his driving career.

No. 24 Richard Petty

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    Richard Petty won a record 200 NASCAR Cup races, seven Grand National/ Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) Championships and was inducted into the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

    He was the son of racing legend, Lee Petty, and carried on Petty Enterprises. He ran his last race at the 1992 Hooters 500 in Atlanta.

    Petty did some television work while his son, Kyle Petty, ran Petty Enterprises.  Financial difficulties took hold and lack of sponsorship forced his son out of the business as merger mania changed the face of the operation Petty worked so hard to maintain.

    Petty became a spokesperson for the organization that was known as Richard Petty Motorsports.  During 2010, it looked as though the company would not survive.

    The ever-popular NASCAR legend has spent his life with NASCAR racing, and his sheer determination to regain control of his company came to fruition when he took on a strong financial partner.  Once again, he is in charge of his two-car operation that he hopes to expand.

    Petty is highly respected by drivers, owners and fans.  He handles his racing business with dignity and is one of the most fan-friendly driver/owners the sport has ever had.

No. 25 Jeff Gordon

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    California native, Jeff Gordon, is a four-time NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) Champion.  He won the titles in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001.

    Gordon ran his first race at the Hooters 500 in 1992, the same event that was Richard Petty's last race.  His record shows 82 wins and 378 top-10 finishes.

    Gordon is best known as the driver of the No. 24 Dupont Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.  His car is still the same number, but for 2011, he is sponsored by the AARP Drive to End Hunger program.

    During the peak years of Dale Earnhardt, Gordon came into NASCAR to challenge him.  Many think the torch was passed to a new generation with Gordon's winning ways behind the wheel of a stock car.

    Gordon is married to a stunning former model and leads a jet set lifestyle, though it may have been tempered now that he is a father.

    Since he brought five-time Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson, to Hendrick Motorsports, he has failed to win a series title and finds himself in a drought so far as wins.

    The change of teams at HMS moved him out of the garage shared with Johnson and expectations are high for him to begin winning with his new crew chief, Alan Gustafson.