NASCAR's 15 Most Feared Drivers of All Time

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 24, 2012

NASCAR's 15 Most Feared Drivers of All Time

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    You can be the nicest, quietest and most well-mannered race car driver in the world.

    But once you climb behind the wheel, oftentimes a catharsis occurs where Mr. Nice Guy becomes No More Mr. Nice Guy seemingly in the blink of an eye—or the drop of a green flag.

    That's where some of NASCAR's most feared drivers of all time came from.

    Developing their skills over time, they learned that the only way to succeed in most cases is to take advantage of the other guy first, because he'll certainly take advantage of you if he gets an opportunity.

    The most feared drivers are also the ones who take the most chances and risks, who oftentimes seem like they can do superhuman things with a race car while their counterparts are left to be nothing more than mere mortals with a steering wheel in their hands and a gas and brake pedal at their feet.

    In over six decades, NASCAR has seen its share of feared drivers. In fact, it's almost like clockwork, where one or more drivers rule the roost for several years as the most intimidating competitors, only to eventually yield to the next generation of the same ilk.

    So without further ado and in no particular order, we present our picks for NASCAR's 15 Most Feared Drivers of All Time.

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Darrell Waltrip

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    The Darrell Waltrip you see on TV today is light years away from the competitor that wreaked havoc on tracks from Richmond to Riverside in his racing career.

    "Old DW" was more like "Bold DW" in his racing days, one of the most feared drivers out there not only for his talent but also his unpredictability at times.

    Waltrip had an almost innate sense, incredible car control and virtually no fear behind the wheel. He trusted his ride implicitly, that it would go where he pointed it, even if physics and logic oftentimes clashed.

    Hard as it may seem to believe today to some of NASCAR's younger fans, but Waltrip was one of the toughest competitors of his time and wasn't afraid to go toe-to-toe with any number of rivals—most notably Dale Earnhardt.

    He didn't win three Cup championships and 84 races by being Mr. Nice Guy, that's for sure.

David Pearson

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    "Pearson was the hardest driver I've ever raced, no doubt about it."

    That's a pretty heady compliment coming from NASCAR's all-time winningest driver, Richard Petty, who was referring to his lifelong friend—but also toughest rival during their respective racing careers—David Pearson.

    How good was Pearson? Let's put it this way. If he hadn't been the No. 1 thorn in Petty's side, The King might have won 300 wins in his career instead of 200.

    Pearson won three Cup championships between 1966 and 1969, as well as 105 races. But perhaps the most surprising fact of all is that he raced just three full-time seasons in his career (and 24 other seasons that were mostly part-time efforts).

    Imagine if Pearson had indeed been a full-time competitor for 27 seasons. It might have been The Silver Fox that won 200 races in a career and not The King.

Dale Earnhardt

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    Perhaps the most feared driver in NASCAR history, Earnhardt made the term "chrome horn" and its use an unquestionable art form.

    If a driver was smart, he stayed out of Earnhardt's way. If a driver wasn't so smart, Earnhardt taught him some very valuable lessons rather quickly.

    With his Snidely Whiplash mustache, his jet black race car and the feared nickname of "The Intimidator," Earnhardt didn't mess around—nor was he anyone to mess with. The race track was his office and he took his job more seriously than almost anyone else out there.

    Earnhardt became a legend in his time. He was beloved by millions and was unquestionably the face of NASCAR for nearly two decades before his tragic death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

    When he died, Earnhardt brought out an outpouring of grief felt worldwide, comparable to that of some of the biggest world leaders and entertainers that also met tragic, untimely deaths.

    To illustrate that, even today, as we close in on 12 years since his death, Earnhardt remains one of the most talked about figures in NASCAR. While the man himself is no longer with us, his legacy and legend will never die.

Richard Petty

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    Richard Petty was nowhere near as intimidating as Dale Earnhardt was from a personality standpoint. Rather, Petty was a friendly, down-home good old boy who also just happened to be a hell of a race car driver.

    And it was that talent that made Petty so feared. He could out-race, out-drive and out-win anyone. Not only does he hold a record that will likely never be broken in NASCAR history (200 wins), he also is one of only two drivers (Earnhardt is the other) to win seven Cup championships each in their respective careers.

    Petty wasn't nicknamed "The King" for anything. He truly was the king of stock car racing from the early 1960s through the mid-1980s. But like everything in life, The King's reign eventually came to an end and he was supplanted by "The Intimidator."

    Still, even today, more than 20 years since he stepped out from behind the wheel of a stock car for the final time, Petty remains one of the most beloved figures in the sport.

    To be feared by his competitors and loved by his fans—it just doesn't get any better for a race car driver.

Jimmie Johnson

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    In a way, Jimmie Johnson has become this generation's own Intimidator. With a record five consecutive Sprint Cup championships, Johnson is the most feared driver today, along with Chad Knaus, the most feared crew chief today.

    It's hard enough to win one championship, as reigning champion Brad Keselowski learned in 2012. But to win five championships in a row, has never been done before in NASCAR history—and potentially may never be done again.

    Remember, prior to Johnson's record-breaking quintet streak, the most championships any driver had ever won in a row was three straight (Cale Yarborough from 1976-78).

    Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet has become the most intimidating car on the race track since perhaps Dale Earnhardt's No. 3. How often over the last seven or eight years have we seen other drivers pull aside to let the Johnson Express roll past yet again?

    And while he came up short in 2012 and was somewhat of a non-factor in the 2011 Chase, you can't keep a driver like Johnson down. We fully expect him to be as much of a factor for the 2013 Cup championship as he's ever been.

Kyle Busch

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    No driver in the current crop of Sprint Cup competitors has been both feared or vilified as much as Kyle Busch.

    Since 2004, when he was only 18 years old, Busch has gone on to win over 100 races across NASCAR's three primary professional series: Sprint Cup (24 wins), Nationwide Series (51 wins) and the Camping World Truck Series (30 wins).

    No other driver in NASCAR history has won that many combined races in as short of a period of time—and he hasn't even hit 30 years old yet. Busch is without question one of the most feared drivers any time he gets behind the wheel, regardless if it's a Cup car, Nationwide car or truck.

    While Busch seems to thrive on the reputation he's developed as the guy wearing the proverbial black hat in NASCAR, it's also worked against him. He's had several on- and off-track run-ins that have done little but further exacerbate a bad reputation that has gotten worse.

    Missing the Chase in 2012 may be the wakeup call he needs, because Busch has just too much talent to be just a great driver. He needs to become a great Cup champion, as well.

    While having a chip on your shoulder has been the hallmark of many Cup champions over the years—perfect example: Tony Stewart in his younger days of NASCAR racing—Busch needs to let that chip work for him, rather than having it work against him as it has up to now.

    We can easily see him rebound in 2013 and become a bonafide Cup championship contender once again. But if he's to take that final step to be what so many people have predicted his talent will allow him to become, he needs to turn that black hat into something a bit more opaque, perhaps grey. We might be able to live with that, and Kyle as a champion, as well.

    Once Dale Earnhardt learned how to play that game, look how his career took off. KyBusch has been a longtime student of racing history. Once he learns the same lesson Earnhardt did early on in his own career, Busch's career—and the likelihood of multiple Cup championships—is likely to follow, just like it did to the late Intimidator.

Tony Stewart

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    While he's mellowed somewhat personality-wise over the last several years, particularly since he became co-owner of what has become Stewart-Haas Racing, Tony Stewart is still one of the most feared drivers on the Cup circuit.

    You don't win three Cup championships, including his most recent one in 2011, without having both great talent and being the kind of driver that strikes fear into the hearts of other drivers, especially when you're bearing down on their rear bumpers.

    Sure, Stewart still makes a mistake now and then—this fall's race at Talladega is the most recent example—but you won't find a tougher opponent or greater friend than the man who drives the No. 14 Chevrolet.

Cale Yarborough

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    Cale Yarborough came out of South Carolina to become one of the most dominating drivers NASCAR saw in its first 35 years of competition.

    He was the first NASCAR champion to win three championships in a row (1976-78), and he held that distinction for 30 years until he was supplanted by Jimmie Johnson's five titles in a row.

    Yarborough's tenaciousness behind the wheel not only led to 83 career wins as well as the aforementioned three championships, but like David Pearson and Richard Petty, he was also one of the most naturally talented drivers NASCAR has ever seen.

    He made the difficult look easy and was at the forefront when NASCAR began its explosion of popularity, dating back to his nationally-televised tangle with Donnie Allison in the 1979 Daytona 500.

    The funny thing is that Yarborough, who remained out of the spotlight for many years after retiring as an active driver, is actually the shy and quiet type. If you didn't know he was one of the most feared and toughest drivers in the sport's history, you'd think he was a kindly grandfather.

    But beneath that quiet exterior lies the heart of one of the sport's greatest winners and champions.

Fireball Roberts

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    Sadly, one of the realities of NASCAR racing has been a number of great drivers who were killed in the prime of their racing careers.

    We saw it most recently with Dale Earnhardt in 2001, along with others including Curtis Turner.

    Another driver cut down in the prime of his racing career was Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, whose life ended at the far-too-young age of 35, dying more than a month after a terrible crash at Charlotte in 1964.

    Charlotte Motor Speedway was the only superspeedway in the south at which Roberts never won. He decided to give it one more try in the World 600 (now known as the Coca-Cola 600) before he was set to retire to a desk job with a brewing company. Unfortunately, he wrecked on the eighth lap of the race, with Ned Jarrett helping to pull Roberts to safety.

    Sadly, he would be hospitalized for 39 days before finally succumbing to a combination of the burns and physical trauma he suffered in the wreck.

    Still, Roberts did a tremendous amount of racing in his career, including 33 Cup wins. He was the kind of driver that would race a competitor perhaps harder than he had ever been raced in his career.

    Of particular note was when he teamed in 1959 with the legendary Smokey Yunick. They made the most feared duo in the sport at the time, far more feared than other luminaries of the time including Lee and Richard Petty and David Pearson.

    Roberts' tombstone speaks volumes not only of the man he was, but also the feared driver he was:

    "He brought stock car racing a freshness, distinction, a championship quality that surpassed the rewards collected by the checkered flag."

Joe Weatherly

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    Joe Weatherly was one of the first stars NASCAR had, and he continued in that role for several years as not only one of the most popular drivers but also the most dominating drivers of his era.

    How dominating? In one stretch early on in his career, he won an incredulous 49 of 83 races (NASCAR and other series). He went on to win two NASCAR Grand National championships in 1962 and 1963.

    But like Dale Earnhardt and Curtis Turner, Weatherly's career ended way too soon when he died in a wreck in 1964.

    He was one of the most competitive drivers the sport has ever known. If there's any regret, it's that Weatherly never was able to realize even greater stardom, popularity and notoriety.

Curtis Turner

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    Another of NASCAR's early stars, Curtis Turner was one of the hardest and toughest competitors of his day.

    From a racing career that began by finishing last in an 18-driver race in 1946, Turner was never the type to let adversity sidetrack him. In fact, after his auspicious debut, he went on to win the very next race he entered.

    He would go on to win over 350 races across several racing series, including 17 in NASCAR's Grand National circuit.

    In an ironic twist, after the deaths of Joe Weatherly and Fireball Roberts, NASCAR turned to Turner to help bring the sport back from those tragedies, only to have him also fall victim to a crash of another type—a plane crash in Pennsylvania in 1970.

Bobby Allison

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    Before his career abruptly came to an end in 1988 in a near-fatal wreck, Bobby Allison was one of the most feared drivers in the Cup circuit and also a founding member of the legendary Alabama Gang.

    The NASCAR Hall of Famer won one championship and 84 races during his lengthy Cup career. But perhaps no race was more notable than the 1988 Daytona 500 in which Allison won with son Davey finishing second.

    Sadly, several months later at Pocono Raceway, the elder Allison was involved in that near-fatal wreck that not only took a physical toll, but it also wiped out much of Allison's memory of certain parts of his racing career, including his '88 Daytona 500 win.

    There were few drivers during his era that were harder competitors than Allison. And while his competitive spirit was eventually passed on to sons Clifford and Davey, sadly, both of their lives ended prematurely—the former in a race car crash during practice and the latter in a helicopter crash.

    Even though his crash at Pocono ended his racing career, Bobby Allison remains one of the most-popular fan favorites around today.

Junior Johnson

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    You don't come from a background as a fabled bootlegger, trying to outrace police on rural back roads while transporting a load of illegal moonshine and not become a feared driver on a racetrack.

    That's Junior Johnson's legacy. Unlike most other drivers that honed their skills on short tracks, he learned about driving fast and how to out-muscle your opponent (mostly police and revenue agents early on in his life) on streets and roads throughout the Southeast.

    And when he transferred that innate talent and ability to a race track, Johnson was one of the most successful and feared drivers imaginable. Competitors that knew of his prior background knew Johnson was no one to mess around with—on the streets or on a race track.

    And when Johnson went straight, so to speak, as a racer, he quickly accumulated 50 wins—including the 1960 Daytona 500—before going on to become one of the most successful team owners in the sport's history, including winning six championships.

    He also became a pioneer in the art of drafting, yet another element that contributed to his overall success over the years, first behind the wheel and later on top of the pit box.

    Even now in his golden years, Johnson remains not only a fan favorite, but also one of the greatest storytellers the sport has ever known, regaling eager listeners with tales not only of his racing days, but also his earlier "career" as well.

Lee Petty

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    If there ever was a mold for the prototypical early NASCAR driver, Lee Petty was it.

    Not only was he one of the sport's first superstars, he also captured the first Daytona 500 in 1959. And doing so wasn't easy: NASCAR originally awarded the win to Johnny Beauchamp, but two days later, after badgering and presenting photographic evidence, the patriarch of the Petty family was finally judged the winner of the 500—one of the greatest moments of his career.

    It was that tenacity and never backing down from an argument or an on-track battle that was the elder Petty's hallmark. He also instilled the same kind of character into son Richard, who would not only follow in his father's footsteps, but would also become the sport's all-time winningest driver.

    Ironically, one year after his greatest career triumph in the 1959 Daytona 500, Lee Petty's racing career ended at the same Daytona International Speedway in a wreck.

Buck Baker

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    How can you not be a feared driver with a nickname like "Buck"?

    That's the legacy of one Elzie Wylie Baker Sr., who came out of Richburg, S.C., to win two Grand National championships and 46 career races.

    While so much has been made of Jimmie Johnson winning five career championships and Cale Yarborough being the first to win three in a row, Buck Baker became the first driver in NASCAR history to win back-to-back titles in 1956 and 1957.

    He was tough as nails and large as life as a race car driver. But much like his son Buddy, who followed in his father's footsteps, you couldn't find a much nicer fellow away from the race track.

    But once he strapped into a race car, the elder Baker was all business, a man focused on just one thing: winning. And if you got in his way or gave him a hard time, he'd respond in kind with his car as a battering ram, if needed.

    The late Dale Earnhardt oftentimes credited Buck Baker as one of the drivers he patterned his career and development after.

    After retiring as a driver following the 1976 season, Buck opened a racing school that became quite successful and popular. In fact, few people know it, but the Buck Baker Racing School was where eventual four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon would drive his first stock car.

    And the rest became yet another chapter of NASCAR's fabled history.