NASCAR's 20 Most Controversial Drivers of All Time

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IMarch 20, 2013

NASCAR's 20 Most Controversial Drivers of All Time

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    The NBA has had characters like Dennis Rodman and Metta World Peace. The NFL and MLB shared Deion Sanders, also known as "Prime Time." But for a sport that prides itself on its clean-cut nature, NASCAR has its share of controversial figures—from some of the sport's most prominent legends to current superstars.

    Some of these drivers made a living during the days of moonshining through the Carolinas. Others made their name in the 1980s and 1990s, as the sport began to expand from regional to national, increasing its popularity in the process. Others still on this list are active drivers, none of whom have been afraid to speak their mind in the past.

    So which 20 drivers made this list of controversial figures in NASCAR history?

20. Tia Norfleet

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    It's difficult to justify Norfleet's presence on this list, as despite her claims, she isn't technically a NASCAR driver—at least not at a national level.

    Norfleet has never competed in a NASCAR touring series event, her competition limited to a single lap in a single late-model event. She follows in the footsteps of father Bobby, who briefly competed in NASCAR's Truck Series in 2000 before accusing the sanctioning body of banning him from tracks larger than a mile on racial pretenses.

19. Danica Patrick

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    The controversy with Patrick's NASCAR career has been built primarily on merit.

    When she came to NASCAR in 2010, she only had one IndyCar win, at Motegi in 2008. And before her promotion to the Sprint Cup level full-time in 2013, critics pointed to her underwhelming results in Nationwide in 2012 as a reason why she wasn't ready yet.

    To her credit, Patrick responded by winning the pole for this year's Daytona 500 and running as high as third on the final lap.

18. Denny Hamlin

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    Hamlin has quickly become one of the sport's most divisive figures this season. A feud with Joey Logano that started with accusations of blocking at Daytona spilled into the pits at Bristol, when Hamlin spun Logano in the middle stages of the race.

    Meanwhile, Hamlin announced that he had no plans to pay a $25,000 fine from NASCAR after comparing the new Gen Six car to the sport's old car.

17. Jimmie Johnson

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    How does Johnson, a clean-cut driver with a likable personality and five Sprint Cups, make this list?

    Those five Cups have a lot to do with it—not because he won them, but because of how he won them.

    The reigning champion from 2006 to 2010, Johnson would only have won championships in 2007 and 2010 under the non-playoff points system that preceded the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a testament to Johnson's greatest successes coming when he may have normally been out of title contention.

16. Brad Keselowski

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    One of the sport's most outspoken current drivers, the defending Sprint Cup champion has a history of making headlines, from putting Carl Edwards into the Talladega catch fence to score his first Cup win in May 2009 to cursing out the actions of Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer at Phoenix last November.

    He also caught flak from critics for indulging in a bit too much of sponsor Miller Lite after winning the title last year, giving off a clearly buzzed impression in post-race interviews.

15. Kyle Busch

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    Busch isn't one of the sport's most well-liked drivers, owing to a brash attitude and aggressive driving style. He frequently likes to bow to the crowd after scoring race victories, taking in the chorus of boos from the fans.

    Busch had high-profile run-ins with Kevin Harvick, Richard Childress and Ron Hornaday in a roller-coaster 2011 season, earning himself a suspension for wrecking Hornaday during a caution in a Truck race at Texas.

14. Richard Petty

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    NASCAR's winningest driver had legions of fans and one of the sport's top crews for most of his career, but that didn't keep him from controversy.

    After a win at Charlotte in October 1983, NASCAR determined that Petty was running a massively oversized engine built by brother Maurice. It was the final straw for Petty at Petty Enterprises; he would abandon the team for two years to drive for Mike Curb, winning his final two races in the process.

13. Robby Gordon

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    Gordon's hot temper and independent nature were two of the reasons why he was such a controversial figure during his NASCAR career. From throwing his helmet at Michael Waltrip in New Hampshire, to spinning Marcos Ambrose in Montreal, to an altercation with Kevin Conway in the garage at Las Vegas, patience was never Gordon's strong suit.

    But his self-owned team also had a habit of landing on the sport's bad side, earning a $100,000 penalty at Daytona in February 2008 for using an unapproved bumper in the early life of the Car of Tomorrow.

12. Tony Stewart

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    Few could get away with what Stewart has done in NASCAR without receiving significant reprimand.

    Sure, Stewart had to undergo anger management counseling for outbursts early in his career, particularly over the way he handled reporters. But he also has a long history of launching scathing criticism at tire manufacturer Goodyear, and in recent years has turned his sights to the accident-prone, costly nature of restrictor plate racing.

11. Rusty Wallace

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    The 1989 Cup champion (and perhaps the inspiration for the "Russ Wheeler" character in Days of Thunder—note the shared initials, red hair, and brash nature) found a way to villainize himself in that year's Winston, the non-points race at Charlotte the week before the Coca-Cola 600.

    Wallace spun Waltrip in turn four to zoom by and eventually take the $200,000 victory, leading to a confrontation on the pit road between their two teams.

10. Kevin Harvick

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    Replacing Dale Earnhardt meant that Harvick had some big shoes to fill. But in his early career the young driver behaved more like a petulant child than an intimidating figure. Incidents with Greg Biffle in Bristol and Coy Gibbs in Martinsville early in the 2002 season led to discipline from NASCAR in the form of a one-race suspension from Cup.

9. Aaron Fike

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    Once a promising development driver for Kevin Harvick Incorporated and Red Horse Racing, Fike was arrested in Ohio in July 2007 for using heroin in the parking lot of an amusement park and suspended immediately from NASCAR. He later admitted to having used heroin on race days, as well as struggling with dependency on painkillers.

    Fike was reinstated last August, five years after his initial suspension.

8. Shane Hmiel

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    The son of a longtime crew chief and team manager, Hmiel received multiple suspensions from NASCAR for failed drug tests when he wasn't exhibiting erratic behavior on track. Eventually, he was banned for life, a sentence that allowed him to get his life back together and attempt to restart his racing career in USAC.

    Unfortunately, a horrific accident in a qualifying session in October 2010 left him paralyzed.

7. Jeremy Mayfield

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    A two-time Chase driver with Evernham Motorsports, Mayfield's complaints about Ray Evernham through the 2006 season eventually led to the revelation that Evernham was dating development driver Erin Crocker.

    Blackballed from competitive teams, Mayfield attempted to run his own squad before a failed drug test took him out of the car in May 2009.

    Since then, the story has just gotten weirder: from accusations of his stepmother murdering his father, to his dogs attacking a postal worker, to bankruptcy, to multiple felony counts for theft and drug possession, it's unlikely that the NASCAR world will see Mayfield again.

6. Dale Earnhardt

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    Only the biggest of Earnhardt sympathizers won't see the seven-time champion as a controversial driver, because for most, that's just the way they like it.

    "The Intimidator" wasn't afraid to blatantly wreck other drivers late in a race when it meant the difference between first and second place. And Earnhardt's 1990 championship over Mark Martin came by a 26-point margin—20 points less than how much Martin was penalized for a carburetor infringement at Richmond early in the year that, it was later revealed, didn't technically break the rules. To his detractors, this was proof of favoritism on NASCAR's part for Earnhardt.

5. Kurt Busch

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    The winner of the inaugural Chase for the Cup in 2004 has had run-ins with authority at most of his stops during an up-and-down career.

    His stint at Roush Racing included a feud with Jimmy Spencer and a reckless driving citation, while his six years at Penske Racing were characterized by less and less patience with his team and the media as time went on.

    He spent last year with Phoenix Racing trying to rebuild his image, but he earned probation for an altercation with Ryan Newman at Darlington and a suspension for improper conduct with reporter Bob Pockrass at Dover not long after.

4. Junior Johnson

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    Stock car racing was, in effect, the legal offshoot of moonshine running, where many top runners brought their cars in NASCAR's early years.

    Johnson, who would go on to win 50 races in his driving career, spent time in prison for having an illegal moonshine still (although he was never caught while making a run in his car).

    As a team owner, Johnson wasn't afraid to bend the rules; "It's not cheating," he once said, "it's being competitive."

3. Darrell Waltrip

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    With a nickname like "Jaws," Waltrip wasn't the type of driver to make many friends in the competitive stages of his career. Drivers like Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace all had high-profile run-ins with Waltrip on track, while his attempts to be released from his contract with DiGard Racing in 1980 didn't endear him to many fans.

    Now, Waltrip's commentary career with Fox Sports draws criticism for heavily favoring NASCAR, when he was well known for criticizing the sport early in his career.

2. Curtis Turner

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    One of the men who helped make Charlotte Motor Speedway a reality over 50 years ago, Turner is perhaps best known for attempting to organize a drivers' union in NASCAR in 1961. As a result, Bill France Sr. banned Turner from the sport for life, as well as fellow unionizer Tim Flock (although the ban was lifted in 1965).

    Turner was also known as an aggressive driver on-track and a wild partier off of it.

1. Tim Richmond

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    The inspiration for Days of Thunder, Richmond was a hotshot driver who came from the open-wheel ranks to take the NASCAR world by storm. But his playboy lifestyle caught up to him in the late 1980s, when he was infected with AIDS at a time when the disease was not yet fully understood.

    When he tried to make a comeback in 1988, he underwent drug testing twice, with Richmond claiming that a false positive showed up in the first; when NASCAR demanded his entire medical records be released to clear him, an angry Richmond retreated, never to race again before passing away in August 1989.

    For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.


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