The Top 10 Drivers of the Decade

Misan AkuyaCorrespondent IDecember 23, 2009

LAS VEGAS - DECEMBER 02:  2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson poses with the trophy next to the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet during Day 1 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champions Week on December 2, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

From 2000 to 2009, we have seen a lot of great drivers in NASCAR, Formula 1, Indy cars, sport cars, and even other racing series. But I boldly make a list of the top 10 best in the last decade.

10. Kurt Busch

2001 was Kurt Busch's rookie season. He completed 35 of 36 races, finishing 27th in points, collecting no wins, yet three top-fives and six top-10s. He had an average finish of 25.54, but only led 160 laps. 

Who would have thought that this was the start of a career of a NASCAR superstar and one of the greatest drivers of the decade?

The next season, Busch would win four races, including his first at Bristol in the Food City 500 after dueling with Jimmy Spencer, collect 12 top-fives, 20 top-10s, an average finish of 14.06, led 933 laps and finished third in points.

In 2003, Busch won the IROC championship.

In 2004, Busch would finally see glory, winning his first Sprint Cup series championship by eight points over Jimmie Johnson. On the way, he would win three races, gather 10 top-fives, 21 top-10s, an average finish of 12.47 and led 246 laps.

Since then, it has been up and down for Busch, finishing 10th in points in 2005, 16th in 2006, 7th in 2007, 18th in 2008, and 4th in 2009.  

9. Matt Kenseth

2000 was Matt Kenseth's rookie year. He became the first, and so far only, rookie to win the Coca Cola 600. He finished 14th in points, collected four top-fives, 11 top-10s, an average finish of 18.94, and led 162 laps. He also beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. for Rookie of the Year that season.

In 2003, the last season that we had a championship hunt start at Daytona, we saw Kenseth display some excellence. He won in the third race of the season at Las Vegas, with many people thinking this would be the first of many wins since he won a series-high five races in 2002. 

But that was his only win of 2003. He would take the points lead after the fourth race of the season and never look back, having as big as a 600-point lead. After Rockingham, the second-to-last race of the season, he was awarded the last Winston Cup championship.

In 2004, Kenseth also won the IROC championship.

Until 2009, he was one of two drivers to qualify for every Sprint Cup chase.

8. Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon has established himself as one of open wheel racing's greatest drivers of all time, and one of the greatest drivers of this last decade. 

He came to the U.S in 1999, but didn't start racing the Indy racing league until 2003. That was his rookie year, but it didn't stop him from doing some extraordinary things. Dixon won the season opener at Homestead, and he would win a total of three races and the championship.

In 2008, Dixon would win a record-tying six races, including the Indianapolis 500. He became only the fifth driver in open wheel racing to lead over 2,000 laps. In the first season of unification in the IRL series, Dixon flourished, collecting his second series title that season.

7. Dario Franchitti

NASCAR fans may object to this, but Dario Franchitti was one of the greatest drivers in the last decade. His open wheel career in the 2000s really took off.

In 2007, Franchitti won four races, including a rain-shortened Indianapolis 500. He won the season finale at Chicagoland in dramatic fashion, beating now-teammate Dixon by just 13 points.

After an unsuccessful stint in NASCAR, Franchitti returned to the IRL in 2009, winning five races, including the season finale at Homestead. He claimed the IRL championship by just 11 points, once again over Dixon.

6. Sam Hornish Jr.

Now NASCAR fans are really going to be saying "WHAT!!??"  But hold on here.  Remember that Sam Hornish might be the best driver to grace North American open wheel racing.

In 2001, in his second season in open wheel racing, after not winning a race in 2000, he won three races and the championship.

Then in 2002, Hornish wom five races, including the last two of the season and the championship again, beating Helio Castroneves, who had just made the jump from Champ car with Penske Racing. Hornish would also win at Chicagoland that year, beating Al Unsner Jr. by .0024 of a second in one of the closest finishes in open wheel racing history.

In 2004, he made the switch to Penske Racing, winning the season opener.

In 2006, Hornish won four races, including the Indianapolis 500, making a last lap pass on Marco Andretti to become the first, and only, driver to make a last lap pass in the Indianapolis 500. He also won the championship in a tiebreaker over Dan Wheldon decided by most wins.

Hornish has had it rough in Sprint Cup, though he improved to having two top-fives, seven top-10s, and finishing 28th in points in 2009. But don't allow that to tarnish his legacy.

5. Fernado Alonso

Fernado Alonso is one of the best drivers to grace open wheel racing coast-to-coast, which makes it easy to put him on this list.

In 2005, Alonso won seven races and his first championship at the age of 24 years and 58 days. He broke Emerson Fittipaldi's record of being the youngest driver to win a Forumla 1 championship at the time (you'll see).

In 2006, Alonso would once again win seven races and back-to-back championships, becoming the youngest driver to win consecutive series championships. He is also one of two drivers (the other being Michael Schumacher) to score more than 100 points in a three-season span.

4. Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton is only 24 years of age, but has become one of the greatest open wheel racers, also breaking a big racing color barrier.

In 2007, Hamilton's rookie year in Formula 1, he won four races and set several records, including: most consecutive podiums from debut race (nine), most consecutive podiums for a British driver (nine), youngest driver to lead the World Championship (22 years, four months, eight days), most wins in a debut season (four), most pole positions in a debut season (six) and most points in a debut season (109).

After barely being defeated by Felipe Masa for the 2007 crown, Hamilton would come back strong in 2008, winning five races and becoming the youngest F1 World Champion  at 23 years and 300 days, a record previously held by Alonso.

Hamilton also became the first black driver to win a major motorsports championship, breaking a huge color barrier not only in F1, but in racing from coast-to-coast.

3. Jeff Gordon

Jeff Gordon is a four-time Sprint Cup champion.  But in this decade, he would only manage to win one championship, which came in 2001.  In that same season, he would also collect six wins, 18 top-fives, 24 top-10s, an average finish of 10.97, and led 2,320 laps.

From 2002 to 2004, Gordon would finish no worse than fourth in points and win no fewer than three races a season.

In 2005, he won his third Daytona 500, four races in total, but would miss out on the Chase.

In 2007, Gordon appeared to be back to his '90s stature. He won six races, collected 21 top-fives, a modern record-breaking 30 top-10s, an average finish of 7.33, and led1,300 laps. But he would have to settle for finishing second to teammate Jimmie Johnson.

In total in the 2000s, Gordon won 33 races.

2. Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart entered Sprint Cup competition in 1999. After finishing second in points to Jeff Gordon in 2001, Stewart took off in 2002.

He won three races, collected a series high 15 top-fives, 21 top-10s, an average finish of 12.61, and led 745 laps to cllaim his first of two championships by 38 points over Mark Martin.

In 2005, Stewart would show a year of dominance. He won five races (second most that season to Greg Biffle's six), including a win at the Brickyard which had eluded him his whole career. He collected series highs in top-fives (17) and top 10s (25), an average finish of 9.92 and led 1,845 laps. Stewart won the championship by just 35 points over Biffle and Carl Edwards.

In 2006, won the last IROC championship.

2009 was Stewart's first year as a driver/owner with Stewart-Haas racing. He flourished, winning the Allstar and four other races, collecting 15 top-fives, 23 top-10s, an average finish of 10.44, led 414 laps and finished sixth in points after dominating the regular season.

1. Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson was a rookie in 2002. Since then, with Chad Knaus guiding him every step, he has undoubtedly become a legend in NASCAR and in racing in general.

Johnson became the first rookie to ever lead in cup points and finished the season fifth in points. Still, he lost Rookie of the Year honors to Ryan Newman,

Johnson would have a few close calls with winning a championship, finishing second in points in 2003 and 2004. In won eight races that year.

After finishing fifth in points in 2005, in 2006, Johnson would win the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, and the Allstar race, becoming the first driver to win all three in the same season. He overcame a 165-point deficit to win his first championship by 52 points over Matt Kenseth, scoring five wins, 13 top-fives, 24 top-10s, an average finish of 9.67, and led 854 laps.

In 2007, Johnson would win 10 races, including an amazing four in a row late in the season, beating his teammate and owner Jeff Gordon in a dogfight for the cup. He would also collect 20 top-fives, 24 top-10s, an average finish of 10.75, and led 1,289 laps.

In 2008, he battled hard with Carl Edwards, but won seven races, collected 15 top-fives, 22 top-tens, had an average finish of 10.53, led 1,959 laps. He claimed his third straight championship, beating Edwards by 69 points. He became the second driver to win three in a row, joining Cale Yarborough.

But 2009 would be a history-making year for Johnson. He won seven races, collected 16 top-fives, 24 top-10s, an average finish of 11.08, led 2,238 laps. He secured his fourth straight championship, beating Mark Martin by 141 points to become the first driver to win four in a row in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The 48 team makes Johnson great, and that is why Jimmie Johnson is the driver of the decade.

Who is next? Who will we be talking about in 2019? 

Perhaps Carl Edwards? Denny Hamlin? Kyle Busch? Perhaps a developing driver like Brad Keselowski, Justin Alliager, Ryan Truex, Austin Dillon, or Parker Kligerman? 

Or an IRL youngster like Graham Rahal, Marco Andertti, or Mario Moraes?  Perhaps a driver that is young and is still trying to make it (like this writer) or Tiffany Daniels? 

It will be interesting, and you never know what will happen, so keep on watching, and don't overlook the young drivers, because you never know. He or she could become great.