Jeff Gordon and Power Ranking the Careers of the Last 11 Sprint Cup Champions

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IMay 3, 2011

Jeff Gordon and Power Ranking the Careers of the Last 11 Sprint Cup Champions

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    LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 03:  (L-R) NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon and his wife Ingrid Vandebosch attend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series awards banquet at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel on December 3, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images for
    David Becker/Getty Images

    Once upon a time, there was no such thing as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, then in 2004, it was decided by NASCAR hierarchy that the run for the title should be more exciting.

    In the history of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, which has been known under other names like Strictly Stock, Grand National, Winston Cup and Nextel, a championship has been awarded based on a point structure of some sort to 28 different drivers.

    Only one driver has won a title under the non-Chase and Chase concept, Tony Stewart, who secured the big trophy in 2002 and 2005.

    Some drivers out of the last 10 Cup champions in addition to Jeff Gordon have attained multiple titles, but they are few.

    Jeff Gordon was the brash young kid who came into NASCAR's top series in 1992 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His timing didn't play well with those who thought he was atypical of a NASCAR driver and worse yet, he was challenging the great Dale Earnhardt.

    By 1994, Earnhardt had won seven NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup)  titles which tied him with Richard Petty. During 1995, Gordon challenged the man known as the "Intimidator" for the series championship and won it.

    Gordon looked to be on pace to tie Earnhardt and Petty for championships, but then he thought bringing a talented kid named Jimmie Johnson into the Hendrick Motorsports stable as a teammate would be a good idea.

    Now Gordon is looked upon as a respected spokesperson for drivers along with Jeff Burton, Tony Stewart and senior statesman, Mark Martin, because they are the more experienced "go-to" drivers who don't hesitate to express their thoughts to NASCAR.

    Gordon has also found out that winning a championship has become extremely challenging especially with Johnson winning five in a row since 2006.

    That kid who challenged Earnhardt, is now the father of two with a beautiful wife and hair that is turning gray like others in the sport who have reached his age of maturity.

    The fire may be burning stronger than ever to win a fifth championship and at least equal Johnson. Gordon knows he has many fewer racing years ahead of him than behind and he also realizes just how tough the level of competition has become in the Cup series.

    Let's take a look at Gordon and the last 10 Cup champions ranked from what could hardly be worse to first because they have all won titles, but more in order of strength as the best in the sport starting from the 11th to the strongest since 1989.

    See what you think and feel free to leave your input on the ranking as you see it.

11. Alan Kulwicki

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    DAYTONA - FEBRUARY: Driver Alan Kulwicki looks on before the 1991 Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February,1991 in Daytona. Florida. ( Photo by: Getty Images/Getty Images)
    Getty Images/Getty Images

    Alan Kulwicki was a different breed of driver who came to NASCAR's top series in 1985. He had a degree in engineering, tended to be a perfectionist who was hard to get to know.

    It was not unusual to see this driver walk through the garage area in his driver's suit carrying a briefcase. He sold most everything he owned to move from Wisconsin to Charlotte where he was hardly received with open arms.

    Kulwicki quickly realized he needed to surround himself with top-knotch mechanics and crew chiefs who understood what he wanted in a race car.

    This driver only had five wins in the Cup series with 75 top-10 finishes. He raced 207 races during the nine years prior to his death in 1993 when he was on a plane that crashed while flying to Bristol.

    Kulwicki battled Bill Elliott for the Cup title in 1992. It was his calculations of when to make his pit stop that almost got him the win but did get him points for leading the most laps at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

    He ended up having to conserve fuel and Elliott won the race, but Kulwicki won the title. This was a very calculating driver, and it is hard to say if he would have gotten other titles had he lived, but he would have won races for sure.

10. Bobby Labonte

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    AVONDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 25:  Bobby Labonte, driver of the #47 Clorox Toyota, stands in the garage area during practice for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on February 25, 2011 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty
    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Texas native Bobby Labonte is the younger brother of another Cup champion, Terry Labonte. He ran his first race in the top series of NASCAR in 1991.

    Labonte won 21 races in the series with 200 top-10 finishes. It was a wise move he made to join Joe Gibbs Racing in its infancy as the driver of the Interstate Batteries during 1995.

    He won the most races of any season in 1999 and then followed up by winning the series title in 2000.

    In 2004, Labonte failed to win a race for the first time in 10 seasons and was released from Joe Gibbs Racing. Since that time it has been difficult for him to get a steady ride with a top team.

    He is a talented driver and was good in his prime time, but that appears to be in his past.

9. Matt Kenseth

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 16:  Matt Kenseth, driver of the #17 Crown Royal Ford, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 16, 2011 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (
    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    Matt Kenseth is the soft-spoken driver of the No. 17 Crown Royal Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. Like Alan Kulwicki, he too came from Wisconsin and won a title in the southern-based NASCAR Cup series.

    This driver has 19 career wins in the top series and 193 top-10 finishes. He ran his first Cup race in 1998 when he filled in for Bill Elliott.

    Kenseth joined Roush Racing in 2000 which proved to be a wise move. He had good equipment and was winning races and finishing well.

    It was because of Kenseth's 2003 season that NASCAR implemented the Chase. He only won one race early in the season at Las Vegas and dominated the point standings for 33 consecutive weeks which was a modern era record.

    NASCAR and Roger Penske wanted the driver who earned the title to have more wins and came up with the Chase that reset the points for the first race in the last ten races of the season.

    Kenseth has certainly had his winless streaks, but generally, he is a very consistent driver capable of winning at any given race and perhaps contend for another title.

8. Kurt Busch

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    TALLADEGA, AL - APRIL 16:  Kurt Busch, driver of the #22 Shell/Pennzoil-AAA Dodge, walks on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 16, 2011 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Kurt Busch ran his first Cup race in 2000 and has gone on to secure 22 NASCAR Cup wins and 158 top-10 finishes.

    Busch was hardly NASCAR's most popular driver during his first few years in the top series. He even tangled with Dale Earnhardt and the driver of the black No. 3 was said to show him a finger that did not indicate he was No. 1.

    By 2003 he began winning races for Roush Racing, and in 2004, he won the series title. At the end of that season, he announced he would leave Roush to fill Rusty Wallace's seat at Penske Racing.

    Busch started the season this year pretty strong after moving from the famous Blue Deuce to the bright yellow Shell-Pennzoil car for Penske.

    There is no reason Busch can't contend for wins and possibly another championship in the future. Roger Penske has championships in other series, and he would very much like to see one in NASCAR.

7. Dale Jarrett

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    LAS VEGAS - DECEMBER 04:  TV personality Dale Jarrett poses on the red carpet for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series awards banquet during the final day of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champions Week on December 4, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by David Be
    David Becker/Getty Images

    Dale Jarrett is the son of NASCAR racing legend Ned Jarrett who is being inducted into the second class at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

    The younger Jarrett ran 668 during 24 years. He won 32 Cup races with 260 top-10 finishes and a NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) title in 1999 for Robert Yates Racing. That year, he won the series championship over Bobby Labonte by 201 points.

    Jarrett was best known as the driver of the UPS car and the commercials with the big brown truck. In 2006, he left Yates and took the sponsor to Michael Waltrip Racing.

    This Jarrett was a tough racer and a well-respected driver. His career began to fade, and in 2008, he retired from NASCAR.

    Just like his father, he turned to television as a NASCAR commentator.

6. Terry Labonte

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    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 04:  Terry Labonte, driver of the #45 Richard Petty Driving Experience Dodge prepares to drive during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 4, 2008 in Daytona Beach, Fl
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Terry Labonte ran his first NASCAR Cup race in 1978 and then went on to 22 wins and 361 top-10 finishes.

    He began racing for Billy Hagan and won a series title in 1984. Labonte went on to race for Junior Johnson and Rick Hendrick.

    Twelve years after his first championship, he won another for Hendrick in 1996. Driving with a broken hand the last two races of the season, he was able to celebrate the final race with younger brother Bobby winning the race and Terry securing the title.

    The older Labonte has always been known as a clean racer and is well-respected by his fellow drivers. He continues to make attempts at racing in the Cup series, but it is doubtful he will win another race.

5. Rusty Wallace

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    LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 02: Television Personality Rusty Wallace poses after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champions Week NMPA Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon at the Bellagio on December 2, 2010 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images f
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Rusty Wallace began racing for Raymond Beadle in the famous Blue Max Pontiac. He won 18 Cup races with the team and in a fierce battle for the championship with Dale Earnhardt, Wallace won the 1989 title.

    In 1991, Wallace moved to Penske Racing to drive the Miller Genuine Draft car. In 1993, he won 10 of 30 races, but lost the title to Dale Earnhardt. Wallace had 55 career wins and 349 top-10 finishes.

    Wallace was one of the best short track racers in the history of NASCAR. He had some really rough accidents and was a very tough racer especially against Earnhardt.

    He retired from NASCAR as a driver, though he owns Rusty Wallace Racing which fields NASCAR Nationwide cars. In 2006, he signed with ESPN as a NASCAR commentator on television.

4. Tony Stewart

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    RICHMOND, VA - APRIL 29:  Tony Stewart, driver of the #14 Mobil 1/Office Depot Chevrolet, stands on pit road during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The Matthew & Daniel Hansen 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April
    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Tony Stewart is a champion in other open-wheel series who ran his first NASCAR race in the 1999 Daytona 500.

    Since that time he has 39 Cup wins and 250 top-10 finishes. Stewart is the only series champion to have won in both the pre-Chase format and the Chase with his first in 2002 and the second in 2005.

    Stewart is an old-school racer, who is a tough competitor regardless of what type car he is driving. He drove the No. 20 Home Depot car for Joe Gibbs Racing from 1999 until 2008.

    He left JGR to become an owner/driver at Stewart-Haas Racing with teammate Ryan Newman. Stewart was hot out of the gate his first year and has made the Chase both seasons.

    Stewart is another driver whose years as a Cup driver may be winding down, and the fire burns for at least one more title, especially under the SHR banner.

    He has made his mark in the history books as a driver, owner and track promoter.

3. Jeff Gordon

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    TALLADEGA, AL - APRIL 15:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 Drive to End Hunger/AARP Chevrolet, stands in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on April 15, 2011 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by
    John Harrelson/Getty Images

    Jeff Gordon began racing quarter-midgets as a little kid. He worked his way up through Sprint cars and moved to the NASCAR Nationwide series.

    In 1992, he ran his first NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was also Richard Petty's last race, and some say they witnessed a symbolic changing of the guards.

    Jeff Gordon won four championships in the top series of NASCAR under the pre-Chase format when the driver with the most points during the season won the title. His titles came 1995, 1997, 1998 andd 2001.

    In 1995, Gordon was the second youngest driver to win a championship at the age of 24.

    Many expected the driver of the No. 24 for Hendrick Motorsports to match the record of seven-time champions Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

    Even Gordon probably harbored hopes he could achieve their status. He had won his first three titles with Ray Evernham as his crew chief.  

    In 2000, he was rebuilding the team with a new crew chief, Robbie Loomis. In 2001, he went on to win his fourth title.

    In 2004, Gordon scored the most points in the season but fell victim to the Chase. His teammate Jimmie Johnson finished one place ahead of him, second in points, and Kurt Busch won the title.

    During the 2005 season, Loomis assumed other duties at HMS and Steve Letarte became Gordon's new crew chief.

    Gordon struggled through winless streaks during the past few years but still has an impressive record of 83 Cup wins and 381 top-10 finishes.

    Now once again, Gordon is adjusting to his new crew chief, Alan Gustafson. He appears to be meshing with his new team and wants a fifth NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship before Johnson is able to attain another one.

2. Jimmie Johnson

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    FORT WORTH, TX - APRIL 07:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 7, 2011 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Pho
    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson has accomplished something no other driver in NASCAR history has been able to do with his five consecutive Sprint Cup Championships beginning in 2006.

    The driver of the Lowe's No. 48 Chevy came from a background in motorcycles, off-road racing and some time in ASA before he ran his first full season in NASCAR at Hendrick Motorsports during 2002.

    Johnson is one of those total package drivers that has the good looks, is well-spoken, appeals to sponsors and has a ton of talent behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car. In addition, he has a beautiful wife and is a proud father.

    Johnson has 54 career wins and 209 top-10 finishes in NASCAR's top series. Currently, he ranks second in the point standings and has every intention of going for a sixth title.

    This Hendrick driver is considered more of a mental driver, who works hard with his crew chief, Chad Knaus, to gain every advantage and use strategy to gain wins.

    He is intense about racing and making sure his body is in the best possible shape. Some equate him to a machine, so far as the way he goes about preparation for a race and his ability to head to the front when he has too.

    There will be those who believe Johnson is the greatest driver in NASCAR. Perhaps as history plays out and Johnson is retired from his driving duties, history will indeed show him to be the best in the sport.

1. Dale Earnhardt

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    LAS VEGAS - MARCH 5:  A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the 400 on March 5, 2000 at the Las Vegas Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt dropped out of high school to follow in his father's footsteps as a race car driver. He ran late models at short tracks around his North Carolina home.

    Earnhardt ran his first NASCAR Cup race in 1975 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the No. 8 Dodge Charger owned by Ed Negre. He finished 22nd, one place ahead of a driver named Richard Childress.

    The driver who became known as the "Intimidator" joined Rod Osterlund Racing and secured his first NASCAR Winston Cup (Sprint Cup) championship in 1980.

    In 1981, Earnhardt went to Richard Childress Racing for a year then went to drive for Bud Moore. The famous union of Richard Childress and Earnhardt became permanent in 1984.

    It was at RCR behind the wheel of the famous No. 3 that Earnhardt secured six more NASCAR Cup titles in 1986, 1987,1990, 1991, 1993 and 1994. He became tied with Richard Petty as a seven-time champion.

    Earnhardt was an old-school, hard-charging driver who made unbelievable moves on the track to gain advantage. Many of them were not popular with other drivers.

    The man who came into NASCAR as a wild thing with long hair, a mustache, sunglasses and swagger was not the most popular driver in the early days.

    It wasn't long before his fan base grew, and he became perhaps the most beloved driver in the history of NASCAR. He was inducted into the first class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.

    He was a physical driver who some have said could see the air when he was in a race car. Like many other legends, he drove during a time when cars were not as high tech as the ones we see today.

    Earnhardt's statistics show 76 Cup wins and 428 top-10 finishes.

    His death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 forever changed the sport. It is still recovering and may never be like it was when we had the "Intimidator."


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