Tony Stewart and the Greatest Owner/Drivers in NASCAR History
In an era dominated by multi-car super teams with excess sponsorship money at their disposal, NASCAR purists probably wondered when (or if) the Sprint Cup Series would ever see another owner-driver win a championship. In 2008, the only driver mounting a serious independent charge was Robby Gordon, and his team wasn't even contending for top-10s, never mind race wins or championships.
Then, Tony Stewart accepted an offer to own half of the former Haas CNC Racing, and everything changed.
This year, in its third season of operation under Stewart's watchful eye, Stewart-Haas Racing took its first championship with its namesake at the wheel. Stewart had one of the best Chases in history, scoring five wins in 10 events and edging out Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker for the title. He then became the first owner-driver to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.
That statistic brings up a new question: Who are the best owner-drivers in NASCAR history? That's what we aim to answer today.
This list takes multiple factors into account: Besides race victories and championships, it also considers the competitiveness of the team across all three of NASCAR's national levels, longevity, consistency and the ability to attract major sponsorship.
With that being said, check out these 10 owner-drivers who can make a serious case among the best in NASCAR history and a few great drivers who don't quite make the cut:
Richard Petty/Lee Petty
Any list of top owner-drivers needs to begin with the father-son combination that started the sport's most iconic team. Father Lee Petty took Grand National (now Sprint Cup) championships in 1954, 1958 and 1959, winning all of his 54 career races at the level in his own equipment. He gave up full-time racing after the 1960 season, but the team he had established would carry on for years to come.
Son Richard is the winningest driver in NASCAR history, and the grand majority of those wins (as well as seven championships) were taken in his own equipment. Petty, sponsor STP, brother/engine builder Maurice and crew chief/cousin Dale Inman spent much of the 1960s and 1970s winning races and championships together, including an unprecedented 10-race winning streak and 27 wins in 1967.
The family-first nature of Petty Enterprises established the gold standard for a NASCAR race team and set a model that many teams start with and build upon to this day.
The 1951 and 1953 Grand National (now Sprint Cup) champion, Thomas spent the grand majority of his prime driving his own cars. He took 42 of his 48 career victories in his own vehicles, primarily the No. 92 Fabulous Hudson Hornet, before abandoning ownership briefly in 1956 to drive for Carl Kiekhafer's prominent Mercury Outboards team.
After returning to his own team at the end of the season, Thomas' racing career came to a sudden halt after a serious crash at the end of the 1956 season.
While Thomas isn't well recognized by name, millions actually know his story by heart: Thomas' career was the basis for Doc Hudson's racing career in the movie Cars.
Thomas himself passed away after suffering a heart attack in 2000.
Two-time Grand National (now Sprint Cup) champion Buck Baker spent more than half of his 1957 championship season driving his own No. 87 cars. Switching from Hugh Babb's team midway through the season, he took six of his 10 wins that year driving for himself. All 13 wins that Baker-owned cars took over the years came with the man himself behind the wheel.
Baker would later employ his son, Buddy, and Neil Castles in team cars with less success. He passed away in 2002.
This list would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge one of the top drivers in Busch Series history.
From 1982 to 1986, the first five seasons that NASCAR's top feeder series received national attention, Ingram never finished worse than third in the championship. In fact, he took the 1982 and 1985 titles at age 45 and 48, respectively. Ingram scored 31 victories in the No. 11 Skoal Bandit, a feat that wasn't surpassed until Mark Martin won his 32nd career event in 1997.
The man they call "Smoke" and his own team, Stewart-Haas Racing, managed to dethrone Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports from a five-year run atop the Sprint Cup standings. In three seasons as an owner-driver, Stewart has scored 11 wins; in 13 career seasons in the series, he's taken a total of 44 wins.
Despite the insistence of many that moving to a team that had struggled to stay in the top 35 of owners' points without him, Stewart hasn't slowed down for one minute since leaving Joe Gibbs Racing.
Independent and strong-willed, Kulwicki refused many offers to drive for better-funded and more reputable teams during his career. Rather, the perfectionist with his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering brought in the right people to take his own AK Racing to the top of the circuit.
He won the 1986 Rookie of the Year award in Winston Cup despite only employing two full-time crew members. His team continued to expand, suffering through the growing pains of maintaining its own engine department in 1989 and eventually winning the 1992 championship by a mere 10 points.
Sadly, Kulwicki never had the chance to defend his title after passing away in a plane crash on April 1, 1993.
The majority of Nemechek's body of work has come in the Busch and Nationwide Series, where he's taken 16 of his 20 career NASCAR wins. But what made Nemechek's owner-driver operation so impressive in its prime was its ability to field vehicles in all three of NASCAR's top series—Winston Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truckin the mid-1990s, and Nemechek's ability to challenge for wins in all three.
Although NEMCO Motorsports is a shell of what it once was, assembling piecemeal sponsorship deals and starting and parking in Sprint Cup, this may have been one of the most underrated owner-driver operations of the 1990s.
In 1994, Rudd, a former Hendrick Motorsports driver, took his Tide sponsorship from the famed No. 5 car to form his own team, Rudd Performance Motorsports. Despite taking on the additional responsibility of team ownership, Rudd's yearly winning streak, which had seen him take at least one victory in every season since 1983, didn't suffer. In the first five of his six seasons as an owner, Rudd kept the streak alive, even taking the 1997 Brickyard 400.
Rudd's best championship finish was fifth in 1994. After losing his Tide sponsorship to Cal Wells in 2000, Rudd shut down his team and went to Robert Yates Racing, where he would take three more wins, and Wood Brothers Racing before retiring after the 2007 season.
Waltrip broke into NASCAR in 1972 as an owner-driver, running Mario Andretti's 1967 Daytona 500-winning car in his maiden Winston Cup event. He returned to his owner-driver roots in 1991 after leaving Hendrick Motorsports, taking his familiar No. 17 with him and signing Western Auto to be his sponsor.
In his first two years in his own equipment, Waltrip took the final five of his 84 career victories and consistently scored top-10 finishes.
With the sponsorship well run dry before the 1998 season, Waltrip had to sell his team to Tim Beverley, folding the famous No. 17 into the No. 35 Tabasco car. These days, Waltrip is best known as a NASCAR broadcaster for FOX, while his brother Michael (also pictured) has made his own foray into ownership.
Back before the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Company and his request to go by "Geoffrey," Bodine purchased the assets of Alan Kulwicki's former team in 1993 and began to drive his own cars late that season. From then through 1997, Bodine scored four wins, including three in 1994. But despite race wins and solid sponsorship deals with Exide Batteries and QVC, Bodine never finished higher than 16th in points while driving for his own team.
Before the 1998 season, Bodine sold the team's assets to Jim Mattei while remaining its driver. He was replaced by Michael Waltrip the next season. The team operates to this day through a string of ownership changes, retaining the No. 7 in the hands of Robby Gordon.
There are plenty of very talented owner-drivers who didn't make this list. Here are a few notables, sorted alphabetically:
Kyle Busch's Camping World Trucks team has only lasted two tumultuous seasons. While Busch has taken 14 victories and 27 top-10s in 32 starts, he's playing with somewhat of a stacked deck every time he climbs into the No. 18 Tundra. Unlike the Nationwide Series, there aren't too many Sprint Cup drivers moonlighting in Trucks.
Richard Childress ran full Winston Cup schedules from 1976 to 1980 before vacating his car midway through the 1981 season for Dale Earnhardt. While he consistently placed in the top 10 in races and points, he only scored three top-five finishes and never won a race in his own cars.
Dale Earnhardt only ran a handful of Busch Series races for his own team between 1984 and 1994 before taking Dale Earnhardt Inc. full-time with Jeff Green in 1995. These races were run, for the most part, for fun, and while Earnhardt took 17 wins in his own equipment, it was basically a "checkers or wreckers" operation.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has never won a Nationwide Series race while driving for JR Motorsports. Twenty-one of his 23 series wins were taken behind the wheel of his father's racecars; the remaining two came while driving No. 3 cars for Richard Childress.
Bill Elliott had one of the most identifiable cars in the Winston Cup garage from 1995 to 2000, driving the No. 94 McDonald's Ford. He won no races in his own equipment during that time.
Junior Johnson, winner of 50 Grand National races and undoubtedly one of the top drivers and owners in NASCAR history, only spent the majority of one season behind the wheel of his own car. In 36 races driving his own car in 1965, Johnson won 13 races, but also failed to finish 19 times.
Cale Yarborough won three Winston Cup championships while driving for Junior Johnson from 1976 to 1978, but only drove 26 races in his own equipment while he was running limited schedules at the end of his career. His best finish was a fourth place run at Pocono in 1987.