The 2023 NASCAR Cup Series will be the sport’s 75th anniversary with the Busch Light Clash in Los Angeles kicking things off on February 5.
One thing I immediately thought of upon finding out that NASCAR will celebrate its diamond year was who’ll be added to NASCAR’s Greatest Drivers list.
Now you may ask, what list is that?
Back in 1998, NASCAR announced its 50 Greatest Drivers that highlighted the best the sport had ever seen during that period. Here are the ones who were honored as the sport’s elite:
- Bobby Allison
- Davey Allison
- Buck Baker
- Buddy Baker
- Geoff Bodine
- Neil Bonnett
- Red Byron
- Jerry Cook
- Dale Earnhardt
- Ralph Earnhardt
- Bill Elliott
- Richie Evans
- Red Farmer
- Tim Flock
- AJ Foyt
- Harry Gant
- Jeff Gordon
- Ray Hendrick
- Jack Ingram
- Ernie Irvan
- Bobby Isaac
- Dale Jarrett
- Ned Jarrett
- Junior Johnson
- Alan Kulwicki
- Terry Labonte
- Fred Lorenzen
- Tiny Lund
- Mark Martin
- Hershel McGriff
- Cotton Owens
- Marvin Panch
- Benny Parsons
- David Pearson
- Richard Petty
- Lee Petty
- Tim Richmond
- Fireball Roberts
- Ricky Rudd
- Marshall Teague
- Herb Thomas
- Curtis Turner
- Rusty Wallace
- Darrell Waltrip
- Joe Weatherly
- Bob Welborn
- Rex White
- Glen Wood
- Cale Yarborough
- LeeRoy Yarbrough
Both the NFL and NBA would update their greatest players when a special anniversary takes place. I decided to do the same with NASCAR. Instead of dropping drivers from the 1998 list like both leagues have done with their anniversary lists after 1994 (NFL) and 1996 (NBA), I’ve decided to keep all 50 drivers.
Yes, guys like Geoff Bodine, Ernie Irvan and even A.J. Foyt may not belong on many folks’ lists today, but I wanted to solely concentrate on adding 25 drivers. The ones who’ve stood over the past quarter century or those who deserve such honor this time around.
Like the 1998 list, I’ll include drivers who succeeded outside of the Cup Series which added tremendous challenges when deciding who’ll make my cut.
Let’s get this bit out of the way: the new Cup Series champions since 1998 automatically occupy the first 12 spots.
The New Champions After 1998
It’s no brainer that seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson would make everyone’s list of the sport’s 75 elite drivers in history. Five of those seven titles were won consecutively which remains a record that’ll unlikely be replicated.
Like John Cena in the WWE, Johnson was simply unstoppable much to the chagrin of fans for a long period of time. This includes yours truly until 2014. More so when he had crew chief Chad Knaus calling the shots. But the biggest takeaway is that if it wasn’t for Jeff Gordon seeing potential in him, the sport would’ve looked different.
Yes, Johnson’s career didn’t end on a great note with his performance declining after his seventh title in 2016. But it doesn’t erase the fact he’s among the sport’s legends that can breathe the same air as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
When it comes to getting it done everywhere in NASCAR, look no further than Kyle Busch. The polarizing driver currently is currently tied with the most Cup wins among full-time active drivers at 60 and is the record holder of all-time wins in both Xfinity and Trucks. He’s also one of only two active full-time drivers with multiple Cup titles.
Busch is a wheelman that has divided many people. He has a personality – a trait that’s really important for the sport and certainly had people get on their feet and react. You don’t really get that from a lot of drivers these days.
Whenever that time comes, Kevin Harvick’s legacy in NASCAR will be looked back on tremendously, but honestly overlooked over time. “Happy Harvick” is no question a legend in the sport that goes back all the way to 1995 when he made his debut in the Truck Series at Mesa Marin.
Harvick has seen it all in his NASCAR career. More so in 2001, when he went from running a limited schedule in the No. 30 Richard Childress Racing machine to taking over Dale Earnhardt’s car. Rebranded as the No. 29, Harvick wasted no time to make a name for himself by winning at Atlanta in thrilling fashion.
One overlooked impact from Harvick was his dabbling on double duty that year as not only he went on to win rookie of the year in Cup, but he also won the Busch Series title.
From there, Harvick endured the hiccups of being a Cup driver, but once he left RCR to join Stewart-Haas Racing, that’s when his stock rose.
In his first year with SHR in 2014, “The Closer” won the Cup title in the first year of the Playoff format. The wins kept on rolling to become the other full-time active driver with 60 Cup wins. Without a doubt, Harvick is a first-ballot Hall of Famer in the future.
Where can I begin with “Smoke?” He’s a three-time Cup Series champion that won 49 times in Cup.
The moment he qualified on the front row in the 1999 Daytona 500, Stewart made it known that he was going to take over the sport. Prior to 1999, very few Cup rookies were able to achieve such success as Stewart did. Now it’s relatively common to see a rookie every few years set the sport on fire.
From that point forward, Stewart was a fierce competitor, and the accolades show it. Whether it’s the summer stretch such as in 2005, “Smoke” was difficult to conquer.
Furthermore, his clutch postseason run in 2011 was the stuff of legends. Stewart went from saying he didn’t have any business in making the Chase, to racking up five wins so he could beat Carl Edwards via tiebreaker at Homestead.
Let’s not forget that his performance that night is beyond iconic. Overcoming damage repairs to pulling off daring passes have stood the test of time.
Although controversial due to his attitude that fans either loved for his authenticity or loathed because they see it as complaining, “Smoke” is unfiltered. Like his hero AJ Foyt, he told it as is.
If you tell me who, pound-by-pound, makes my top-five greatest drivers over the past 30 years, he still makes my list. This is despite sad circumstances cutting his Cup career short, but at the end of the day, there’s only one “Smoke.”
Arguably one of the most underrated drivers in NASCAR history is Matt Kenseth. As I’ve said, you’re going to appreciate his career when he’s no longer racing.
Well, he ended up racing throughout 2018 and took over for Kyle Larson in 2020, but still – Kenseth is still underrated.
It wouldn’t be until his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing that we saw Kenseth as more than a guy that worked his way to the front when it mattered most. But his tenure at Roush should be acknowledged more because that No. 17 Ford was someone you always had to keep an eye on.
Whether it’s attributed to “The Killer Bees,” flying pitstops or consistency mattering, Kenseth shouldn’t be ignored. Sure, his dry humor isn’t for everyone, but he was a superb racer. That’s just the Wisconsin way, you know. Let the talking take place on the track.
People want to bring up his 2003 title because he only won a single race, but he’s more than just a guy who finessed the system. Apart from 2009 and 2020, Kenseth has made the playoffs every season he’s competed for a championship and finished in the top five of points seven times. That should be admired.
It’s a shame that Kurt Busch’s redemption arc was altered from a season-ending qualifying crash at Pocono because he’s had an extraordinary career.
At one point, folks pondered if his antics would kill his Hall of Fame career, but as we’ve seen over the past decade, he’s had a complete 180. Whether it’s winning a race a season in dramatic fashion or simply being damn good behind the wheel, Kurt has left a mark in the sport. While he’s changed for the absolute better, the fire and passion of winning remained in tact.
Kurt elevates the entire team and we’ve seen that since hitting rock bottom in 2012. That’s one trait not many drivers can legitimately claim. It showcases one amazing attribute that’ll go down in the record books when his time comes to be in the HOF someday.
Martin Truex, Jr.
Prior to “Spingate” in 2013, Martin Truex, Jr.’s career didn’t scream greatest drivers at all, despite winning two Xfinity Series titles.
Once he joined Furniture Row Racing, everything changed. OK, it took some time because 2014 was abysmal, but from 2015-18, MTJ’s career took off.
That run he had in the No. 78 car was legendary and it all goes to the amazing team chemistry they had, which paid off in 2017. But it goes beyond his title campaign. When Truex was out front, especially on intermediates, good luck beating him.
It’s a shame Furniture Row Racing went under after 2018 because they were a force to be reckoned with. Truex is still a guy that can compete for wins and strong results in his current tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing. But looking back, the fact he peaked in that period and the team he was with should be applauded.
Like Truex, Joey Logano took some time to build his stock as one of today’s top-level drivers. When he joined Team Penske in 2013, little did people know that we’d be looking at a two-time Cup champion entering the 75th anniversary of NASCAR.
Logano has made the Championship 4 five times, which is a tie for the most since it was implemented in 2014. He also has a Daytona 500 win and 31 Cup wins to his name — 29 of them coming in the No. 22 Ford.
Looking back, he’s one of very few drivers that began their national touring career as a teenager that succeeded in NASCAR.
“Sliced Bread” is one you don’t want to deal with when you’re in a position to win a race. Go ask Kenseth, Truex and Mark Martin, because they endured such devastating losses to Logano.
At 32 years old, who’s to say how many more accomplishments the senior Ford driver will have for the next number of years in NASCAR.
There was a short period of time when Bobby Labonte was elite behind the wheel. Look at his 1999-2000 Cup campaigns for proof as a guy you’ll expect to bring a car home clean, but wickedly consistent.
Just look at his stats in those two years, especially in 2000, when he won the Winston Cup. There’s a big reason why Dale Earnhardt couldn’t catch the younger Labonte that year. He was so strong that people sleep on him a lot.
With Xfinity titles being looked back as one reason to consider a driver to make the 75 Greatest Drivers list, it does help Labonte’s stock quite a bit.
Speaking of underrated, many people sleep on Chase Elliott’s entire Cup career. He’s finished in the top 10 of points each season since 2016. Yet, people want to say he’s overrated.
Elliott has made the Championship 4 for the last three seasons with the 2020 title being the pinnacle of his young career. One of the best road racers today, Elliott is a guy that can be a threat for the win at any track configuration and his 18 wins show that – all in the past five years.
No question, Elliott is going to continue his impact in the sport and it’s going to be interesting how much he will do so by the time the sport hits the century mark in 2048.
Brad Keselowski’s career arc is one of the last true Cinderella stories in NASCAR. While he’s a family legacy driver, things weren’t handed to him.
At one point, it appeared that Brad wouldn’t make it past back marker purgatory until one Ted Musgrave suspension gave him the shot he needed at Memphis in the Truck Series. Keselowski came close to winning, but that’s when things slowly turned around.
Dale Jr. came calling and gave him a shot to race for JR Motorsports. Life hasn’t been the same for Keselowski since. He racked up wins in Xfinity and even got an upset win in the Cup Series at Talladega for Phoenix Racing – the organization’s only win in its three-decade Cup history.
After the writing on the wall indicated he wouldn’t drive for Hendrick Motorsports, Keselowski joined Team Penske in late 2009. He took that harsh reality personally and went on a tear in both Cup and Xfinity where he captured championships for “The Captain.”
Keselowski is an ambassador of the sport that shouldn’t be frowned upon. Sure, his ideas and takes have split some folks, but his voice is there to be heard. Time will tell how his future will shape up now that he co-owns RFK Racing.
A generational talent, Kyle Larson’s NASCAR career has certainly been shaky. But we’re not going to discuss 2020. Instead, let’s focus on what he’s done before and after joining Hendrick Motorsports.
The first seven seasons were spent at Chip Ganassi Racing where he honestly brought relevance back to organization’s NASCAR program. Larson won races, but what’s often talked about are his daring drives and moments that never led to wins.
Whether it’s the “Slide Job” at Chicagoland, his relentless bid to make the next round of the playoffs at the ROVAL in 2018 or even his enduring quest to Homestead glory, Larson brought a tremendous buzz to the sport.
Larson is one of a kind, and when he got the chance to drive for Rick Hendrick in 2021, the potential people saw in him was finally realized.
For the first time since Jimmie Johnson in 2007, Larson ended the season with 10 wins en route to a Cup title. That’s no easy feat, and while 2022 wasn’t meant to be in terms of fighting for a second Bill France Trophy, Larson is a guy to watch throughout the tour.
This concludes the first part of my NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers list. Stay tuned for the next part of the series where I highlight seven racers who didn’t win a Cup Series title but etched their legacies through titles elsewhere or being a proven race winner.