In this second part of a three-part series focusing on NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers, I focus on racers who haven’t hoisted the Bill France Trophy but are as important of being recognized in the sport. Please check out the previous column where I highlight the 12 new NASCAR Cup Series champions after 1998.
Beyond Winning the Bill France Trophy
Now that we’ve highlighted the first 12 of 25 drivers, here are seven guys that were no-brainers despite having zero Cup titles in their arsenal.
These racers stood out without having to debate their careers because of what they’ve accomplished elsewhere or even those that were proven Cup winners, accomplished far more than most can claim.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Ambassador. Transcending. Passionate. – Those three words best describe Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
No driver has showcased these traits like Dale Jr., and as I’ve grown older, the more I began to appreciate his legacy.
People will look back and say that he’s overrated because he never won a championship nor came close to his father’s success. I see it very differently because Dale Jr. honed his legacy the way he can. The 2001 season was the genesis of what became his popularity because he wasn’t like his father.
Dale Jr. brought swagger to the sport that made him transcend pop culture when the sport peaked. But everyone knows that story.
As he grew older, Dale Jr. became a better racer as shown in the early 2010s. Had it not been for his series of concussions, he might’ve brought Rick Hendrick and crew chief Steve Letarte a championship before his departure for TV, and still been racing to this day.
People can harp his career in the 2000s all they want, but in the 2010s, Dale Jr. showed that he can deliver amazing runs. His wins in the 2014 Daytona 500 and fall Martinsville race always stand out as peak performances. It was evident that his priorities became clearer and proved many doubters wrong in that period.
It’s hard to finish in the top five of points and he did it four times. He won in the Cup Series 26 times. Dale Jr. is a definite top-three superspeedway racer – you could never count him out at those venues.
When it’s all set and done, his greatest legacy is the impact he continues to provide in the sport – but he was still a great driver.
The one man who was close to winning all three national touring titles is often overlooked in terms of his legacy. Greg Biffle was a racer that succeeded on the NASCAR ladder well.
A racer’s quest to Cup varies as some skip a division or flop before establishing themselves as a proven competitor. Biffle wasn’t one of those guys, and while he came up short of winning the 2005 Cup title, he’s a rare case of drivers that properly climbed the ladder and succeeded.
Once Biffle conquered the Truck Series, he moved up to the Busch Series, and after spending a couple of years honing his craft, he moved up to Cup. It took a while for Biffle to shine, but when he did, he stood out. The pairing of him and crew chief Doug Richert gelled in their early years.
While 19 Cup wins aren’t necessarily something to write home about when comparing other proven winners, Biffle deserves his due.
In the end, Biffle racked up 56 national touring wins and titles in Trucks (2000) and Busch (2002). Certainly, he fared much better than other guys can claim, and when people look back, he’s one man that proved himself well.
Ron Hornaday, Jr.
If you want a prime example of a NASCAR driver that shouldn’t be defined for what he didn’t fulfill in the Cup Series – Ron Hornaday Jr. is that guy.
The Craftsman Truck Series became a series folks shouldn’t ignore throughout the 1990s. As much as Jeff Gordon gets credit for putting the West Coast on the map, Hornaday deserves as much credit.
Kevin Harvick took off in large part of being close with Hornaday when he was trying to make it in NASCAR. Hornaday brought a flash that resembled Dale Earnhardt, and it led to him becoming one of the sport’s best racers of his time.
While he didn’t succeed in Cup, he did find victory lane in the Busch Series. Hornaday racked up four wins before going back to the Truck Series, where his legacy was further realized. He won titles in 2007 and 2009 for Harvick’s race team, and when it was all set and done, Hornaday won 51 times, which ranks second all-time.
Hornaday established the sport in the 90s. When he went back, he established the sport as a place where careers were reborn and young guys can learn, something that the series sorely needs right now. A racer that can keep young guns in check is a necessity.
More than anything, that’ll be Hornaday’s greatest legacy. The sport needs such guys right now.
Like Hornaday, Jack Sprague was the cornerstone of making the Craftsman Truck Series must-see TV. At one point, Sprague led the series in championships and race wins, and while both have been eclipsed by Hornaday and Kyle Busch respectively, his run can’t be ignored.
In the first seven seasons of the series, Sprague finished no worse than fifth in points (1995 and 2000). The rest of the time, he was either winning the championship or finishing second. Massive consistency was crucial to Sprague’s success which led to 23 of his 28 wins.
Even when he came back full-time in 2004, he ended up in the top 10 in points all the way through 2008. That’s one thing he does have over Hornaday, who failed to finish in the top 10 the final three seasons of his career.
Quite frankly, Sprague is very underrated by today’s standards and often overlooked as other racers pop up a lot more. Sprague belongs in the Mount Rushmore of the Truck Series.
Two Whelen Modified Tour drivers made my list, and when I had to ponder who, I looked no further than Mike Stefanik.
The seven-time champion is revered in NASCAR that at times gets overshadowed for his infamous post-race interview at Daytona in 2013. You know, the one where he was “freaking pissed” as Steve Park garnered all the glory.
He’s more than just that guy – he’s a legend that got it done in a stacked tour. The titles speak for themselves, but he was no slouch in full-body stock cars as well. He won two Busch North (now ARCA East) titles, which puts his NASCAR title count to nine. Only Richie Evans, who made the 50 Greatest Drivers list, can make the claim of being a nine-time NASCAR touring champion.
In 2021, Stefanik was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, solidifying his legendary status in the sport.
Arguably the greatest racer without a Cup Series title is Denny Hamlin. Like Mark Martin, Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner, Hamlin has been a force to be reckoned with in the sport.
The moment he became the permanent driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing machine in late 2005, Hamlin made the most of his opportunity. He scored a pole in Phoenix that punched his ticket into the Budweiser Shootout (now Busch Light Clash) the following year.
Lo an behold, Hamlin won that race to kickstart one of the strongest rookie campaigns in history. He was even in the mix for a championship before eventually losing to Jimmie Johnson.
From that point forward, Hamlin has been a consistent winner, including three Daytona 500 victories. Overshadowed by the horrific crash involving Ryan Newman, Hamlin’s 2020 Daytona triumph set some milestones. He became the first driver since Sterling Marlin (1994-95) to win back-to-back 500s and the sixth driver to win the race at least three times.
It’s unfortunate that Hamlin’s title shortcomings have become a punch line because when it’s all set and done, Hamlin will go down in history as one of the sport’s best drivers of the past 25 years. The accolades back up his case, which includes eight top-five points finishes and three Southern 500 wins.
Although some recognize the name because of him winning an SRX race at Stafford in 2021, Doug Coby is elite in the Whelen Modified Tour. Among active drivers, Coby has the most WMT titles with six, which he won in a span of eight seasons (2012-19, including four in a row from 2014-17).
He’s one example where he hasn’t had a true shot to showcase his worth in the top three divisions, Coby has honed his craft in the Modified Tour. I had a tough time deciding between him and Justin Bonsignore, who has one more win than Coby with 32, as to who stood out more in the division.
In the end, Coby’s run in the 2010s will be looked back on a lot more and it’s why I ultimately decided to pick him over Bonsignore.
This concludes the second part of my NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers list. Stay tuned for the final part of the series where I highlight the final six drivers whose impact in the sport will spark a debate due to some reservations I had.