The Greatest Dynasties of NASCAR
I love dynasties. They have such great power in story telling. As a child I would always run to the sports books in the South Charleston Public Library. They had a collection of team histories set at a youth reading level. Each of the four major American sports was well represented. That was the only time in my life that I considered myself a hockey fan. Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain”, Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine,” and the perfect ’72 Dolphins captured my young attention.
Above all, I loved the drama of the San Francisco 49ers of the ‘80s. That team still reads like a movie script. The 1978 49ers finished 2-14. They had the worst offense in the league. The following offseason, they hired Bill Walsh, the old guru, as head coach and drafted Notre Dame QB Joe Montana in the third round. In 1981 they won their first Super Bowl, inspired by the “The Catch”of the game prior, but a great story doesn’t end just because the hero wins his first battle. In 1984, Montana stared down Dan Marino, the best pure-passer of the ‘80s, for his second title. San Francisco rebuilt on the fly, our hero found his legendary sidekick in Jerry Rice, and rose from certain defeat with a come-behind victory over Cincinnati for a third title. In the last act, the team transcended the football paradigm and put together one of the most flawless seasons in NFL history for that fourth title. Our hero ascends into the clouds.
Why can’t that same story arc work for NASCAR? Auto racing has the most clearly defined and identifiable hero. In team sports a great player’s accomplishments blur into the successes and failures of a multitude of teammates. We find the NASCAR hero behind the wheel every Sunday. However, that clear visibility weighs down our story. The historical record shows a driver in his early years, toiling in obscurity. The reader doesn’t care what happened to the hero before he left for his life of adventure. Drivers also have a knack for hanging on long after their best years have ended. We see former champions running laps from the back of the pack and we forget their former glory.
Drivers, like teams, have their forgettable moments. With teams, we focus on their glory years and declare that a “dynasty.” Why can’t we do that for drivers? I want to focus only on the prime years, that unique run that makes a driver special and unforgettable. More than anything, we remember dynasties for championships, longevity, and the way they overcame insurmountable obstacles. The formula I created does just that. Others can argue over the greatest driver of all time; I seek the greatest NASCAR dynasty of all-time.
If you must know the secret ingredients read on. Otherwise, skip the next two paragraphs and start the list. I won’t take offense. For a driver to have a prime, he must maintain at least three consecutive Top Five finishes in the season-ending point standings. With one notable exception, every prime must also contain at least one championship. From that base of three years, a prime can be extended indefinitely as a long as a driver continues to finish in the Top Five of the season point standings. A prime may continue even after a driver fails to finish in the top five as long as the driver resumes a streak of two consecutive Top Five seasons following a one season break or three consecutive Top Five seasons following a two season break. I hold the final judgement on all such continuations.
Once I determined the primes for all drivers who achieved dynasty status, I calculated their dynasty ranking. They get points for every dynasty driver in their prime in the same year as one of their prime seasons and double points in their championship seasons. Take Rusty Wallace for example. He had the shortest possible dynasty run from 1987 to 1989 and he won the 1989 championship. He received 5 points for 1987 because Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, and himself were all at the top of their racing careers. In 1988, Waltrip fell from the Top Five and ended his prime, so Wallace only receives 4 points. In 1989, only Wallace, Earnhardt, and Mark Martin raced at a prime level. However, Wallace gets double for winning the championship for 6 points. When you add every year of Wallace’s dynasty, he receives a total score of 15 points.
With apologies to Rex White, David Pearson, Rusty Wallace, Ned Jarrett, and Herb Thomas, here are the Top Fifteen dynasties in NASCAR history.
15. Jimmie Johnson – 23 points
Prime: 2002-Present Champion: 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010
What!? He won five straight championships! How is he only the fifteenth greatest dynasty?
Before you break the pitchforks out of storage and gather the mob, allow me to make two points.
Bad news first: Johnson dominated the weakest stretch of competition in NASCAR history. He did not win his first championship until Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart fell off from their stratospheric heights. Not a single one of Johnson’s five championships featured a significant opponent. Perhaps multi-car teams, greater overall talent, and car balance have leveled the field for everyone else, but it has prevented Johnson from finding that great rival that would truly elevate his story.
Furthermore, Johnson has really benefitted from the chase format. He had a lower average finish than the second or third place driver in every one of his championship seasons. Most significantly, he typically placed three full spots behind second-place Jeff Gordon in 2007 and almost four spots behind third-place Kevin Harvick in 2010.
That said, Johnson, unlike the fourteen drivers ahead of him, could still improve his position. At age 37, the Lowes Chevrolet driver potentially has three or four good years left in his prime. He could crack the top ten on longevity alone. We also haven’t seen the last of Johnson’s competition. Drivers like Carl Edwards and reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski may have already begun great runs of their own; we just don’t have a full understanding of their careers yet. With a championship or two at Joe Gibbs Racing, Matt Kenseth could validate a prime that stretches back to 2006. While Johnson doesn’t have as strong a case for greatness at this moment, I also can’t write him off.
14. Dale Jarrett – 25 Points
Prime: 1996-2001 Champion: 1999
As the son of Ned Jarrett, a racer dynasty in his own right, NASCAR ran through Dale Jarrett’s blood. However, those good genetics didn’t produce a fast start in the sport. Jarrett languished in his early thirties, a time when most drivers hit their prime. From age 30 to 33, Jarrett finished in the mid-twenties in the point standings every year while driving for underfunded and inexperienced race teams.
Jarrett finally took off after joining Robert Yates Racing for the 1995 season. He hit his prime the following year. At 39-years-old, Jarrett started his golden age later than any other driver in dynasty history by a full four years. He won the championship in 1999 at 42. Only the all-time greats remained so competitive at such an advanced NASCAR age. Dale Jarrett: the ageless champion.
13. Buck Baker – 26 Points
Prime: 1953-1960 Champion: 1956, 1957
Buck Baker emerged as one of the first great champions of NASCAR. He became the first driver to ever win consecutive championships, capturing twenty-four checkered flags over a two-year period. He enclosed his two championship seasons with second-place finishes in 1955 and 1958.
Baker also stood out as NASCAR’s first “Intimidator.” Driver’s new that if they rubbed the volatile Baker on the track, he would confront them in the pits with his strong fists.
12. Tony Stewart – 27 Points
Prime: 1999-2005 Champion: 2002, 2005, 2011
I have supported Tony Stewart for a long time. I love his insatiable desire to win and his snarky attitude towards reporters and competitors. He has never played the public relation game of some of NASCAR’s more polished celebrities. He just wants to race.
And win. Going toe-to-toe with Jeff Gordon, Stewart won two championships for Joe Gibbs Racing in his prime. Not content to stop there, Stewart started his own race team and captured his third championship in 2011. In doing so, he ended Jimmie Johnson’s consecutive championships streak, he became the first owner/driver to capture a title in nearly two decades, and he also became one of only two drivers to capture a twilight championship after their prime ended.
11. Bill Elliott – 28 Points
Prime: 1983-1988 Champion: 1988
“Awesome Bill” Elliott reigns as the fastest driver in NASCAR history. He set track records of over 210 mph while qualifying at Daytona and Talladega in his prime. The 212.809 mark at Talladega stands as the fastest Cup speed ever.
With such speed and youth, Elliott dominated the circuit in the mid-‘80s and instantly obtained the admiration of the fans. He won the fan voting for NASCAR’s most popular driver sixteen times, including a stretch from 1984-1988.
10. Mark Martin – 31 Points
Prime: 1989-1999 Champion:
Mark Martin made this list without winning a championship, the only dynastic driver to ever accomplish that ignominious feat. For many, this remains the unavoidable blight on an otherwise pristine career. Martin often came so close. He finished second five different times (1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2009). He came the closest in 1990 when he lost the championship to Dale Earnhardt by a scant 26 points. Early that season, NASCAR penalized Martin 46 points after his winning car at Richmond failed post-race inspection due to an illegal carburetor. Without that penalty, Martin wins his first championship.
Earnhardt stoned Martin again in 1994, though by a much larger margin of victory. Honestly, Martin could very well sit higher on this list if he hadn’t had the misfortune of emerging in a NASCAR dominated by Dale Earnhardt, arguably the greatest stock car racer of all-time. Martin didn’t fair any better when Earnhardt lost a step though. He always had the bad luck of timing his best runs during the best years of someone else on this list: Jeff Gordon in ’98, Stewart in ’02, Johnson in ’09. Martin never got a turn.
Then again, Mark Martin made this list without ever winning a championship. This shows a remarkable amount of consistency, excellence spread out over eleven great years. Only the top three drivers on this list had longer primes. Martin never finished outside of the top six during that run. He added four more top four finishes after his prime ended. Mark Martin did not win a NASCAR championship, but we will always remember him as a champion.
9. Lee Petty – 31 Points
Prime: 1949-1959 Champion: 1954, 1958, 1959
Some might only know him as the father of “The King,” but Lee Petty exuded royalty in his own right. Petty became NASCAR’s first great champion, the greatest driver of his generation. He became the first driver to win three championships. Petty showcased the endurance to finish in the top five in eleven straight seasons. At that time, many great careers didn’t even last that long.
As good as those statistics sound, I cannot truly rate Petty’s greatness. NASCAR did not run its first race until 1949. By then Petty had already turned 35-years-old. Like Curly Lambeau’s Packers, Petty’s best years must remain shrouded in history.
8. Terry Labonte – 39 Points
Prime: 1981-1988 Champion: 1984, 1996
When Labonte entered his prime at the fresh, young age of 24, he became the youngest driver in NASCAR dynasty history to do so, a record that only one driver has eclipsed in the thirty years since. He excelled in one of of the most competitive eras in NASCAR history. On average, he faced three other dynasty drivers every season. He went toe to toe with Earnhardt and Waltrip. One could easily expect a long and productive prime from such a young driver. However, Labonte struggled in his mid-thirties with a series of car model and team changes.
Labonte would strike gold one last time at the twilight age of 39. Finally, in a stable ride with Hendrick Motorsports, Labonte won the 1996 championship a full eight years after his last Top 5 finish in the point standings. Only three dynasty drivers have won a championship outside of their prime and no driver has ever had such a wide gap between championships in their prime. I wonder what Labonte could have accomplished in a more stable situation throughout his thirties.
7. Benny Parsons – 43 Points
Prime: 1972-1980 Champion: 1973
Benny Parsons displayed unparalleled consistency in the most competitive era of NASCAR history. He finished in the Top 5 of the final point standings every year from 1972 to 1980 while facing an average of 3.4 other dynasty drivers every year. This level of competition ties him for second all-time. He won the 1973 championship while only winning one race that year. However, he finished in the Top 10 in 21 of his 28 races. Parsons placed in the Top 3 four straight years at Daytona (1975-1978) and won the 1975 running.
All of this came from a driver who ended up on the track by sheer coincidence. Parsons worked at a gas station in Detroit when a couple of customers stopped by towing a stock car. They invited Parsons to that night’s race. When the driver didn’t show, Parsons got behind the wheel of a race car for the first time and never looked back.
6. Jeff Gordon – 46 Points
Prime: 1995-2004 Champion: 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001
A driver should not have this much success at such a young age. Jeff Gordon burst into his prime at the tender age of 23, besting Labonte’s record by a year. Not content to just place in the Top 5, Gordon also won his first championship that year at an age when most of his peers would find happiness to just have a regular ride at the top level. Gordon drew immediate comparisons to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, widely regarded as the sport’s two greatest drivers, and he fought to the last race with the latter to catch that first title. Gordon won two more championships in the next three years and captured his fourth the year he turned 30. For comparison, Petty didn’t capture his fourth championship until he turned 35 and Earnhardt didn’t win his fourth title until the advanced age of 39.
Gordon seemed particularly god-like in 1998. That year he decimated the competition as he scored an average finish of 5.7. No driver has had a more consistently excellent season since Cale Yarborough in 1977. Gordon took the checkered flag thirteen times that year during one of the greatest individual seasons in NASCAR history. Mark Martin finished second that year, 364 points behind Gordon. Martin’s 8.6 average finish bested the champion in two of the three previous seasons.
Just when Gordon seemed poised to make a run at Earnhardt and Petty’s championship record, his prime ended at the relatively young age of 32. Gordon’s off-track life likely effected his performance. In 2003, Gordon suffered a messy, public divorce. In 2004, a plane carrying family and employees of Hendrick Motorsports, the only team Gordon has ever worked for, crashed with no survivors. That same year, Gordon began dating his second wife. The more recent Tiger Woods saga shows just how much relationship turmoil can break the focus of a champion as he enters the second half of his career.
On the track, the Chase for the Cup has not helped Gordon. He would have won a fifth title in 2004 and sixth title in 2007 under the old points system. That late title would not extend Gordon’s prime, but it would make him the third driver on this list with a twilight title and would advance him past driver #5 on this list…
5. Cale Yarborough – 50 Points
Prime: 1973-1980 Champion: 1976, 1977, 1978
Cale Yarborough drove full time in NASCAR for only eight years. He excelled in every single one. During those eight years, he won three championships… in a row, the first to ever do that. He placed second three more times. The only season he placed outside the Top 5, he missed three races and still finished ninth. His average finish of 4.5 in 1977 remains the record of NASCAR’s modern era and bests all but one season in the pre-modern era. His average finish of 6.0 the following season is the fourth best of the modern era.
Yarborough’s impressive stats alone get him on this list, but he accomplished these amazing feats during the most competitive era in NASCAR history. Yarborough had to face an average of 3.5 all-time great drivers every single raceday. Benny Parsons, Richard Petty, and Bobby Allison gave Yarborough hell from start to finish and Darrell Waltrip emerged during the second half of Cale’s prime. For those scoring at home, all four of those drivers make the Top 7 of this list.
Yarborough also helped popularize NASCAR nationally. During the first televised Daytona 500 in 1979, Donnie Allison and Yarborough spun out while racing for victory on the final lap. After the race, Yarborough fought with Donnie and his brother Bobby on the backstretch. The exciting finish and ensuing fireworks spurred the massive growth of the sport in the 1980s and ’90s.
4. Darrell Waltrip – 59 Points
Prime: 1977-1987 Champion: 1981, 1982, 1985
Darrell Waltrip had already established his prime when he began driving Cale Yarborough’s old ride for owner Junior Johnson in 1981. Two years prior Waltrip had finished second to Richard Petty in the final standings by a scant eleven points while driving for DiGard Racing. However, with Johnson’s championship caliber equipment, Waltrip emerged as NASCAR’s best driver in the 1980s, winning three championships in six years with the team.
Waltrip bridged the gap between NASCAR’s golden age in the ’70s and the emergence of a number of fast young guns in the mid- to late-80s. He initially drew the ire of fans by having the gall to challenge greats like Petty, Allison, and Yarborough, but became something of a fan favorite as he persisted in the face of the new generation of Earnhardt, Labonte, and Elliott. Many fans outright love Waltrip now as the happy-go-lucky color commentator for FOX broadcasts.
Facing such an incredible lineup of drivers, Waltrip naturally ranks with Yarborough and Parsons for the toughest competition. He faced an average of 3.4 other dynasty drivers every time he drove onto the track during his prime.
3. Dale Earnhardt – 59 Points
Prime: 1986-1997 Champ: ’80, ’86, ’87, ’90, ’91, ’93, ‘94
Dale Earnhardt brought me into NASCAR. In elementary school, my best friend and his family loved the man right down to buying a red Chevy Lumina of their own. Knowing nothing of the sport, I followed their passion and soon admired Earnhardt’s cool and skill for myself. Fans and competitors alike called Earnhardt the “Intimidator.” You do not earn a nickname like that without displaying a certain level of dominance and a willingness to bump, rub, and push the boundaries of both your race car and your fellow competition.
For many, this list ranks Earnhardt far too low. Only Earnhardt and Petty have captured seven championships, two more than modern great Jimmy Johnson and as many as any other two greats combined. The two hold a monopoly on the discussion of NASCAR’s all-time greatest drivers.
However, this ranking strives to approach NASCAR’s greatest dynasties objectively. In a fair race, Earnhardt could beat anyone, but his career likely left a little on the table. He got a relatively late start, not beginning his prime until he turned 35. Earnhardt showed flashes of brilliance, winning his first championship in 1980 at the age of 29. Despite the title, he did not find a stable team situation until he joined Richard Childress Racing in 1984. With RCR, he finished fourth that year, backslid to seventh in 1985, and then began a string of nine top-three finishes in the next decade, including six more championships. Had Earnhardt began his career with RCR, he might have set a championship mark that no driver could ever equal.
Like Johnson, Earnhardt also suffered from a lack of competition during the height of his championship prowess. When Earnhardt captured his last four titles in a span of five years during the early nineties, only Mark Martin offered a significant challenge. Earnhardt had reached his mid-40s by the time Jeff Gordon and the new crop of greats came out to play in the late-’90s.
2. Bobby Allison – 61 Points
Prime: 1970-1983 Champion: 1983
Longevity. It defines Bobby Allison. Only Richard Petty had a prime lasting longer than Bobby Allison’s 14 years. Only Earnhardt and the Pettys remained as competitive into their mid-40s. He won his only NASCAR championship at the age of 45, the oldest driver to ever accomplish that feat. Allison’s momentum seemed to defy the laws of nature. For most, the dream of a NASCAR Cup title would have long passed, but Allison kept steadily moving towards his goal, age be damned.
Allison’s prime may lack the consistency of some of the others on this list, but he raced during NASCAR’s golden age, bumping fenders with the greats every week. For over a decade he ran laps with an average of three greats every week. You cannot fault him for the occasional off year. When he finally captured that elusive championship, he did so with Elliott, Labonte, Richard Petty, and Waltrip all at their best.
The best indicator of Allison’s greatness: he finished second in the final point standings five times, a feat only equaled by Mark Martin and only excelled by our #1 driver…
1. Richard Petty – 73 Points
Prime: 1962-1973 Champ: ’64, ’67, ’71, ’72, ’74, ’75, ‘79
“The King” tops this list by any statistical measurement. He set the mark for most Cup championships, dominating both before and after NASCAR’s move into the modern era. He also holds the record for most second place finishes in the point standings with six.
Petty did it all during a 22-year prime that lasted eight years longer than the next closest driver. At 25-years-old he started his prime at an earlier year than any of his contemporaries, a feat since surpassed by only two other drivers on this list. At 46, he established the record for the oldest driver still in his prime.
Petty maintained his excellence during the entirety of NASCAR’s golden age from 1973 to 1983, always facing the toughest competition. He won his final championship against dynasties from Waltrip, Yarborough, Parsons, and Allison, one of the five toughest seasons in NASCAR history.
His average finish of 4.2 and 4.7 in 1971 and 1972 represent the greatest average and the fourth greatest average of all-time.
Long live “The King.”