Yesterday, Jeff Gordon won his fifth Brickyard 400, becoming the first person in NASCAR history to win five races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and tying him with Formula One’s Michael Schumacher as the only other person in any racing discipline to do so. However, the win in Indianapolis was more than just a somewhat arbitrary record. It was also the 90th win of Gordon’s prestigious career, which kind of makes you wonder: could he be the greatest driver in NASCAR history?
Now, I imagine a great many NASCAR fans out there will say, without thinking, absolutely not. And these are people will probably cite names like Earnhardt and Petty. But before we rush to any judgements, lets take a look at the winningest NASCAR drivers of the modern era.
What is the “modern era,” and why are we just looking at that? Well, the modern era of NASCAR started in 1972, when they eliminated short races from the schedule and drastically changed the Cup series. (Since 1972, no one has won more than 13 races in a season. Before 1972, it happened 10 times.) It’s basically like the “Open Era” in tennis, the “Live Ball Era” of baseball, or the “Shot Clock Era” of basketball—a period before which it’s very difficult to make statistical comparisons.
So like I said, take a look at the winningest NASCAR drivers of the modern era. Then start the debate about GOAT, okay?
Tony Stewart has been, without a doubt, one of the best and most likeable drivers of the 21st century—strange relationship with Kevin Harvick's wife notwithstanding. The guy has won the Winston/Nextel/Sprint Cup three times (2002, 2005, 2011), racking up a whopping 296 top 10s and 48 wins. And that's even more impressive when you realized he spent two full years in IndyCar—winning a championship in 1997—before he even joined NASCAR.
9. Tony Stewart – 48 Wins
With a name like Rusty and home town named Arnold (Missouri), you know this guy is good at driving stock cars. Rusty's first win came in 1986 and his last came in 2004. That's longevity. In between he recorded 349 top 10s and 55 wins, though, surprisingly only won one Cup championship. That was in 1989.
8. Rusty Wallace – 55 Wins
Look at that handsome sonofabitch, huh? I want to be like Bobby Allison when I grow up.
Anyway, Allison actually won 84 total races, which would place him in a tie for fourth if we were talking about "most all-time." But we're not talking about most all-time. We're talking about the modern era only. And after 1972, Allison "only" won 55 races.
Regardless of the era, though, there can be no doubt Bobby Allison was one of the greats. He finished with 446 top 10s and one Cup championship (1983), and his last career win, in 1988, was the freakin' Daytona 500.
What a way to go out!
7. Bobby Allison – 55 Wins
I've already said it a couple of times, but now is probably a pretty good time to repeat it again: this is not a list of the best NASCAR drivers of all time. It's a list of the winningest drivers of the modern era. That helps us thinkabout and debate the GOAT, but it's not the same thing.
Case in point: Richard Petty. Frankly, if you don't think he's the greatest driver of all time, you're probably stupid. (Okay, maybe not stupid. But very wrong for sure.) No one dominated their era the way Petty dominated his. The guy won 10 straight races in 1967 and 27 in total that year. He won a record seven Cup championships and a record seven Daytona 500s. And he has almost twice as many total wins (200) as anybody else in the sport.
That's really, really good. However, in the modern era—which didn't start until he was 35—he "only" had 60 wins.
Would Petty have won 200 races in the modern era alone? No. Would be probably still be at the top of this list? Yes. So consider this a big, fat asterisk.
6. Richard Petty – 60 Wins
At #5 we have the Jimmie Johnson. He's pretty good I guess. I mean, he's "only" the Daytona 500 twice. But he has won six Cup championships, including five in a row from 2006-2010, which is something no one in NASCAR history has ever done—including Richard Petty.
Oh, and of those 69 career wins, four of them came in the Brickyard 400. So he's only one more win shy of tying Jeff Gordon in that club.
5. Jimmie Johnson – 69 Wins
Cale Yarborough might be most famous to today's NASCAR fans for the legendary fight he got into with Donnie and Bobby Allison after the 1979 Daytona 500. However, it's probably also worth noting that he won the Cup three times in a row (1976, 1977, and 1978—all in the modern era) and racked up 319 top 10s and 83 total wins...though, ironically, those 83 total wins would place him lower on the all-time list than the modern era list.
4. Cale Yarborough – 69 Wins
I feel like I shouldn't have to put the "Sr." after Dale Earnhardt, but I did just to be perfectly clear.
Dale Sr., as you probably know, is one of the few people who could legitimately challenge Richard Petty for the title of GOAT. He's the only other person besides Petty to win seven Cup championships, and while his measly one Daytona 500 win can't quite compare to Petty's seven, some might argue that Dale was just unlucky that his best days in a race car rarely came at the sport's premier event.
In fact, as I'm sure you know, it just so happens that Dale Sr.'s worst day in a race car came at the Daytona 500 in 2001. That's when he crashed on the last lap, suffered a skull fracture, and died all-too-soon at the age of 48.
3. Dale Earnhardt Sr. – 76 wins
Well now we're just into the who's who of NASCAR drivers, aren't we?
Darrell Waltrip won the Winston Cup in 1979, 1983, and 1986, and while he only won the Daytona 500 once, he won the Coca-Cola 600 (NASCAR's longest and most grueling race) a record five times. So I think that more than makes up for lack of success at Daytona.
Waltrip's 84 wins all came in the modern era, of course. But that would still put him fourth all-time...right behind the next guy on this list.
2. Darrell Waltrip – 84
Yep, the guy who inspired this list is also the guy who take the top spot. What are the chances?
Anyway, Gordon may be a few Cup championships behind Jimmie Johnson (he has four to Johnson's six), but his 90 wins as of yesterday are second to none. He does have more Daytona 500 wins, though—three to two.
Anyway, Gordon has had a bit of a career renaissance this season, spending 13 of the last 14 weeks in first place. And after yesterday's win, he's once again back on top and contending for his fifth Sprint Cup championship.
Could he be the best of all-time?