Part one of the top five is right here.
Here’s a ranking of the top three that I just know everybody reading this will be in full support of, but again, just remember that my word is not law and I’d love to hear arguments against my ranking.
- Dale Earnhardt Sr.
In a unique form of motorsport unlike any other in the world, one that relies on entertainment and storyline week to week above all other factors, no man has ever been more entertaining than Ralph Dale Earnhardt Sr.
In the nearly 15 years since Earnhardt’s death, one idea or narrative that I have never liked being pushed about the man was how he was “universally loved” by the common man. Earnhardt definitely had his fans, but they were outweighed by other driver fan bases that he would condemn by “rattling the cage” of their favorite driver. Popular drivers such as Sterling Marlin, Terry Labonte, and Bill Elliott tangled with Earnhardt on the track, leading to a mix of cheers and boos during introductions on race day. You either loved the guy or you loathed the guy.
Here’s the difference, however, between Earnhardt and… let’s say Darrell Waltrip in the 1980’s; everybody, cheer or jeer, respected the man in black. His word was influential and taken to heart by all. After his passing, that respect is why, to this day, there are plenty of Earnhardt Sr. flags and bumper stickers in the infield every week. It’s one of the reasons why Dale Earnhardt Jr. has such a massive fanbase. And it’s one of the reasons why he got away with everything under the sun. Plenty of historians have noted before that Earnhardt never crossed the line, he just moved it with him.
As far as his on-track performance goes, Earnhardt wasn’t perfect. He was the first true points racer in NASCAR history, putting the championship above everything outside of the Daytona 500. His 76 wins are low for a man with 20 full-time seasons and seven championships, and he definitely had a little bit of luck when it came to his fellow drivers. It would be incredibly tough to say Earnhardt would have been a seven-time champion had Davey Allison, Tim Richmond, and Alan Kulwicki stayed alive. My mother, being a Mark Martin fan to this day, talks about Mark getting screwed by NASCAR in 1990. Ernie Irvan’s wreck at Michigan in 1994 eliminated the last person in Earnhardt’s way of a seventh championship.
None of that can diminish the Intimidator’s accomplishments. He was magic on superspeedways, amazing on short tracks, and did have a road course victory that he was very proud of. One remarkable feat that Earnhardt accomplished was winning championships with Jake Elder/Doug Richert (Elder left in the middle of the season and the then young Richert replaced him), Kirk Shelmerdine, and Andy Petree. Nobody else in history with more than two championships has won titles with three different crew chiefs. Earnhardt also won the Daytona 500 with Larry McReynolds, had a second place finish in points in 2000 with Kevin Hamlin, and in 1982-1983 had three victories under Bud Moore. Nobody in history had as much success with so many different crew chiefs.
Could he have an eighth championship had he survived in 2001? No, but he’d contend for it, and I think he could have held his ground well for a couple of more years against the “young guns” like Tony Stewart or Kurt Busch.
At the end of the day, I know plenty will disagree with him being here instead of first, but it isn’t like he’s 27th or anything like that. Three is a very good number to be, after all.
Southern 500 Preview:
All four Gibbs’ cars have been truly remarkable this summer. The group has six victories in the past nine races and the leader of the pack, Kyle Busch, has had an average finish of seventh in that time period. It’s going to be hard to bet against them unless…
You bet on the two Penske drivers. In those nine races, the only non-Gibbs or Penske win was at Daytona with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and only at Sonoma and Bristol has the other organization not finished second. Only Kevin Harvick has shown he can keep up with these six cars. In 1953 laps in nine races, Gibbs and Penske have combined to lead 1418, or roughly 73 percent of the laps.
The One To Watch
I don’t think Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will do very good this weekend, but his David Pearson tribute is far and away my favorite of the throwback cars. Speaking of Pearson…
- David Pearson
David Pearson was truly an amazing driver underappreciated by most.
The second class Hall of Famer had a remarkable career where he won practically everything there was to win in NASCAR at the time, and he did the majority of it part time.
Pearson only competed full time in three seasons and only missed two races in one (Note: Technically nobody ran full-time seasons in the ’60s because the Daytona Duels counted as a points race. This is why everybody who ran full time didn’t compete in one race, as they couldn’t race in the other Duel). Pearson, in those four seasons, won three championships.
After leaving Holman-Moody in the middle of the 1971 season, Pearson joined the Wood Brothers at the start of the next season. Pearson was done racing full time, and instead became the greatest part-time driver in modern era Cup history.
In 1973, Pearson won 11 races in 18 starts. Let me repeat, 11 wins in 18 starts. Nobody has ever had such a high winning percentage in the modern era, and Pearson would have run away with the championship had he competed full time.
I can say that had Pearson competed full time in 1973, 1974, and 1976, he would have probably won the championship in said years. He also would have been in the hunt in 1972 and 1977.
In 574 starts, Pearson won 105 times and sat on the pole an incredible 113 times, only 10 less than Richard Petty*. That’s pretty impressive considering the King has around double the starts as Pearson. I’ve read that Hall of Famer Cotton Owens, who Pearson won a championship for in 1966, said that Pearson was the greatest of all time. Nicknamed David the Giant Killer early in his career, by the time he had signed with the Wood Brothers in 1971, Pearson’s hair had become prematurely silver in his mid-30’s; thus the nickname the Silver Fox.
Pearson was still the giant killer, though. He was the master of Darlington Speedway, winning 10 races there, a record that will not be touched for at least seven more years. His three Coca-Cola (World) 600 wins are only eclipsed by Jimmie Johnson’s four and Darrell Waltrip’s five, while tied with six other drivers. Although Pearson only won a single Daytona 500, many call it the greatest finish in the history of NASCAR. Pearson’s eight Daytona victories count for third best of all time and is only behind Dale Earnhardt Sr. in average finish among drivers with over 25 starts there.
Pearson’s only real flaw is the era he raced in. With so few competitive cars, it’s hard to compare to today’s Cup field. In 1974, for example, three drivers (Petty, Pearson, and Cale Yarborough) won 90 percent of Cup races, while two other drivers (Bobby Allison and Earl Ross, who is the only Canadian driver to win a Cup race) won the remaining three races. Meanwhile, in this season alone, we have had 11 winners, and I doubt we’ll see guys like Jeff Gordon go winless for much longer.
*= NASCAR credits Petty with between 126 and 127 poles depending on the source, while both Racing Reference and myself count Petty with 123. The three less poles than 126 are due to Daytona Duel races counting as points races in the 1960’s. We do not count any of those pole sitters as pole winners due to the fact that the first row in the Daytona 500 was still set by qualifying for the 500. This means that the front row for the 500 got a free pole officially, which is pretty stupid so that isn’t counted. The 127 number is made by combining all three disputed Duel poles and a 1970 Martinsville pole. In the 1970 race, Petty won the pole but the race was delayed by a month due to rain. Petty got injured at Darlington in the interim and had to skip the race, giving the actual pole to Bobby Issac.
Pearson was amazing, but I had to go with number one. You know who it is, let’s get out with it…
Growing up, I was into superheroes. I’d watch Justice League and The Amazing Spiderman almost nightly at one point. However, one hero from those shows I could never really get into- Superman. From my standpoint, Superman was just too perfect as a hero, too vanilla. He could overpower his way through anything and his origin story just wasn’t as interesting as Batman’s to me.
Jimmie Johnson is NASCAR’s Superman, as dubbed so by Mark Martin when competing with Johnson in his final shot at a championship in 2009.
Nobody has ever had a reign of terror over twelve years and counting quite like The Man of Home Improvement. In the most competitive era NASCAR has ever had, with upwards of 25 cars with equipment capable of winning every Sunday, Johnson has made it look incredibly easy. His closest competition in his career, Tony Stewart, has four less championships, nearly 25 less wins, less top fives and less top 10s in over 80 more starts.
Jimmie does things in race cars most drivers could only dream of. Outside of a sixth in 2011 and an 11th last season, he has never finished outside of the top-five in points, and is the only person who has competed in every Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Like me and Superman, most are not fans of the El Cajon, California native. People try to find things to discredit his accomplishments, namely two arguments. The first being that he has only won championships in the Chase format and has an advantage of racing on his best tracks in it. Well, to say that or to declare Jeff Gordon a seven-time champion based on points without the Chase (Gordon had more points than anyone in 2004, 2007, and 2014) is wrong. To do that is discrediting every single championship won by every single driver before 1975 when the 185 max point system was developed (On a napkin in a Steak ‘N Shake, no less). And I do not want to live in a world where Ned Jarrett and Joe Weatherly might not be champions.
No, every driver who has ever won the championship has done so using the point system in place that season. Had they ran under a different system, they would have changed strategy to account for it. Literally the only questionable system in history was the 1974 system, a confusing mess that could have led to a lot of controversy had Richard Petty not run away with the championship regardless of the system used that year.
The other criticism made by some about Johnson is that almost all of his Cup success has been under one crew chief, Chad Knaus. Nevermind the fact that Johnson has a Daytona 500 victory with Darian Grubb and another win at Las Vegas, but that’s beside the point. Knaus is definitely a major part of Jimmie’s success, no doubt. So was Ray Evernham in the ’90s with Jeff Gordon. So was Greg Zipadelli with Tony Stewart from 1999-2008.
When the race starts, though, Knaus isn’t in the car. Johnson is. The driver has more control over the team’s day than any other factor on the team, which has been the case since the dawn of motorsports. Sure, you definitely need the equipment and chemistry with the crew chief, but once you hit the top level of Cup racing, most everybody is running the same level of equipment year to year.
It was actually pretty tough for me to put Johnson on top, as on the original list I came up with before doing any research past the top of my head, had Pearson ahead of Johnson. However, at the end of the day, comparing the two is comparing a man with one flaw and a bunch of “What Ifs” versus a man with virtually no flaws. Pearson has better stats, but that is because of his one flaw. For me, Superman beats out the Silver Fox only fourteen years into his career, an accomplishment that I doubt will be done anytime soon. And hopefully, whenever Jimmie decides to call it quits, more fans will realize just how good vanilla was after all.
All stats for the Finley Factor are provided by Racing Reference unless otherwise noted.