Like every other sport, NASCAR has seen legends from every generation. Names like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are as synonymous in the world of sports as Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Unlike other sports however, NASCAR has a definitive line that separates these generations by the different car models. For this reason, I wanted to list my opinion of the greatest NASCAR drivers in every generation model by their success on the track.

NASCAR is currently broken up into 6 generations of models, ranging from 1948 to 2018. Although NASCAR has recently announced their plan for a Gen 7 car in 2021, the league is still using the same model they have been since 2013 – the Gen 6. While there have been a number of great drivers that exceeded in a number of generations, this list only includes the 3 best drivers per model and limits each driver to only 1 generation – presumably their best.

nascar-generation-models

Gen 1: 1948-1966

The loosely defined Gen 1 model gave birth to NASCAR. The official policy of this era was a strictly stock frame and body. By teams actually buying showroom cars, this generation pioneered the idea of professional stock car racing. The extreme modifications to these cars however – such as soaking them in acid to make lighter – inevitably led to fairly boring races, with multiple-lap margin victories. Nevertheless, Gen 1 was the creation of NASCAR and rightfully the creation of multiple race legends.

Lee Petty

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  • Championships During Era: 3 (1954, 1958, 1959)
  • Wins During Era: 54

Lee Petty was one of NASCAR’s pioneers as well as one of the sport’s first superstars. At 35-years-old, Lee competed in NASCAR’s inaugural 1949 race at the three-quarter mile dirt track of Charlotte Speedway. In NASCAR’s first season, Lee Petty competed in 6 of the 8 races in his famed Plymouth with a win at Pittsburgh. The Hall of Famer is currently 10th for all-time wins, tied for 3rd in championships and the father of NASCAR’s most winningest driver, Richard Petty.

Herb Thomas

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  • Championships During Era: 2 (1951, 1953)
  • Wins During Era: 48

Herbert Thomas was another one of the original NASCAR drivers. Driving a Hudson Hornet, Herb won 2 championships and 48 wins, making him one of the most successful stock car drivers of the ‘50s and earning his car the nickname, the Fabulous Hudson Hornet. Even after his death in 2000, Herb’s legacy still remains large as he was the inspiration for the knowledgeable character, Doc Hudson, in the 2006 animated movie, Cars.

Buck Baker

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  • Championships During Era: 2 (1956, 1957)
  • Wins During Era: 46

Elzie Baker raced in the inaugural NASCAR season but didn’t win his first race until 3 years later in 1952 at Columbia. Buck then went on to dominate the first generation of NASCAR with 372 top-10s, 46 wins and 2 championships. As a Hall of Famer, Buck is most famous for being the first NASCAR driver to win two consecutive championships as well as creating the Buck Baker Racing School that graduated legendary drivers such as Bobby Allison, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Gen 2: 1967-1980

By 1967, NASCAR had given up on the idea of stock chassis and allowed for legal modifications to ensure more exciting races. The body of these cars still kept the stock look however that the fans enjoyed. Although it might not have driven the same, race fans were still able to purchase a Dodge Charger that looked identical to Richard Petty’s or a Mercury Cougar like David Pearson drove. In a way, Gen 2 was the last era of NASCAR to rightfully hold the name, stock car racing.

Richard Petty

Richard-Petty

  • Championships During Era: 6 (1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979)
  • Wins During Era: 144

Son of stock car racing pioneer Lee Petty, Richard Petty has been rightfully nicknamed, The King. With an impressive 35 years of racing in NASCAR, Richard Petty remains tied for the most championships with 7 and holds the record for most all-time wins of 200 – 117 more than any active driver. He also still holds the record with 7 wins at the Daytona 500 and most wins in one season with 27. Introduced in the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, The King is statistically the most accomplished driver in the sport’s history and is among the most successful athletes of all time.

David Pearson

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  • Championships During Era: 2 (1968, 1969)
  • Wins During Era: 77

Beginning his NASCAR career in 1960, David Pearson raced for 28 years and remains 2nd for all-time wins with 105, as well as 3 championships. While racing full-time in only three seasons, David Pearson was Richard Petty’s biggest rival for dominance of NASCAR throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. Known for his impressive part-time career in stock car racing, NASCAR described his 1974 season as a sign of his “consistent greatness,” after finishing third in the season points after only competed in 19 of the 30 total races.

Cale Yarborough

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  • Championships During Era: 3 (1976, 1977, 1978)
  • Wins During Era: 68

While competing against two of the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, Cale Yarborough managed to etched his name in NASCAR history during the Gen 2 era of the ‘70s as the first driver to earn three-consecutive championships. The only other driver to since accomplish this feat was Jimmie Johnson – who Cale is currently tied with at 83 career cup wins. Other than his accomplishments on the track, Cale is famous for his fight during a race between brothers Bobby and Donnie Allison at the 1979 Daytona 500.

Gen 3: 1981-1991

This generation of NASCAR still resembled a stock car for the most part yet had all the modifications of a true race car. In the Gen 3 model, Dale Earnhardt earned his nickname, The Intimidator, by beating down his competition without suffering much damage to his Chevy while Bill Elliott set the NASCAR qualifying record at Talladega in his Thunderbird. A record that still stands to this day. Unfortunately, the Gen 3 was too powerful for its own good and because of Bobby Allison flying into the Talladega grandstands, eventually led to the use of restrictor plates.

Dale Earnhardt

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  • Championships During Era: 4 (1986, 1987, 1990, 1991)
  • Wins During Era: 46

Whether you refer to him as The Intimidator, The Man in Black, The Count of Monte Carlo or Mr. Restrictor Plate – Dale Earnhardt is one of the most well-known and successful drivers in NASCAR history. Throughout his 27 years in NASCAR, Earnhardt remains tied for the most championships with 7 and 8th in wins with 76. Dale was famous for his passion to win the Daytona 500, which took him 20 races to finally get a win in 1998. Sadly, this was the very race that ended his life in one of the most tragic disasters in NASCAR history during the 2001 Daytona 500. He remains one of the most successful and beloved NASCAR drivers of all-time.

Darrell Waltrip

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  • Championships During Era: 3 (1981, 1982, 1985)
  • Wins During Era: 54

From his 29 years of driving in NASCAR, Darrell Waltrip dominated the mid ‘70s to early ‘90s with 84 wins and 3 championships. Although two-time recipient of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, Darrell was famously nicknamed Jaws by Cale Yarborough for talking so much trash. He was also considered one of Dale Earnhardt’s most intense rivals as the two continuously competed for dominance throughout their successful careers.

Bill Elliott

bill-elliott

  • Championships During Era: 1 (1988)
  • Wins During Era: 34

Native to Dawsonville, Georgia – Bill Elliott was cleverly nicknamed Awesome Bill from Dawsonville and Million Dollar Bill. Throughout his 38 years of NASCAR racing, Bill claimed 44 wins – a majority of which in his Gen 3 era Ford. Possibly his most impressive accomplishment however was winning an incredible 16 Most Popular Driver Awards. While still holding the record, Bill’s son Chase Elliott has taken after his father’s footsteps by winning the 2018 NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award.

Gen 4: 1992-2006

The Gen 4 experienced the height of modern NASCAR racing and is thought of by many fans to be the best model ever used. Unfortunately, in 2001 the world of NASCAR suffered its worst tragedy yet with the death of racing legend and fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt. Although many safety measures were implemented on this model for the remainder of its existence, NASCAR eventually felt the car needed to be completely changed. As one of the most memorable eras in NASCAR, fans will forever remember the exciting days of the Gen 4.

Jeff Gordon

jeff-gordon

  • Championships During Era: 4 (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001)
  • Wins During Era: 75

In a list of greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, Jeff Gordon has earned his place among the legends. With his colorful paint schemes, The Rainbow Warrior ranks 4th among NASCAR drivers with 4 championships and 3rd with 93 wins – the most in NASCAR’s modern era, post 1972. Gordon also holds the record for winning at least one pole in 23 consecutive seasons. By earning quick success in the cup series, The Kid immediately drew a rivalry with Dale Earnhardt who by that time had earned his spot at the top of the NASCAR thrown against legends.

Tony Stewart

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  • Championships During Era: 2 (2002, 2005)
  • Wins During Era: 29

Prior to Kyle Busch earning the title of most hated NASCAR driver, Tony Stewart amassed an enormous fan base as well as an even larger hate base. Also similar to Kyle Busch’s legacy of success in multiple racing channels, Tony Stewart is the only driver in history to win a championship in both IndyCar and NASCAR. Nicknamed Smoke, Stewart won 3 championships throughout the 2000s and 49 wins in his 18 years of NASCAR Cup Series racing.

Rusty Wallace

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  • Championships During Era: 0
  • Wins During Era: 35

Considered one of racing’s most well-known and charismatic personalities, Rusty Wallace was as successful in building a fan base as he was at winning races. Although his only championship came in 1989, the height of Rusty’s career was actually throughout the mid ‘90s when he won 25 races in only 4 years. Considered among the top 10 most popular NASCAR drivers of all time, Rusty Wallace is still beloved by fans to this day.

Gen 5: 2007-2012

In 2007, NASCAR introduced Gen 5, “the car of tomorrow.” After Dale Earnhardt’s death, safety became the main concern for NASCAR. In an attempt to reduce wind from getting under the car that would send drivers flying through the air, the Gen 5 introduced coil binding. By sealing off the front of the car to remove down force, the importance of the car height was eliminated. This short-lived Gen 5 model was almost exclusively dominated by Jimmie Johnson as he etched his name in the NASCAR history books.

Jimmie Johnson

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  • Championships During Era: 4 (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010)
  • Wins During Era: 37

As the most successful NASCAR driver that is still competing, Jimmie Johnson sits among the sport’s legends. With 83 wins – the most of any current driver – Johnson is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt by earning 7 championships. While defeating Cale Yarborough’s previous record of 3 consecutive championships, Jimmie Johnson earned all of his first 5 championships in a row from 2006 to 2010 – completely dominating the Gen 5. Although 2018 was his first season ever to not win a race since driving full-time in the Cup Series, Johnson has yet to retiring which means he still has the opportunity to set the all-time championship record in NASCAR.

Brad Keselowski

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  • Championships During Era: 1 (2012)
  • Wins During Era: 9

During the Gen 5 era of the NASCAR Cup Series, Brad Keselowski only drove full-time for 3 years. Yet, Keselowski was able to impressively win a championship during that time – ranking among Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt as the only drivers to win a Cup Series championship within their first three full-time seasons. Although his NASCAR racing career is still going strong with 27 wins in 9 years as a full-time driver, Keselowski managed to make a name for himself during an era dominated by Jimmie Johnson.

Denny Hamlin

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  • Championships During Era: 0
  • Wins During Era: 20

As a full-time Cup Series driver since 2006, Denny Hamlin has won 31 races. While 2018 was his first season to not earn a single win since driving full-time, Hamlin saw the height of his career during the Gen 5 era. During this time between 2007-2012, Hamlin earned 20 wins and was ranked in the top 10 final standings for 5 of the 6 total seasons. Ranked 4th for most wins among current drivers, Denny Hamlin appears to still have a long career ahead of him.

Gen 6: 2013-2020

By 2013, NASCAR introduced the Gen 6, stating they would, “put the stock back in stock car racing.” This couldn’t have been further from the truth unfortunately as there have been major issues with NASCAR’s current car model. Although they have since made numerous alterations to the model with the tapered spacer, limiting horsepower and downforce, as well as a new aero and rules package, fans have nevertheless remained displeased. The Gen 6 however has given NASCAR fans a new wave of future hall of famers.

Kyle Busch

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  • Championships During Era: 1 (2015)
  • Wins During Era: 27

Whether you’re one of the arrogant Kyle Busch fans or one of the many who hate him, all NASCAR fans have to acknowledge his ability to win. Kyle Busch ranks 2nd among active drivers with 51 wins – something he has yet to miss out on in every season of his 15 years driving full-time in the Cup Series. While he has been great throughout his entire career, Kyle Busch has separated himself as the driver to beat during the Gen 6 era with 27 wins during the last 6 seasons. NASCAR fans were extremely decisive about his 2015 championship as the controversial driver has been nicknamed Rowdy for his arrogant attitude and hot-headedness. Regardless of the diverse opinions about Kyle Busch, he is arguably the best active driver in NASCAR.

Kevin Harvick

  • Championships During Era: 1 (2014)
  • Wins During Era: 26

A driver that seems to only get better with age, Kevin Harvick set a personal record of 8 wins in one season last year. As the 2001 replacement driver for legendary Dale Earnhardt after his tragic death, Harvick managed to earn 2 wins in his first season. Winning his first championship in 2014, Kevin Harvick has been one of the only drivers to keep up with Kyle Busch in terms of statistical success during the Gen 6 era. While not afraid of a controversy, he has amassed a following of haters while also earning a large fan base. Coming off his best season in 18 years of driving, Kevin Harvick appears to be nowhere near slowing down this success.

Joey Logano

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  • Championships During Era: 1 (2018)
  • Wins During Era: 19

Nicknamed Sliced Bread, Joey Logano quickly made a name for himself as the youngest driver ever to win a Nationwide Series (currently Xfinity Series) race at the age of 18. In the very next season of 2009, he then went on to also become the youngest driver ever to win a Cup Series race at 19-years-old. Although arguably the only current driver to be hated as much as Kyle Busch due to his many controversies with other drivers, Logano ranks 6th among active drivers with 21 wins in only 10 years as a full-time driver. As the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Joey Logano has proven to be a NASCAR superstar during the Gen 6 era with much more success in this young driver’s foreseeable future.

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1 Comment

    I understand how difficult this would be, but Davey Allison showed talent regarfingdriving situations, taking care of the car & communicating with hi is team. He lived a very short life, but had many fans. I know almost every driver has fans & talent, but Davey showed much promise in a very short time span. Good luck with your list.

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