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The 15 Best NASCAR Drivers Of All Time

NASCAR has an illustrious history that dates back to its first season in 1949, and we’ve seen plenty of candidates for the best driver accolade. With so many remarkable drivers in the sport, you may be wondering who the best NASCAR drivers of all time are. 

The 15 best NASCAR drivers of all time are:

  1. Richard Petty
  2. Dale Earnhardt
  3. Jimmie Johnson
  4. Jeff Gordon
  5. David Pearson
  6. Darrell Waltrip
  7. Cale Yarborough
  8. Lee Petty
  9. Bobby Allison
  10. Ned Jarrett
  11. Alan Kulwicki
  12. Tony Stewart
  13. Matt Kenseth
  14. Bobby Issac
  15. Bill Elliott

Below, we will discuss the best NASCAR drivers of all time, share their most prominent statistics, and reveal why we chose them for this coveted list. We will also discuss the best drivers on the current grid, the drivers with the most wins, and the drivers with the most championships. 

Who Is Considered The Best NASCAR Driver?

Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jimmie Johnson are widely considered the 3 best NASCAR drivers, largely as a result of them each having won a joint-record 7 Cup Series championships. They also have more than 350 Cup Series wins between them, and they were all incredibly talented drivers.

Richard Petty

Richard Petty backers cite his 200 career wins as the reason that he should be considered the greatest of all time. Petty was able to string together 712 top ten finishes in 1,184 career starts, making for a top ten percentage of 60.1%. This was achievable largely because there were more races on the Cup Series schedule than there are now, but he also earned his spot on every starting grid.

His last win came at the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, and he posted pedestrian statistics between 1985 and 1992, finishing in the top ten in points just once during that stretch, in 1987. However, despite the lackluster end to his career, his 200 victories and 7 championships sit him at the top of the pile in many fans’ eyes.

Dale Earnhardt

Dale Earnhardt’s shorter career and his ability to continue to race at a high level until his death in 2001 at age 49 make him a strong contender for the best NASCAR driver ever. Like Petty, Earnhardt also won seven championships, and he won six of them in a nine-season span between 1986 and 1994. He also finished no lower than eighth in the standings between 1993 and 2000.  

It took him five seasons to figure out how to become a successful NASCAR driver, as his 1975-78 seasons were forgettable, and he only managed part-time rides before his rookie season in 1979. Earnhardt’s 76 wins in 676 starts and 11.2% winning percentage also pales to Petty’s 200 wins and 16.9% winning percentage, but it’s still incredibly impressive. 

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson won five straight Cup Series championships, something neither Petty nor Earnhardt accomplished. Johnson won all seven championships during the NASCAR Playoff Era, and while the playoff format changed since it kicked off in 2004 as the Chase for the Cup, many fans wonder if he would have won all of his titles under the old system. Nonetheless, he’s one of the best for sure.

The 15 Best NASCAR Drivers Of All Time

1. Richard Petty

Championships: 7 | Wins: 200 | Poles: 123 | Career: 1958-1992

Known as the King, Richard Petty was the first driver in NASCAR Cup Series history to win seven championships and is the only driver to have won 200 Cup Series races. Longevity defined Petty’s career, as he raced for 35 seasons. His final race of the 1992 season signified a changing of the guard between his generation and the next generation of drivers. 

After retiring from the Cup Series, Petty went on to own a Cup Series team known today as Petty GMS Motorsports. Because of Petty’s dominance during his prime seasons between 1960 and 1984, his #43 car has the most of all numbers in Cup Series history

2. Dale Earnhardt

Championships: 7 | Wins: 76 | Poles: 22 | Career: 1975-2001

Also called the Intimidator and the Man in Black, Dale Earnhardt won seven championships between 1980 and 1994, winning his first championship one season after he won Rookie of the Year. While best known for his black paint scheme, Goodwrench sponsorship, and number 3, Earnhardt drove part-time between 1975 and 1978 in several numbers before landing in the #2 car with Osterland Racing between 1978 and 1981. 

In 1984, he began racing for Richard Childress, and ultimately switched to his familiar #3. Earnhardt won his final six championships driving for Childress between 1986 and 1994, and was tragically killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His death led to a pioneering of efforts to increase safety measures in NASCAR that still have effects today. 

3. Jimmie Johnson

Championships: 7 | Wins: 83 | Poles: 36 | Career: 2001-2020, 2023-

Jimmie Johnson was the third driver to win seven championships, and he won all seven of them during the Chase for the Cup/NASCAR Playoff Era. He became the first driver in NASCAR Cup Series history to win five straight championships, taking the title every year between 2006 and 2010. He won his final two in 2013 and 2016, respectively. 

In 2020, Johnson took a break from NASCAR to drive in IndyCar for two seasons. He shifted back to NASCAR in 2023, taking on a part-time schedule as an owner/driver with Petty GMS Motorsports. 

4. Jeff Gordon

Championships: 4 | Wins: 93 | Poles: 81 | Career: 1992-2016

Jeff Gordon’s first NASCAR Cup Series race occurred on the same date as Richard Petty’s final race on November 15th, 1992. And you can sum up Gordon and his team’s performance as dysfunctional, as slow pit stops, handling problems, and an eventual crash led to a 31st place finish. 

But Gordon went on to dominate the 1990s, winning three championships, with his 1998 championship run serving as perhaps his most dominant, where he won 13 races. He won his fourth championship in 2001, and though he never hoisted the championship trophy again, Gordon won another 35 races, taking his total up to 93. 

5. David Pearson

Championships: 3 | Wins: 105 | Poles: 113 | Career: 1960-1986

Although he won half as many races as Richard Petty, David Pearson scored all 105 of his wins in just 574 attempts, posting an 18.3% winning percentage. He also sat on the pole for 19.7% of the races he entered and finished his career with 366 top 10s. What is even more impressive about Pearson is that he rarely raced a full season when NASCAR entered the Winston Cup Era. 

Pearson finished third in the Cup Series standings in 1974, despite competing in just 19 races that season. He won seven races that year and posted 15 top five finishes. Pearson enjoyed a similar performance in 1976, where he won 10 races in 22 starts, and posted 16 top five finishes. 

6. Darrell Waltrip

Championships: 3 | Wins: 84 | Poles: 59 | Career: 1972-2000

Darrell Waltrip was one of NASCAR’s most polarizing drivers during the early stages of his career. Nicknamed Jaws, Waltrip was one of NASCAR’s most outspoken and aggressive drivers. He also had a penchant for getting on the wrong side of drivers with much larger fanbases because of his ability to regularly beat them on the track. 

And it led him to back-to-back Winston Cup Championships in 1982 and 1983, and he won 24 out of 61 races in those two seasons, capping off one of the most dominant stretches of any driver in the sport’s history at the time. It was also around this time that Waltrip changed his demeanor, and by the end of the decade, he was a fan favorite in the sport, winning the Most Popular Driver Award in 1989. 

7. Cale Yarborough

Championships: 3 | Wins: 83 | Poles: 69 | Career: 1957-1985

Cale Yarborough was a late bloomer, failing to find stability in NASCAR between 1957 and 1972, despite winning a few races during that stretch. His breakout came in 1973, when he took second place in the standings, and he never looked back, finishing in the top five in points seven times between then and 1980. He won three championships in a row between 1977 and 1979. 

Starting in 1981, Yarborough again raced part-time, but he still notched another 14 wins until he called it quits in 1988. He scored his last top ten finish in his final race at Atlanta in 1988, and his last top five finish occurred one year prior at Talladega in 1987. 

8. Lee Petty

Championships: 3 | Wins: 54 | Poles: 18 | Career: 1949-1964

Lee Petty is credited as the first NASCAR driver to make a full-time living off of race winnings. And wherever he raced, it was almost a guarantee that he would post a top ten finish, having logged 332 of them in 427 races, for a top-ten finish percentage of 77.7%. Petty also won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. 

An ultra-competitive driver, Lee Petty is the reason his son Richard has 200 wins instead of 201 wins, as he contested the results of the 1959 Lakewood 500, overturning what could have been Richard’s first victory. Lee Petty’s career as a NASCAR regular ended prematurely following a devastating crash in 1961 when he went over the wall at Daytona. He competed in just six races between 1962 and 1964. 

9. Bobby Allison

Championships: 1 | Wins: 85 | Poles: 59 | Career: 1961-1988

Bobby Allison was a member of the Alabama Gang, which included his brother Donnie, and friends Red Farmer and Neil Bonnett, among others. Bobby was the most successful of the bunch. Despite winning just one championship, he continued to perform at a high level as he approached his fifties, finishing 9th in points in 1987. 

He made 718 Cup Series starts and notched 446 top 10s in 28 seasons in NASCAR, and he was still going strong when he won the 1988 Daytona 500. Unfortunately, a crash at Pocono ended Allison’s career that same season, where he posted five top 10s in the first 11 races. 

10. Ned Jarrett

Championships: 2 | Wins: 50 | Poles: 35 | Career: 1953-1966

The father of NASCAR great Dale Jarrett, Ned’s 50 wins in 352 starts gives him a career win percentage of 14.2%, one of the highest in NASCAR history. They called him Gentleman Ned Jarrett on the track, given his perpetual calm and collected approach. 

His two championships came in 1961 and 1965, but following Ford’s withdrawal from the sport, Ned retired in the middle of the 1966 season at 34. After retirement, he became an announcer, where he received the opportunity to call his son Dale to the start-finish line at the 1993 Daytona 500. 

11. Alan Kulwicki 

Championships: 1 | Wins: 5 | Poles: 24 | Career: 1985-1993

Alan Kulwicki’s presence on this list may shock you, as he won just five races and posted 75 top ten finishes in 207 events. However, Kulwicki is often regarded as the last great owner-driver, since he ran a tiny operation during the late 1980s and early 1990s with only a few employees. 

He also had to fight for sponsorships, ran his team on a shoestring budget, and had inferior equipment. Even with all the setbacks, he won Rookie of the Year in 1986 and pulled off a stunner in 1992 when he won the Winston Cup Championship. Kulwicki never got a chance to defend his title, as he was killed in a plane crash en route to the spring Bristol race in 1993. 

12. Tony Stewart

Championships: 3 | Wins: 49 | Poles: 15 | Career: 1999-2016

Tony Stewart also won the NASCAR Cup as an owner/driver. He started off his career with the legendary Joe Gibbs Racing, where he won two championships in 2002 and 2005. Stewart joined forces with Gene Haas starting in 2009, where he won his third championship. 

Stewart is also the only driver in NASCAR Cup Series history to win the championship in both the pre- and post-NASCAR playoff era. Nicknamed Smoke, Stewart was known for his fierce competitive nature and temper on the track and in the garage. After retiring from NASCAR, he continues to co-own and operate Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas. 

13. Matt Kenseth

Championships: 1 | Wins: 39 | Poles: 20 | Career: 1998-2018, 2020

Matt Kenseth won his only NASCAR Cup Championship in 2003 in controversial fashion, and it is widely believed to be the reason the Cup Series switched to a playoff format starting in 2004. He posted one win that season, but his 11 top five and 25 top ten finishes helped him clinch the final NASCAR Winston Cup Championship under the old scoring format. 

Kenseth finished in the top five in points five more times during his career. In 697 starts, he also posted 331 top tens, and he won NASCAR Rookie of the Year in 2000. Kenseth will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2023. 

14. Bobby Isaac 

Championships: 1 | Wins: 37 | Poles: 48 | Career: 1961-1976

Bobby Isaac competed in 308 NASCAR Cup Series races, and he had a winning percentage of 12.1%. Even more impressive is that, while Isaac raced in the Cup Series from 1961 until 1976, he only drove full-time between 1968 and 1972. Besides his outstanding winning percentage, Isaac also posted 170 top tens, finishing there 55.2% of the time. 

Despite his accomplishments, Isaac is best known for his abrupt hiatus from NASCAR after he quit a race during the 1973 Talladega 500, with the apparent reason being that a voice in his mind told him to quit.

15. Bill Elliott

Championships: 1 | Wins: 44 | Poles: 55 | Career: 1976-2012

Bill Elliott’s statistics aren’t quite as remarkable as some of the other drivers on this list, but between 1983 and 1994, he finished outside the top ten in points just once, and he racked up his only championship in 1988. During that same span, he also finished no worse than fourth in the Cup standings between 1983 and 1988. 

His career took a nosedive in the mid-1990s as he attempted to become an owner/driver, but he also redeemed himself in the last three seasons of his career when he moved back into his familiar #9 car for Evernham Motorsports. There, he notched four wins, and a top ten finish in the points during his final season as a full-time driver in 2003

The 5 Best NASCAR Drivers On The Current Grid

1. Joey Logano

Championships: 2 | Wins: 31 | Poles: 25 | First Race: 2008

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Champion, Joey Logano could be the first NASCAR driver on the current grid to earn three championships since Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart accomplished the feats during the 2000s and 2010s, respectively. Logano won his first championship in 2018, and before that, he was a dominant driver for Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. 

Unlike other drivers on this list, Logano’s career did not hit the ground running. He won three races in his first five seasons, and did not post a top ten finish in the standings until 2013, his first year racing for Roger Penske. Since then, Logano has been excellent, at one point posting three wins in a row in 2015 at Charlotte, Kansas, and Talladega. 

2. Kyle Busch

Championships: 2 | Wins: 60 | Poles: 32 | First Race: 2004

Kyle Busch posted two wins during his rookie season in 2005, and he never posted a finish worse than 20th in the points standings, which also came during his rookie year. Since his sophomore year in 2006, Busch has finished no worse than 13th, and he posted championship-winning seasons in 2015 and 2019. 

His 2015 championship season was his most memorable, as a compound fracture in his leg forced him to withdraw from that year’s Daytona 500 and the first 11 races. A medical clearance from NASCAR allowed Busch to remain in the running for the NASCAR Cup, and he ended up winning five of the final 25 races that season. 

Busch was so dominant that he ended the season with 16 top-ten finishes, including four wins in a span of five weeks at Sonoma, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Indianapolis. Busch’s 2019 championship season was also dominant, as he started off the year finishing in the top ten over the first 11 races. He recorded 27 top ten finishes that season. 

3. Kevin Harvick

Championships: 1 | Wins: 60 | Poles: 31 | First Race: 2001

Kevin Harvick replaced Dale Earnhardt in 2001, and he drove so well that he finished ninth in the standings that year. His career at Richard Childress Racing was up and down, and he finished outside the top ten in points four times before he joined Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. 

His first year driving for Tony Stewart could not have gone better, as he won his first NASCAR Cup that year. Harvick has been so dominant with Stewart-Haas that he did not finish outside the top ten in points again until 2022, when he took 15th place, his lowest since he posted a 19th place finish in 2009. 

4. Chase Elliott

Championships: 1 | Wins: 18 | Poles: 12 | First Race: 2015

The son of the legendary Bill Elliott, Chase never finished outside the top ten in points since he started racing full-time in the Cup Series in 2016. He won his first championship in 2020, and he became the second-youngest driver to win the title at age 24. His win marked the third time a father-son duo won the championship after Lee and Richard Petty, and Ned and Dale Jarrett. 

Chase Elliott became a Championship Four contender for the NASCAR Cup in 2021 and 2022, but finished in fourth place both times. Also like his father, Chase has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award on multiple occasions

5. Brad Keselowski 

Championships: 1 | Wins: 35 | Poles: 17 | First Race: 2008

Brad Keselowski is the only driver on this list to have won a race before he became a full-time driver, which occurred at the 2009 Spring Talladega Race. It was one of his few highlights of the first years of his career, as between 2008 and 2009, he often failed to qualify or finished towards the back, and a 25th place finish in points in 2010 did not turn many heads. 

However, Keselowski took his first Cup Series Championship in 2012, during Dodge’s final season in NASCAR. Since then, Keselowski finished in the top ten in points in all but three seasons, with his most recent pedestrian finish coming in 2022, when he finished 24th. However, he is also looking to rejuvenate RFK Racing, of which he is now part-owner. 

The 5 Best NASCAR Drivers By Race Wins

1. Richard Petty

Wins: 200 | Races: 1,184 | Win Rate: 16.9%

Had his father Lee not contested Richard Petty’s first potential victory, he would have finished his career with 201 wins. What makes Petty’s win resume even more impressive is that he recorded all 200 of them in 25 seasons, between 1960 and 1984. This means that at one point in his career, Petty enjoyed a winning percentage of 21.6%, before he went winless between 1985 and 1992. 

One of Petty’s most famous wins came at the 1979 Daytona 500, the first known race to be televised flag to flag. His win was overshadowed because of a fight between the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough in the track’s infield. 

2. David Pearson 

Wins: 105 | Races: 574 | Win Rate: 18.2%

Pearson enjoyed a better race win percentage than Richard Petty, but he competed in fewer races. He won many prominent events, including wins at Daytona, Charlotte, and Darlington in 1976. Overall, he won 10 Crown Jewel Races. He also led the Cup Series in wins in 1966, 1968, 1973, and 1976. 

3. Jeff Gordon

Wins: 93 | Races: 805 | Win Rate: 11.5%

Jeff Gordon did not win a race until 1994, and it was the Coca-Cola 600, one of the Crown Jewels. His second win came at Indianapolis in the inaugural Brickyard 400, another race that made its way to Crown Jewel status until 2020. Gordon would also win three Daytona 500s, with the first occurring in 1997. 

Jeff Gordon’s winning ways continued until 2015, his final season as a full-time driver, when he took his final checkered flag at Martinsville en route to a third place finish in the points. 

4. Bobby Allison

Wins: 85 | Races: 718 | Win Rate: 11.8%

Bobby Allison entered his first Cup Series race in 1961, when it was still known as the Grand National Series. His first win did not come until 1966 at Oxford Plains Speedway, and it was his first of 85 wins that he would rack up between 1966 and 1988. 

The 1988 Daytona 500 was Allison’s final career win, and perhaps the most iconic, as he finished 1-2 with his son, Davey. Their celebration in Victory Lane is also one of the most iconic in the sport’s history, but it is sadly a day Bobby does not remember, as a result of his career ending crash at Pocono later that season. 

5. Darrell Waltrip 

Wins: 84 | Races: 809 | Win Rate: 10.3%

Darrell Waltrip, like Richard Petty, enjoyed a high win percentage that went south as his career went on. His final win came at the 1992 Southern 500, and he would go winless for the last eight seasons of his career. He did enjoy some redemption in 1998 as a substitute driver for the injured Steve Park with a fifth place finish at Auto Club. 

The 5 Best NASCAR Drivers By Championships

1. Richard Petty

Championships: 7 (1964, 1967, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1979) | Career: 1958-1992

Six of Richard Petty’s seven championships came during the Generation 2 Era (1967-1980), making him the most dominant driver during the period. He also took second place in the standings on six different occasions.  

2. Dale Earnhardt

Championships: 7 (1980, 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1994) | Career: 1975-2001

Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 ranks higher than any other. That year, he won six out of the season’s first eight races, and 11 out of 29 events, giving him a win percentage of 37.9%. His first championship came in 1980, winning five races and recording 19 top fives. 

3. Jimmie Johnson

Championships: 7 (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2016) | Career: 2001-2020, 2023-

Jimmie Johnson pulled off the unthinkable when he won five straight Cup Series Championships between 2006 and 2010. His most dominant championship season came in 2007, where he won four out of the last five races before taking seventh place at Homestead-Miami to clinch the title. 

4. Jeff Gordon

Championships: 4 (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001) | Career: 1992-2016

Jeff Gordon’s most dominant championship season came in 1998, when he won four straight races. Even more impressive was that Gordon finished in the top five for 17 consecutive weeks between the Michigan race that summer and the 1998 Pepsi 400 at Daytona. 

5. David Pearson

Championships: 3 (1966, 1968, 1969) | Career: 1960-1980

Many drivers are tied with Pearson for three championships (including Tony Stewart, Lee Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Cale Yarborough), but he wins out on the tiebreaker given his 105 career wins. Of his three championship seasons, 1968 was his most dominant, having won three races in a row on two different occasions and 16 overall. 

Final Thoughts

Richard Petty is regarded as the best NASCAR driver of all time, with Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson finishing a close second and third. Petty won the most races, and he was a tour de force during the Generation 2 Era between 1967 and 1980, when he won six of his seven championships.