Rushing in where wise men fear to tread, we posed the question: Who’s the best driver not to win the NASCAR championship?
Finding the answer turned out to be as elusive as finding the push in the chassis that handled like a dream last week.
For perspective, we took a survey of the fans gathered at a Daytona 500 party in Kirkwood, N.Y., down the road from Five Mile Point Speedway As expected, their verdict was nearly unanimous in favor of Mark Martin. Ricky Rudd drew a smattering of support, and so did Harry Gant, Davey Allison and Tim Richmond.
Among drivers whose careers were primarily run in the era of live television and big money, it’s difficult to argue with Martin’s statistics. He has won 40 Cup Series races, more than any other driver without a championship in the modern era. He’s finished second in points no fewer than five times, taking Dale Earnhardt to the wire in 1990 and Tony Stewart in 2002.
After ending his two-decade association with Roush Racing in favor of a season of part-time action with the short-lived Bobby Ginn team in 2008, he charged back with Hendrick Motorsports to win five times in 2009 and end up second to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase. He’s a blue-collar hero who has defied time.
Rudd presents some strong credentials, too. NASCAR’s Iron Man raced continuously from 1977, when he won rookie honors, through 2005. He won 23 races and had 14-consecutive winning seasons, meaning he spread it out, never winning more than twice in single season. His best season in points was his 1991 runner-up finish behind Earnhardt. The 1997 Brickyard 400 remains his signature victory.
Harry Gant came to the Cup Series in 1979 at age 39 and was a fixture through 1994 with one sponsor from 1981 onward, although the ownership of the Skoal Bandit changed over the years. Like Rudd, he scored one runner-up finish in the title race, losing to Terry Labonte by 65 points in 1984. While Rudd’s record may be remembered as less impressive than the numbers indicate due to his low-key personality, Gant was such a fan favorite that his accomplishments, like his four-consecutive victories in September 1991, easily achieved the status of legend.
As for Davey Allison, he was clearly embarked on a Hall of Fame career when he died from injuries suffered in a helicopter crash in July 1993. Just entering his prime at age 32, he had won 19 races, including the 1992 Daytona 500, and he contended for the ’92 Cup Series title, finishing 63 points behind champion Alan Kulwicki.
It’s widely accepted that no one brought more talent to NASCAR than Tim Richmond. He was a rock star personality who could drive a race car. His 13 victories in six seasons attest to that. But his lack of control off the track was his downfall, and he died in 1989 without approaching his enormous potential.
So is Mark Martin hands-down the best NASCAR driver never to win the title? Among those who have sought the Cup over an extended period, it’s hard to deny him that honor. But there’s a whole fraternity of NASCAR greats like Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Fred Lorenzen and Buddy Baker who might have been champions if they had pursued the title over a period of years.
Until 1972, when it was cut to 30 major races, the schedule included numerous 100-mile races on half-mile tracks or smaller. The Cup Series even visited Bowman Gray Stadium, a quarter-mile oval in Winston-Salem, N.C., twice a year for many seasons.
To be a championship contender, a driver needed to run all or nearly all the short tracks. Many of the top names declined to run for points, concentrating on the better-paying races with the knowledge that they would never win a title. Due to the fact that point distribution was based on the race purse until Bob Latford’s point system was adopted in 1975, some of the limited schedule drivers came surprisingly close.