Over seven decades, thousands of drivers have entered NASCAR Cup Series races, but only three have become seven-time champions.
Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson accomplished the feat and will always be remembered as the greatest drivers in the sport’s history.
Still, many have asked why winning an eighth championship is so incredibly elusive. There is no simple answer unless one subscribes to the theory that fate simply hasn’t allowed the coveted milestone to be achieved.
Petty wheeled his famed No. 43 Petty Enterprises Plymouths, Dodges, Oldsmobiles and Chevrolets to 200 Cup Series victories between 1958 and 1992. For years, many within the sport felt the seven championships he logged in 1964, ’67, ’71, ’72, ’74, ’75 and ’79 would never be duplicated. For 53 years, he’s been known as “The King,” a name he earned after winning 27 of 48 races and his second title in 1967.
Petty’s first win came on Feb. 28, 1960, on dirt at the Southern States Fairgrounds in Charlotte, N.C. In the decades that followed, Petty was NASCAR’s most successful driver, winning nearly double the races claimed by any of his competitors.
Three-time champion David Pearson is second on the list of all-time Cup Series winners with 105.
Petty has always been quick to point out that many people worked behind the scenes at Petty Enterprises and contributed to his success.
“My biggest accomplishment would be just to be remembered,” Petty has said in recent years. “If people look back and remember what you’ve accomplished, for whatever reason, that’s pretty humbling and makes you feel good.”
When asked about the seven championships he recorded, Petty said, “I came along into NASCAR at the right time for Richard Petty and Petty Enterprises. Success was the timing. It personally meant that I had a successful career and didn’t realize what was accomplished until I retired. It was about fate. Being in the right place, the right time for us and things just came together.”
Petty’s longtime crew chief, Dale Inman, is the only eight-time championship-winner in NASCAR Cup Series history. In addition to seven titles with Petty, Inman won the title with Terry Labonte in 1984. Having an eighth championship with his cousin, Richard Petty, would have been a great milestone for Inman to cherish.
“There were a couple of those championships that we sewed up a race or two before the season ended and that always takes the pressure off,” Inman said. “Some of them were really close with several different point systems and formats, and that’s even different today.
“Another aspect of it is you have to be thinking on the same level as far as driver and crew chief are concerned. You also have to have your team behind you as well. Doing well on the track and winning championships puts pressure on everybody, right down to putting an extra little tug on the last bolt you turn. We were fortunate to get to seven championships with a lot of help from a lot of great people.”
The son of 1956 NASCAR sportsman champion Ralph Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt made his first Cup Series start in 1975. The younger Earnhardt earned 76 Cup Series victories and claimed titles with team owner Rod Osterlund in 1980 and Richard Childress in 1986, ’87, ’90, ’91, ’93 and ’94.
Earnhardt dominated the late 1980s and early ’90s through a solid chemistry among himself, Childress and crew chiefs Kirk Shelmerdine and Andy Petree. He earned 67 victories and six titles with RCR.
In 2000, Earnhardt and Childress enjoyed their strongest season since 1994, finishing second to Bobby Labonte and Joe Gibbs Racing. Earnhardt thought of the season as a success, as many media outlets predicted he would win his eighth title in 2001. Sadly, he lost his life in a last-lap crash during the season-opening Daytona 500.
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