NASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers: The Pioneers

NASCAR is celebrating its 75th anniversary throughout the 2023 season.

In 1998, NASCAR had a board select a list of its 50 greatest drivers to celebrate its golden anniversary.

Likewise, we are in expansion We decided to compile our list of the 75 Greatest NASCAR Drivers in honor of this year’s milestone. 17 of our writers participated in the selection of the 75 drivers, and we will release four to seven drivers from that list each weekday for the next three weeks.

Similar to the list in 1998, this list is not a ranking of the top 75 drivers. Instead, we’ve broken the list down into categories, with a new category released each day (see full list below). Within these categories, drivers are listed in alphabetical order.

The latest edition of this series discusses the original NASCAR Superstars, the sport’s pioneers who came before the rest.

Buck Baker

Buck Baker, a former bus driver from North Carolina, was among the 33 drivers in the NYC
NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock racetrack in 1949. It marked the beginning of a career spanning more than 25 years at NASCAR’s highest level.

In that time, Baker has 46 wins, 246 top 5s, and 372 top 10s.

Baker won the Grand National Championships in 1956 and 1957, becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Series One titles. The first championship in the race came for the powerful Chrysler team, led by Karl Kekhaefer, with whom Becker won 14 times.

When Kiekhaefer pulled out of NASCAR before the 1957 season, Baker spent most of that season racing for himself. Not only did he win the title again, but he also scored 10 wins and finished outside the top 10 only twice in 40 starts.

Baker was a fixture on the Grand National tour during his formative years, running the majority of a season every year from 1953 through 1966. Unlike many of his contemporaries who tended to pick and choose the seasons they would compete in regularly, Baker placed himself in a tournament almost every Public. His career included eight consecutive seasons with top-five finishes.

While most of Baker’s wins have come on short dirt ovals, he was often fast at Darlington Raceway. In 1964, he drove a Ray Fox-prepared Dodge to victory in the 500 race, his third race win and ultimately the final victory of his career in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Baker continued to make sporadic starts in the 1970s, and had his last top 10 finish at Darlington in 1976 at the age of 57. He passed away in April 2002. – Brian Gable

Reed Byron

Most Army Air Force veterans during World War II stationed in the Pacific Islands flew only about 20 missions at most in a B-24 Liberator crew, one of the largest and most produced bombers ever built.

Red Byron served in 57 missions and was not scheduled for 58y Even answering the call of duty when a last-second replacement is needed. That’s 58y task, the 29-year-old’s left leg was rendered useless.

After a little over two years of improvement, Byron was able to recover enough to return to ex-NASCAR stock car racing. He was just beginning to cause some headwinds in the landscape when the war began, and he refused to allow only a handicapped man to stand in his way.

Byron drove a custom-made clutch pedal to which his steel stanchion was bolted. On track, Byron was a first driver noted for his Southern style, driving cool and letting most of his competition falter before making a charge at the end of the race.

In 1948, Byron won the inaugural NASCAR Modified Series championship and the first NASCAR-sanctioned Daytona Beach race. In 1949, he won the inaugural NASCAR Strictly Stock Series championship.

But that damned leg and the unspoken, unfair guilt of a 1948 accident when his car lost a tire and crashed into a group of spectators left a 7-year-old boy dead all cut short Byron’s active career.

Byron became a sports car team manager in the 1950s, but was never able to achieve as much success in this discipline as he did as a driver. The first Cup winner at Daytona and Martinsville was found dead of a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1960. – Michael Finley

me my home

When Lee Petty flipped out of his first Strictly Stock race, few thought the 35-year-old family man would make a comeback.

Instead, he became the patriarch of one of racing’s most royal families, and although son Richard would eventually take the crown as NASCAR’s king, Lee parlayed that turn into a hugely successful 12-year career.

Taking the baton from Red Byron as the calmest driver on the track, Petty’s main job was to make sure there was food on the table; He wouldn’t have been such a brutal man as Curtis Turner. Petit has made 427 Cup appearances, and has finished in the top ten 332 times. He only finished 326 races, which meant that Petty had a massive lap advantage at times that he could still finish in the top 10 despite his late-race problem.

Only 21 times in Petty’s career has he finished without finishing in the top 10, and even if you include the 16 races when Petty’s status was unknown at the end of the race, that’s still a meager 37 times.

Petty’s career essentially ended in a terrible crash at the Daytona International Speedway Qualifier in 1961, as he only returned for a handful of races after major injuries in that race. By then, Petty had won 54 Cup races and led in the most statistical categories, including most wins, most top fives, most top tens, and most championships. Even today, Petty’s career finishing average of 7.6 points, is the best mark of any driver in history with at least 100 starts.

Once you get past his stature as the sire of King Richard and his first Daytona 500 win, Petty’s resume is incredibly impressive in his day and now. -Mf

Herb Thomas

In NASCAR’s founding era of wild racers and moonlight runners, Herb Thomas took a different approach.

Thomas was a tobacco farmer turned racer known for his toughness and great car control. He became the first driver to win multiple championships at NASCAR’s highest level, racing cars tuned by legendary mechanic Smokey Unique.

Besides his Grand National titles in 1951 and 1953, Thomas won 48 races and had 156 Top 10 finishes in 229 starts. His winning percentage of 20.96% is impressive, even among other NASCAR legends.

It was also crucial to Hudson’s success in NASCAR’s early years. Hudson drives
To victory lane 39 times, Thomas’ career inspired Pixar’s Doc Hudson character cars franchise.

Thomas deserves special recognition for being the first driver to show his mastery of Darlington. In seven Lady in Black races, Thomas won three times: the 1951, 1954 and 1955 Southern 500s. The 1955 victory was particularly impressive as it came after Thomas had suffered serious injuries in another race just four months earlier. While recovering from a broken leg, concussion, and multiple injuries to his arm and shoulder, Thomas vowed that he would get back in the driver’s seat and win the 500.

Thomas sustained severe head injuries in another accident near the end
1956 season. A crash put Thomas out of contention for a possible third championship and effectively ended his competitive career. Nevertheless, Thomas’ heroics, frequent trips to victory lane, and victories at Darlington immortalized him as one of the best NASCAR racers of the 1950s. -BG

Curtis Turner

Babe Ruth from Stock Car Racing. A larger than life embodiment. No driver, with the exception of Roy Hall and Dale Earnhardt, has given fans as much value for their tickets as Curtis Turner.

Turner, today’s NASCAR Hall-of-Famer, is probably best remembered as the first stock car driver to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated and for wild tales of his off-track activities. Turner worked in the lumber business, which basically allowed him to do whatever he wanted. He was the complete opposite of Lee Petty, the driver who would go like hell and win or lose, just come out with a great time.

Turner Cup stats are average, but there are two reasons for that. He spent most of the late 1950s focusing on the convertible section. In 79 starts, Turner won 38 races and has the most wins in the division.

Then, in 1961, Turner was banned forever from NASCAR after attempting to organize the drivers into a syndicate, as part of his deal with the Teamsters Union to finish building Charlotte Motor Speedway. Four years later, with Ford dominating the Cup Series with little support from Chevrolet and a forbidding Plymouth that kept Chrysler out, Bill France broke the emergency glass and reinstated the Turner.

His final Cup win came later in 1965. Turner awoke on the opening morning of the Rockingham Speedway race hanging from the trunk lid of his Wood Brothers Racing Ford. Turner, who was driving drunk for the first time in his career, was able to outpace a rookie Cale Yarborough in the closing laps to take the only win on his Cup comeback. -Mf

expansionNASCAR’s 75 Greatest Drivers

Dale Earnhardt
Jeff Gordon
Jimmy Johnson
David Pearson
Richard Petty

Bobby Allison
Ned Jarrett
Rusty Wallace
Darrell Waltrip
Cal Yarborough

The tenth generation
Greg Biffle
Carl Edwards
Denny Hamlin
Casey Kahne
Ryan Newman

Heroes of the 2000s and beyond
Brad Keselowski
Kyle Larson
Joey Logano
Martin Truex Jr

next generation
Buddy Baker
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Chase Elliott
Dale Jarrett

Buck Baker
Reed Byron
me my home
Herb Thomas
Curtis Turner

Brotherly love
??? (31 January)

Masters of modifications
??? (February 1)

Bottom chain hoist
??? (2 February)

Exceptional longevity
??? (3 February)

He left early
??? (6 February)

Stars of the sixties and seventies
??? (7 February)

Stars of the eighties and nineties
??? (8 February)

Stars from 1949-1960
??? (9 February)

Cranes of all trades
??? (10 February)

Brian started writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has written Up to Speed ​​for the past six years. A lifelong racing fan, Brian is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and covered the sport regularly from 2013 to 2021. He has moved on to cover Formula 1, IndyCar and SRX for the spot, while still getting his toe in the water from time to time back in the NASCAR rally.

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