Thursday, October 21, 2010


I'm very pleased to announce and will be excerpting three chapters of my recently-released book, "Trading Paint -- 101 Great NASCAR Debates", published by the prestigious John Wiley & Sons, Inc. publishing house.

For this first excerpt, we're going to answer perhaps the biggest question in NASCAR and one sure to stir up a great response on both sides of the debate: Who was the Greatest NASCAR Driver Ever?

Feel free to e-mail your comments to I hope you enjoy!


This debate always gets passionate fans going, with typically mild-mannered individuals turning into raving, obsessed fanatics if someone dares to challenge the superiority of the guy they so proudly call "their" driver. Think of a 140-pound, Woody Allen–looking dweeb who lives and breathes Kasey Kahne suddenly getting a surge of testosterone, puffing out his chest while forgetting common sense, and stupidly trying to take on a hulking, three-hundred-pound redneck who takes great offense if you say anything bad about Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Then watch the punched-out Woody Allen–esque fan suddenly wind up doing a frightening, almost cartoonlike barrel roll through the air like the great Rusty Wallace did more than a few times during his career at places like Talladega Superspeedway.

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys, and make sure you teach ‘em never to diss Dale Junior—but I digress.

In more than sixty years of racing, NASCAR has had more than its share of greats, most notably being The King, Richard Petty, and the equally colorfully nicknamed The Intimidator, the late Dale Earnhardt.

Both Petty and Earnhardt share a record that will most likely never be broken in Cup racing, each having won seven championships. Even Jeff Gordon, a guy who is just as talented as Petty and Earnhardt, will probably never make it to seven titles in the years of racing he has remaining. Say what you want about Gordon but if a gifted driver like him can't tie or break the joint Petty-Earnhardt mark, it's doubtful that anyone else will ever do so. Remember, Gordon has now gone eight seasons since his last championship in 2001.

Of the other drivers besides Gordon who are currently active, Jimmie Johnson—who has tied Gordon's total Sprint Cup wins, taking home trophies in the last four championships (2006 to 2009)—arguably has a better chance of coming closer to, if not surpassing, the Petty-Earnhardt mark. Johnson is four years younger than Gordon; he turns thirty-five in September 2010 while Gordon will be thirty-nine that August. Since 2002, his first full year in Sprint Cup racing, Johnson has earned 47 wins to Gordon's 24, including 29 in his championship-winning reign (compared to Gordon's 9 that season).

Some folks can make a case for drivers like David Pearson (105 wins), Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip (both with 84 wins), Cale Yarborough (83 wins) and even Gordon (82 wins heading into 2010) as being the best of the best.

(Sorry, and I know their fans will take offense, but guys like Sterling "Swervin'" Marlin and Derrike Cope simply just don't make the cut when picking NASCAR's numero uno.)

For my money, there are really only two drivers who can be considered for the title of NASCAR's best driver ever: Petty and Earnhardt. You can make all the counterarguments you want, but their respective numbers and careers don't lie.

Of Petty's 200 wins, 126 came on tracks that are no longer part of the modern-day NASCAR scene. Most prominent are his 15 wins each, the most at any track he ever raced on, at the now-shut North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina and at the still-active Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. Petty's other great track closed at the end of 2002, but not before The King earned 11 career wins at North Carolina Speedway, more commonly known as Rockingham or simply "The Rock."

Petty also was the king of short and intermediate tracks that had much shorter tenures on the NASCAR schedule and are no longer part of the Cup slate: Nashville, Tennessee (9 wins); Maryville, Tennessee, and Greenville, South Carolina (6 wins each); Riverside, California, South Boston, Virginia, and Hickory, North Carolina (5 wins each); and Weaverville and Winston-Salem, North Carolina (4 wins each).

A large reason for Petty's incredible success was that he had the best organization on the Cup level pretty much from 1962 until 1979, when he earned the last of his seven championships. As the saying goes, The King got while the gettin' was good.

Petty retired at the age of fifty-five, having competed in 1,184 Cup and Grand National (the predecessor to Cup) competitions, ending with a winning percentage of 16.9 percent—the fourth highest in NASCAR history and by far the highest percentage of the sport's most successful drivers.

By the time Petty hung up his driver's suit for good at the end of the 1992 season, his retirement was long overdue. He spent the last eight seasons of his illustrious career failing to reach victory lane even once, averaged less than two top-five finishes per year and had just one top-ten season finish (eighth in 1987) in that final eight-year stretch of his thirty-five-year racing career.

Earnhardt, in contrast, competed in fewer than half the races Petty did—676, to be exact. He won 76, which made him fifth on NASCAR's all-time list. His overall winning percentage is 11.2 percent, which may seem paltry at first. But Earnhardt also competed more often—and overall was more successful—on bigger, longer, and faster tracks than Petty did during his career.

The King earned 10 career wins at Daytona International Speedway while Earnhardt had only 3 (including just one Daytona 500 to Petty's 6), but Earnhardt was more successful overall when it came to racing at places acknowledged by most experts as some of the toughest tracks in the sport: Talladega (10 wins to Petty's 2), Atlanta (9 to 6), Bristol (9 to 3) and Darlington (9 to 3).

Earnhardt was killed in February 2001 on the final lap of the season-opening Daytona 500, less than two and a half months before he would have turned fifty years old. Even though many (who were obviously not Earnhardt fans) considered him washed-up at that point, having won his last championship in 1994, let's not forget that Earnhardt still finished second to champ Bobby Labonte in 2000. This unquestionably proved that there was still a lot of high-powered fuel left in Earnhardt's tank—and he definitely still had what it took to be successful at the highest level of stock-car racing.

Just prior to his fatal crash, Earnhardt told reporters he planned to race for at least another two or three years while also guiding and shepherding the career of an up-and-coming driver: his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Although the elder Earnhardt would most likely never approach the success he enjoyed during the early part of his career, he might have added another 6 or more wins to his overall total, had it not been for his tragic wreck and resulting death. Given what he did in 2000, he obviously had enough left in him to win an eighth championship, which could have put him above Petty once and for all in most championships.

There's no disputing how good Petty was in his day. But he was the big fish in the little pond, competing with teams that usually were not as well-funded or did not have the same type of win-capable equipment that Petty and the fabled blue and white No. 43 STP Dodge-cum-Pontiac had.

Earnhardt, in contrast, didn't earn his fearsome nickname The Intimidator by happenstance or by having bad breath. Just his looming close in a rearview mirror was often enough to strike fear in a competitor, causing that opponent to get nervous and even rattled enough to allow Earnhardt to get by, either by choice or by Earnhardt's weapon of choice: the bumper on his menacingly all-black No. 3 Chevrolet. Earnhardt's bumper wasn't called "the chrome horn" for nothing; either you moved or he'd move you, plain and simple.

What's more, Earnhardt competed in an era when NASCAR had much greater parity and more popularity than in Petty's days. It was tougher for Earnhardt to win races and championships than it was for Petty, which made those wins and championships much more meaningful overall than Petty's.

The bottom line is that Earnhardt was the greatest driver NASCAR has ever seen. He may not have won as many races as Petty or Pearson, Allison, Yarborough and Waltrip—and eventually he lost his fifth-place title on the all- time wins list to Gordon—but he raced in a much more competitive and pressure-filled era than Petty did.

Don't believe me? In the sixteen years (1976 to 1992) that they went head-to-head in Cup competition, Earnhardt won his first five Cup championships and 53 races. In that same period, Petty won just one championship and 20 races.

‘Nuff said.

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