Since 1948, NASCAR — the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing — has been the place for some of the world’s best drivers to show off their skills. In the decades after its first race was run on a road course in Daytona Beach, Florida, it has become one of America’s most popular sporting associations, with expert crews keeping state-of-the-art cars running at their peak around some of the most imposing racetracks ever built.
But the folks inside the cars are the ones who inspire fans to spend an entire day sitting in the scorching sun, watching them drive in circles. To rank the best drivers in NASCAR history, we combed through the stats kept at Racing Reference. Of the hundreds of drivers who’ve taken part in NASCAR’s top division, these are the ones who left everyone in the dust.
30. Fireball Roberts
Glenn “Fireball” Roberts was a great driver who unfortunately proved how dangerous stock car racing could be. In 1964, he was racing in NASCAR’S World 600 when he crashed and his car caught fire, leading to his death at 35 years old. His nickname, which he’d had his entire career, went from fun to prophetic that day, and his accident would lead to many safety advancements in the sport, including fire-retardant uniforms. In a career that spanned more than 200 races in NASCAR’s earliest days, Roberts won 33 Cup Series races and finished second in the running for the 1950 season championship.
29. Ricky Rudd
Only two drivers in NASCAR history have more than 900 starts on their record: Richard Petty and Ricky Rudd. “The Rooster” never won a Cup Series championship — he finished second to Dale Earnhardt in 1991 — but he racked up 23 wins and nearly 400 top-10 finishes. Rudd also ranks in the top 30 for career laps led. Perhaps the most amazing thing about his career is that he’d never driven a race car in competition before the day he debuted at North Carolina Motor Speedway in 1975. He was a natural.
28. Carl Edwards
Before retiring in 2016, Carl Edwards was one of NASCAR’s most popular and likable figures, with his signature backflip off the top of his car being arguably the best post-race celebration in history. Edwards was a two-time runner-up for the Cup Series championship, but he had a great knack for finishing near the top of the field every time he drove. In 445 races, he had 220 top-10 finishes and posted the eighth-best average finish place of any driver since 1970, according to Racing Reference. The fact that Edwards ranks in the top 30 for career wins, with 28, but outside the top 50 for career starts is a great measure of his talent at the wheel.
27. Dale Jarrett
Winning the Daytona 500 is a lifelong dream for any stock car driver, and Dale Jarrett won NASCAR’s version of the Super Bowl three times. Those victories are part of his 32 career wins in the Cup Series, which puts him inside the top 25. Jarrett comes from a big racing family and was able to carve out his own legacy, despite the massive shadow cast by his father, whom we’ll read about later. He won the Cup Series championship for the 1999 season, edging out a field full of icons like Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt.
26. Rex White
A 2015 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Rex White was an early star in the Cup Series, racing there from 1956 to 1964. In 233 starts — a pretty low number by today’s standards — White was a constant presence at the top of the leaderboard, winning 28 times and finishing in the top five nearly half of the time and in the top 10 about 70% of the time. His best single season came in 1960, when he won the Cup Series crown over Mount Rushmore-level drivers like Richard Petty, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.
25. Bobby Isaac
NASCAR in the 1960s and ’70s was all but dominated by Richard Petty, but Bobby Isaac put together a Hall-of-Fame career in that era as well. After a second-place finish in 1968’s points race, Isaac won the championship in 1970. He amassed 37 career victories in just 308 career Cup Series starts, which gives him a remarkable win percentage of 12%. Isaac’s impressive list of victories came from his mastery of qualifying, as his 48 poles are the 10th most in history. He died at the age of 45, a day after quitting in the middle of a race because of heat exhaustion.
24. Terry Labonte
Terry Labonte cruising to victories in the colorful Kellogg’s Chevrolet was one of the most consistent images of NASCAR for decades. He started in a ridiculous 890 Cup Series races in his long career, giving him the third-most starts in history. Labonte won the season championship in 1984 and 1996 and finished in the top five for points five other years. Two years after retiring in 2014, he was made a NASCAR Hall of Famer in a no-brainer decision.
23. Brad Keselowski
A veteran of NASCAR’s Cup Series and “minor league” circuit in the Xfinity Series, Brad Keselowski has won championships at both levels. If you see him in the field, you can pretty much bet he’ll finish strong, as Keselowski has finished in the top 10 of more than half of his 388 career Cup Series starts since debuting in 2008. He’s won 32 of those races, giving him an outstanding winning percentage of more than 8%. His championship season came in 2012, when he added five victories to his tally.
22. Matt Kenseth
After being named Cup Series Rookie of the Year in 2000, it didn’t take long for Matt Kenseth to take the championship. He would do so in 2003 not for his tally of wins — he only won a single race — but because of his remarkably consistent driving that season. Kenseth has remained a strong presence since then, winning 39 career Cup Series races so far and having the 16th highest total for career laps led in NASCAR history. Even more impressive, he’s got the fourth-most finishes on the lead lap in history, with an even better total than his rival Jimmie Johnson.
21. Denny Hamlin
A three-time winner of NASCAR’s signature race, the Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin is one of just four drivers to win that event in back-to-back years, in 2019 and 2020. His career has been nothing short of brilliant, with a Cup Series championship being just about the only thing to elude him. He was runner-up for the crown in 2010 after having a remarkable year where he won eight races. Hamlin has won 40 total races at NASCAR’s top level, which ties him for the 10th most wins of any driver since 1980.
20. Mark Martin
Of all the drivers who never won a Cup Series championship, Mark Martin might have had the most decorated career. He was the runner-up in season points an agonizing five different times from 1990-2009 but etched his name all across the NASCAR record books. His 40 career wins rank inside the top 20, his 882 stars are fifth best, and he also ranks inside the top 10 for poles and second-place finishes. But Martin’s most untouchable record might be the average speed of 188.354 miles per hour he kept up at Talladega in 1987, the fastest average speed for any NASCAR driver ever.
19. Buck Baker
Another NASCAR Hall of Famer, Buck Baker was the first driver to ever win back-to-back season championships in the Cup Series. He won those crowns in 1956 and 1957, cementing his legacy as one of the most dominant drivers of the sport’s early days. Baker’s 46 Cup Series victories rank him 17th in history and 40 of those came on dirt tracks, making him one of the all-time masters of that surface. He finished second in another 56 races, meaning his win total could easily be even more remarkable.
18. Tim Flock
Tim Flock, seen on the left here, was a frequent rival of Buck Baker’s and was one of NASCAR’s titans in the 1950s. The Alabama native racked up 39 Cup Series victories in just 187 starts, meaning he somehow won more than a fifth of his races at NASCAR’s top level. He won the Cup Series championship in 1952 and 1955, and his career would end under controversial circumstances just six years later. Flock was disqualified from a race and banned from NASCAR for a relatively minor rules violation, with his harsh punishment actually being due to his support of a budding NASCAR driver’s union.
17. Bill Elliott
“Awesome Bill From Dawsonville” has arguably the coolest record in NASCAR history. While qualifying at Talladega in 1987, Elliott hit 212.809 miles per hour in his Coors Ford, which remains NASCAR’s all-time speed record more than 30 years later. He would fail to finish on race day, but Elliott earned 44 checkered flags in his long career and won the Cup Series crown in 1988. He’s all over the sport’s record books, ranking among the top 10 for career starts and poles as well as wins posted since 1980. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015.
16. Herb Thomas
An early pioneer, Herb Thomas was the first driver to win two Cup Series championships in NASCAR history. He did so in 1951 and 1953, dominating the rest of the field in the latter season. Thomas was the most dominant winner of the 1950s, winning 48 races in that decade, which is the most of any driver. The field wasn’t nearly as big in his day, but Thomas has the best win percentage in NASCAR history among drivers with at least 100 starts, taking the checkered flag at 21% of his 229 races.
15. Junior Johnson
When the NASCAR Hall of Fame announced its first class in 2010, there were only three drivers enshrined, and Junior Johnson was one of them. Johnson would win 50 races at NASCAR’s top level, although he somehow never won a Cup Series championship. Despite last racing more than 50 years ago, Johnson still ranks among the top 15 for poles and laps led. After retiring from driving, he stayed involved in the sport as a team owner, sponsoring some guys who are also on this list.
14. Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick has been a mainstay on the leaderboards since his debut in 2001, with his most recent victory coming in 2020. In that span, he’s won 51 Cup Series events and that doesn’t even include his 61 wins in NASCAR’s Xfinity and Truck series. The future Hall of Famer won the season championship in 2014 and has finished in the top 10 for points in 14 other seasons. Harvick was brilliant in the 2010s, winning 38 races, which was the second best tally of the decade. His 56 second-place finishes only further cement his legacy as a brilliant driver.
13. Ned Jarrett
Another icon of the early days, Ned Jarrett debuted in 1953 and would win 50 Cup Series races before retiring in 1966. The patriarch of the Jarrett racing family would only start in 352 races, giving him one of the best winning percentages ever. Along with all those races, Jarrett won the Cup Series crown in 1961 and 1965, and finished in the top five four other seasons. When Jarrett was on the track, he could be completely in control, as shown by his record-setting victory at Darlington in 1965, when he won by an astounding 14 laps.
12. Rusty Wallace
While NASCAR in the 1990s was largely dominated by Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace was hanging right there with them. His 33 Cup Series victories during that decade were third only to those two icons and were just a fraction of his career win total. Wallace won 55 races at the top level, putting him in the top 10 all-time. He won the Cup Series crown in 1989, and from 1993-2002, he never finished outside the top 10 in points.
11. Lee Petty
The legendary patriarch of the Petty racing family, Lee Petty was arguably NASCAR’s first superstar. He won 54 races at the Cup Series level from 1949-1964 and took the championship three times in the 1950s. When NASCAR still ran on dirt tracks, Petty was the master of the surface, winning a record 42 races on it. His average finish place of 7.602 in his 427 career Cup Series races is the best ever, according to Racing Reference. Drivers like Petty ensured NASCAR would be around for generations.
10. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart was one of the most versatile drivers in motorsports history, winning on virtually any surface in any type of vehicle he drove. In NASCAR, he became arguably the most popular driver of the 2000s by winning 49 career Cup Series races from 1999-2016. He won the season crown three times, including in the 2011 season, which is remembered as maybe the most thrilling in modern NASCAR history. He currently sits at third in career earnings from NASCAR races, and his dominance on road courses helped him greatly, as his eight wins on those tracks are the second-most in history.
9. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch’s brightly colored M&M’s Toyota has been a regular in victory lane since the mid-2000s. Despite only getting his first win in 2004, he’s won an incredible 56 Cup Series races since then, which puts him at ninth all-time. Of all drivers since 1980, Busch has the fifth-most wins and the most of any driver in the decade of the 2010s. Since 2006, he’s only finished outside the top 10 in points three times and won the Cup Series crown in 2015 and 2019.
8. Bobby Allison
Bobby Allison drove in more than 700 NASCAR Cup Series races in his career, and he took the checkered flag in 84 of them, including three times at Daytona. That win total ranks him in the top five all-time, and its just one of the categories where he’s near the top of the record books. Allison also sits in the all-time top three for laps led and podium finishes, finishing in the top three 244 times. He was also known for getting into fights and awful crashes, like his 1987 near-death experience at Talladega, but he was one of the most consistent drivers in NASCAR history.
7. Cale Yarborough
There was no love lost between Cale Yarborough and his rival, Bobby Allison, but both men can rank themselves among the all-time greats. Yarborough won the Daytona 500 a remarkable nine times, which is second all-time, and he became the first driver to ever win three straight Cup Series championships when he did so from 1976-78. He’d win 83 races total in a career that spanned more than 30 years. The 31,556 laps he led at the Cup Series level are the second most in history.
6. Darrell Waltrip
It’s tough to be one of the all-time greats of your sport and pretty much universally liked but Darrell Waltrip pulled it off. He was better than any driver in the 1980s by a mile, winning 57 NASCAR Cup Series races in that decade alone, while the second-most prolific winner of the ’80s had 38 wins. He also won the Cup Series championship three times from 1981-1985 and posted a ridiculous 22 top-five finishes in the 1983 season. For his career, Waltrip won 84 races at the top level, which ties him at fourth all-time. His post-driving career as a TV commentator only gave him a greater legacy in the sport.
5. Jeff Gordon
No driver in modern NASCAR history has won as many races as Jeff Gordon, with his 93 Cup Series checkered flags being the most of anyone since 1980. His 49 wins in the 1990s alone are by far the most of the decade, yet Gordon always had plenty of haters trying to slow down his DuPont Chevrolet. No NASCAR driver mastered the tricky road courses like No. 24, either, with his nine wins on those tracks being the most ever. His four Cup Series championships put him among the true legends, but the fact that never missed a start in 797 races from 1992-2015 might be his most impressive feat.
4. David Pearson
He doesn’t have the name recognition of the other drivers in the top five but David Pearson had every bit as much skill behind the wheel — if not more. He was a chief rival of Richard Petty starting in the 1960s, a decade when the two of them seemed to be the only guys winning any races. Pearson won a remarkable 105 Cup Series races and is the only driver aside from Petty to have won more than 100. But Pearson won his total in just 574 races, less than half the total races Petty competed in, meaning he took the checkered flag roughly every five times he raced.
Pearson is also in the top three all-time for poles, podiums and second-place finishes despite being outside the top 30 for starts. His three Cup Series championships are just further evidence of his brilliance.
3. Dale Earnhardt
The shadow of Dale Earnhardt will probably hang over NASCAR forever, and that’s a tribute to his greatness behind the wheel, his unmistakable look and his tragic death on the track. When Earnhardt was killed in a crash during the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 — a race he had dominated during his career — it elevated him from fan-favorite driver to a mythical legend in the sport. He won 76 races at the Cup Series level, and his seven championships are still tied as the most in history. “The Intimidator’s” No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet was a constant figure in victory lane during the 1980s and 1990s and has become arguably the most iconic car in NASCAR history.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson made his Cup Series debut in 2001, the same season that saw Dale Earnhardt’s tragic death, and he would almost immediately take the baton as the best driver on the track. Johnson finished the 2000s with 47 wins at NASCAR’s top level, by far the most of the decade, and has taken 83 total checkered flags in his career. Other drivers — and plenty of fans — got downright sick of seeing his Lowe’s Chevrolet in victory lane, especially when he rattled off an unprecedented five consecutive Cup Series championships from 2006-2010, part of his record-tying seven total crowns.
Johnson’s win percentage is also stellar and is actually the best of anyone to start their career since 1980 with at least 100 races on their record.
1. Richard Petty
This was always a race for second place, because there’s likely never going to a driver that approaches Richard Petty’s breadth of accomplishments in NASCAR. His first major accomplishment was stepping out of his father’s massive shadow, which he did by winning a record-setting seven Cup Series titles. Petty holds a long list of other impressive all-time marks, including the most starts, poles, laps led and podium finishes.
But it’s his 200 career Cup Series wins that are his greatest achievement, as the sport’s second-winningest driver has 105. Among his massive list of wins are 10 in the Daytona 500, just another untouchable record held by “The King.”