NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: Picking Today’s Top Cup Talent

There’s always debate about who the “best” driver in the Sprint Cup Series is, and there are certainly many ways to look at it. I was trying to put together my list of the five drivers I think are the most talented, which got me thinking: if I was putting together a team in today’s NASCAR, what kind of driver would I look for?

First, I’d look for a driver with talent. That’s the obvious way to go. I think for a second team, I’d look for a driver with untapped talent who could keep the sponsors and fans happy. We’ll take a look at that guy next week. But first things first. If I could cherry pick any driver I wanted, I’d look at several factors, including experience, raw talent, drive, statistics and overall attitude. Based on those criteria, here are the five top drivers on my talent wish list, in order.

1. Jeff Gordon

Why I’d Want Him: He’s possibly the best stock driver of the last 15 years. While Gordon doesn’t have the experience in as many kinds of cars that a Tony Stewart does, he can wheel a stock car better than almost anyone in the last decade and a half. Gordon ranks first among active drivers in wins with 81, a number that is also good for sixth on the all-time list. He has four championships at NASCAR’s highest level and without NASCAR’s contrived Chase, could easily have six. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt took home more titles. Gordon is as smooth a driver as there is and rarely makes mistakes. He showed just how adaptable he is when he raced on dirt last year at Eldora and ran like he’d never stopped, despite not having run on dirt in more than 15 years. Like him or not, Gordon is one of the finest drivers to ever sit behind the wheel of a stock car. Gordon is also willing to do whatever it takes to win, and he’s not afraid of whether the other guy will like him afterward. He is capable of talking as smoothly as he races, too, a real plus with the sponsors.

Why I Might Not: Gordon will be 37 in a couple of weeks – he’s no longer the young gun he once was, and every once in a while, I wonder if the desire still burns as bright as it did a decade ago, although blink and the doubt is gone. Even so, he’s got some wins left in him – but how many more years will he choose to punish his body every week, especially now that he has a child? Gordon also has the reputation of being a whiner, though that’s been tempered as he’s gotten older. Gordon can be overaggressive sometimes – and what goes around comes around – and I’m not sure how much the fabricators would appreciate the return favor. All in all, Gordon would be my top choice on the talent side.

2. Tony Stewart

Why I’d Want Him: Talent. Pure talent. Stewart can, and often does, drive anything with wheels on it. He’s a multiple Sprint Cup champion – one of only three active full-time drivers with multiple titles. He’s also an IRL champion and one of only two drivers to win the USAC Triple Crown (Midget, Sprint and Silver Crown titles in the same year). Stewart is one of those drivers who has the fire burning deep in his belly and the talent to back it up. He has never raced anything he hasn’t won in. His rookie year in Cup in 1999 was at the time the finest enjoyed by a rookie in the modern era, with three wins. Stewart was the first Cup rookie to win a race since Davey Allison, and the wins just kept on coming. Back in the day, winning both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 in a career was quite a feat. Both Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt have done it. Stewart hasn’t – in fact he’s won neither of those races – but he’s taken it one step further, winning both an IRL and Sprint Cup championship. Stewart will do what it takes to win, and while that may not earn him fans, it earns him trophies. Stewart ranks fourth in wins among active, full-time Cup drivers (third if you don’t include Mark Martin, who is running a partial schedule this year but full-time in 2009) with 32 wins in nine and a half seasons.

MCLAUGHLIN: STEWART GOES WHERE NO SANE MAN HAS BEFORE

Why I Might Not: Stewart is 37 years old. While it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t have many, many wins left, he’s also nearing the end of his prime. And he’ll race anything on wheels and has been hurt in extracurricular racing in the past. Staying healthy in his later years of racing is key. The other point against Stewart is his notorious temper- he can be disrespectful to fans, sponsors, media and competitors. He’s not the dirtiest driver going, but he’s not the cleanest, either. Is Stewart the guy to start a team and mentor another driver? I’d take him – he’s only second to Gordon by a hairbreadth.

3. Jimmie Johnson

Why I’d Want Him: Johnson’s numbers are just shy of mind-boggling. Although from a very different background than either Gordon or Stewart, Johnson is every bit as impressive in a Cup car. And if there’s a driver with more fire, who just flat wants it more, I haven’t seen him yet. He began his NASCAR career with two years in the top 10 in Nationwide Series points despite running for a second-tier team. Still, Johnson was a relative unknown when he came to the Cup Series – but he made sure everyone knew his name beginning with the best rookie campaign in history. He had three wins, equaling Stewart’s mark, and became the first rookie ever to lead the series points standings before finishing fifth – his worst points finish in the series. In three fewer seasons, Johnson has surpassed Stewart’s win total, and his 34 wins are third to Martin’s total and then Gordon’s. Not even Gordon has as many wins as Johnson since 2002, Johnson’s rookie year. Johnson has never finished outside the top 10 in any season in NASCAR. He’s possibly the smoothest driver on the circuit and races honestly – he won’t cut you any slack, but he won’t wreck you either. Johnson is a bulldog on track despite his mild-mannered approach off it. He’s well-spoken and always mindful of his fans and sponsor when he speaks.

Why I Might Not: Johnson has the reputation for not being able to run well in a less-than-perfect car, though his Nationwide points finishes should negate that claim. He also lacks the background that either Gordon or Stewart have, coming from off-road buggies and trucks to stock cars. Johnson’s careful interviews also make many fans question his personality – while vanilla won’t embarrass anyone, it won’t excite them either. Still, I’d take Johnson as a driver in a heartbeat, because his brilliance behind the wheel is undeniable – his first six years on the circuit should be indicators of many more of the same.

4. Kyle Busch

Why I’d Want Him: Have you seen him drive? Being fourth on the talent list is no knock on Busch, who will drive a car as hard as it can go every time out. His numbers aren’t as impressive as Gordon, Stewart or Johnson, but he’s only 23 years old and he has 11 wins in 133 races on the Cup circuit. That’s not on pace to catch Johnson, but given the tear he’s on, anything is possible. Busch has Gordon’s modern-era season win total in the realm of possibility. Busch was groomed in the stock car ranks more than the other drivers on the list, who came from other backgrounds. Busch will do anything it takes to pass any car, anywhere in the field, at any time.

Why I Might Not: Attitude is everything. Busch can wheel a car, but he can also embarrass his team and sponsors any time he opens his mouth. He also mocks the fans every chance he gets. Sure, he’s only 23, but there are other guys who came up that young over the years and didn’t act like that. Like Stewart, he’s not a dirty driver, but he’s not particularly clean, and if drivers race you like you race them, Busch is likely to get roughed up a bit as the year goes on and the competition gets sick of being bullied and raced harder than necessary. I’d have to be crazy not to take him if I couldn’t get the first three guys, but I’d also make darn sure to tell him to shape up and act more professional or ship out.

5. Robby Gordon

Why I’d Want Him: Gordon is one of the most talented drivers to sit behind the wheel of a vehicle. He makes Stewart’s resume look thin. Gordon has driven everything from off-road buggies and trucks to Indy cars to NASCAR and everything in between. Half a lap of fuel is the only reason he doesn’t have a Borg-Warner trophy on his shelf. Gordon probably has better car control than any driver in NASCAR and perhaps racing in general. He’s willing to drive on the edge and over it if necessary. Gordon’s numbers in NASCAR aren’t what you might expect, given everyone else on this list, but he is easily near the top of the talent list. He’s never really had the equipment to shine, except for a brief stint with Richard Childress, so the numbers here are secondary. Gordon is hands down the best road racer in NASCAR.

Why I Might Not: First and foremost, Gordon lacks patience. And when he runs out of patience, he forgets his immense talent. He’s also conceited and of this list, the most aggressive driver which can translate to dirty at times. And at 39, Gordon is in the same boat as Jeff Gordon and Stewart – he still has some wins in him, but how many more years? Gordon has a slight craziness to him that makes him a liability in some ways, but a likeable personality and a winner in others. In the right equipment, he’d make the Chase, if he could keep his head in tough situations.

There you have it: my take on the top talent in the Cup garage today and why I’d pick any of them to start a team, even with a few reservations – after all, nobody’s perfect. To see my takes on who I’d like to fill the seat in a second car, tune in next week… they might not be who you expect!

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