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Frontstretch 5: Greatest NASCAR Owner-Drivers

In celebration of Brad Keselowski’s announcement this week of being probably just one of three owner-drivers next season in NASCAR Cup Series racing, it’s time to look at the top five owner-drivers of all time.

A rare commodity, Keselowski will join only BJ McLeod and Denny Hamlin among active Cup drivers with a sizable ownership stake in their team.

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In the early days of Cup racing, most Cup drivers did drive for themselves, or at most for a local dealership/businessman. Nowadays, however, it’s generally believed that the responsibilities of driving a Cup car and of owning a Cup car are too great to successfully do both at the same time. Even with Keselowski and Hamlin, they will/do have a number of people around them focusing on many of the day-to-day aspects of owning a Cup team.

Still, it’s not unheard of to be able to do both. Here are the five greatest of all time:

5. Ricky Rudd

There has probably never been a more consistent driver than Ricky Rudd.

Able to hold his own throughout the years against quite a number of current or future NASCAR Hall of Fame members, what set Rudd apart from drivers like Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch is that Rudd found success in spite of switching teams and manufacturers almost every year.

In the 1990s, there was a wave of successful drivers who decided to take up owning their own car, such as Darrell Waltrip and Geoffrey Bodine. Of them all, however, the most successful outside of the obvious first one was Rudd.

Driving the No. 10 Ford, Rudd won six races in a four-year period as an owner-driver, finishing as high as sixth in points in that time.

Rudd’s most famous win was his final as an owner and was the win that allowed him to set the modern day record for most consecutive seasons with a win that was only recently broken by Busch. In 1998, the 42-year-old Rudd was able to hold off one of the greatest drivers of all time (1998 Jeff Gordon) to pull off a win at Martinsville Speedway in a car that had a broken cooling unit. It was one of the most memorable efforts by a driver in the last few decades.

4. Junior Johnson

“The Last American Hero,” Junior Johnson is probably most known today as the greatest moonshiner of all time and as a celebrated Cup owner.

But between his days running moonshine and winning championships with Waltrip and Cale Yarborough, Johnson was also a renowned driver in his time.

Johnson only ran for himself for two part-time seasons, with the second one unplanned and only done due to a dip in NASCAR’s popularity. But it was a helluva show whenever Johnson showed up those two years.

In 36 starts in 1965, Johnson won 13 races. That would put him on board with names like Gordon in a 36-start season.

In 1966, Johnson raced in very limited capacity, not doing much besides a fifth-place finish at Rockingham Speedway late in the year. The Johnson team that year, however, was remembered by many of the old timers in the garage and among the media corps for the time they brought a “Yellow Banana” to a race. This is a story that I can’t give justice to and yet have to mention, even if Fred Lorenzen was the driver that week.

3. Tony Stewart

Tony Stewart is one of the best drivers of his generation, and halfway through his Cup Series career, Stewart was given an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Haas CNC Racing had spent seven Cup seasons being near the back of the pack. The two-car team had been most notable for Jeff Green’s tenure in the bright blue-and-yellow Best Buy car, which he drove to middling results before Best Buy jumped over to Evernham Motorsports. Although they had never impressed, there was a framework there between the team’s close relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and Haas’ extravagant wealth.

At the lowest point of his life, Gene Haas offered from his jail cell to give Stewart half of his team.

Needless to say, Stewart’s name value and skill as a driver were all that Haas needed to turn that framework into a success. Stewart is the first entry on this list to have won a championship in this manner, and he did it in spectacular fashion in 2011. In one of the most celebrated championship battles in history, Stewart went from saying he didn’t even deserve to be in the playoffs in August to hoisting the championship in November after winning it on a tiebreaker with Carl Edwards.

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Why is Stewart so far down this list given his accomplishments? I’ll get into specifically why he wasn’t second in the next entry, but another key is that he really got into SHR past his peak as a driver. After that miracle championship run, Stewart struggled and just couldn’t recapture the magic.

2. Alan Kulwicki

After starting his Cup career driving part-time for Bill Terry, Kulwicki eventually bought him out and would spend the rest of his career driving for himself.

Why is Kulwicki above Stewart? It’s very simple, really. Throughout his entire run as an owner-driver, SHR received chassis and engines from Hendrick Motorsports. It’s not to disparage Stewart’s accomplishments, but it’s hard to rank him high on a list where everybody else made their own chassis and engines.

Kulwicki’s championship isn’t supposed to have happened. One does not come back from being 292 points down with five races to go in the old point system, let alone somebody who runs a completely independent operation. And yet, that’s exactly what Kulwicki was able to do.

There really isn’t much else to write about Kulwicki that hasn’t already been written or said. His legacy lives on today with the Kulwicki Driver Development program, whose current class includes almost-SRX winner Luke Fenhaus.

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Relative to the rest of the field, Kulwicki ran the smallest organization of any championship team in the modern era. Sadly, Kulwicki is also the only modern era champion unable to defend his championship the next year, as the Wisconsinite passed away in a plane crash heading to Bristol on April 1 of the next year.

1. Lee/Richard Petty

It’s cheating, but it’s hard to rank these two individually.

Lee Petty started the very first Cup race by flipping somebody’s Buick he borrowed. Smitten with the racing bug, Petty returned in the third Cup race with a Plymouth he owned and spent the rest of his career running his own Chrysler/Oldsmobile models.

In addition to arguably being the driver of the 1950s by winning 47 races and three championships in that decade, the truly insane thing about the elder Petty was his statline.

In 427 career starts, Petty finished in the top 10 332 times. That 78% rate is the best of all time, and it’s reflective of how Petty viewed racing. Getting a decent finish and being able to put food on the table was much more important than tearing up the race car in hope of winning.

And then there’s Richard Petty. It’s really unclear as to when Richard became the boss at Petty Enterprises, but it’s clear that he was for the majority of his career.

Petty holds most statistical records, and outside of a two-year stint driving for Mike Curb in the twilight of his career, he spent his entire career driving for Petty Enterprises.

One huge advantage Petty had was that they were the only or by far the lead Chrysler team during the bulk of their run. That enabled them to get most of Chrysler’s money they poured into NASCAR in the ’50s and ’60’s, unlike with other makes like Ford, whose top teams had to spread the wealth around. That being said, it’s hard to argue against 10 championships and over 250 race wins like the Pettys were able to accomplish with Petty Enterprises.

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Carl D.

I agree with these teams and their ranking. It’s the first time I think I ever totally agreed with Finley. They’re now serving ice-water in Hell.

DoninAjax

Bobby Allison won in his own cars too.

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