Every NASCAR fan knows Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace and all the other classic drivers. But since NASCAR’s inception 2,921 different drivers have driven in at least one Cup Series race. So naturally there are gonna be tons of people you’ve never heard of that have started a NASCAR race. But who wants to talk about Mike Garvey, Stuart Kirby, Dexter Bean, or Shane Hall (sorry guys)? This is a list of 15 famous racing drivers that had success in their own racing disciplines but you probably didn’t realized raced in NASCAR at one point too.
15. Scott Pruett
If you’re a close follower of NASCAR you definitely remember Scott Pruett, the road course ringer. But what a lot of fans don’t realize is that Pruett actually raced full time in the Cup Series in 2000 for PPI Motorsports. Yeah, Scott Pruett wanted to leave sports car racing and become a full time NASCAR driver.
In 2000, Pruett made his debut in the Daytona 500 finishing a respectable 19th. The rest of the season went horribly. Pruett failed to qualify for six races and had just one top-ten finish, a 10th at Indianapolis. He would be released by PPI Motosports at the end of the season and he returned to sports car racing. Over the next seven years, he did make several starts in the Cup and Xfinity series for Chip Ganassi Racing with a best finish of second place at Watkins Glen in 2003.
14. Andy Lally
We have a bit of a theme going on in this list. Yes, most of the drivers that you didn’t realize raced in NASCAR are road-course ringers but Andy Lally is a bit different. Sure, he started off as a ringer in 2007 but he actually competed full time at NASCAR’s highest level and few people remember it happening.
Lally was TRG Motorsports’ lead driver throughout most of their time fielding cars in the Grand-Am series. In 2008, they purchased Darrell Waltrip Motorsports and began fielding an entry in NASCAR’s Truck Series. Lally would make several starts in preparation for a full time run in the Cup Series. In 2011, Lally made his debut as a full time Cup Series driver. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t go too well. In 38 career Cup races, Lally has a best finish of 18th at Watkins Glen in 2010.
Following the 2011 season, Lally would return to road racing but he still makes occasional starts on road courses in NASCAR’s Xfinity series.
13. Butch Leitzinger
Butch Leitzinger has made a career for himself racing sports cars in various racing series across the United States and in Europe. He has two class victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and has several wins in both Trans-Am series and IMSA. In the mid 1990s, Letizinger tried his hand at NASCAR racing on the road course at Watkins Glen. In three Cup Series starts at the Glen he would have a best finish of 12th. He would return to the Cup Series in 2007 at Sonoma finishing 28th in a Bill Davis Racing Toyota. He also competed in five Xfinity series races (all at Watkins Glen) with a best finish of second in 2000. Leitzinger is just one of many road racing specialists that ran on NASCAR’s road courses but he’s definitely one of the more obscure ones.
12. Dario Franchitti
2008 was a really weird year in NASCAR. It was a year that saw several Indycar drivers decide to up and leave open-wheel racing to seek a better life in NASCAR… despite little stock car experience. Dario Franchitti was the worst of these Indycar invaders.
Franchitti made his Cup Series debut for Chip Ganassi racing at the 2008 Daytona 500, finishing 33rd. He would make just nine more starts before his career at NASCAR’s top-level came to an end. His best finish would be a 22nd place at Martinsville. Franchitti did unfortunately miss several races due to an injury suffered at Talladega but it wouldn’t matter — NASCAR wasn’t for him. His lone saving grace was a fifth place finish in the Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen. But after just a few more starts, Franchitti turned tail and headed back to Indycar where he’d win several more championships.
11. A.J. Foyt
A.J. Foyt won the Indy 500 four times. Everybody that follows racing knows that. He also won seven USAC championships. Again, everybody knows that. Most people also know that Foyt won the 1972 Daytona 500. So yeah, he raced in NASCAR. But did you know that he actually made 128 Cup Series starts in his career, had 36 top-ten finishes and won seven total races? Yup, it happened.
Throughout his time dominating the USAC Open-Wheel ranks, Foyt was also making a few starts a year in NASCAR and even owned his own NASCAR team for several decades. Most of Foyt’s starts came at Daytona and Talladega but he did make starts at other tracks including race wins at Riverside, Ontario, and Atlanta. Foyt’s final start came in the inaugural Cup Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994, fitting end to a man who made a name for himself racing at Indy.
10. Mario Andretti
When you hear the name Mario Andretti, you immediately think of either the Indianapolis 500 or Formula One. Andretti reached the pinnacle in both during his career. He won the 1969 Indy 500 and won the 1978 Formula One World Championship. But did you know that he also won the 1967 Daytona 500 driving a Holman Moody Ford? Yeah, it happened. In fact, Andretti made 13 starts in NASCAR’s Cup Series and captured the sports’ crown jewel race in 1967.
Andretti is one of the finest racing drivers of his generation and his Daytona 500 victory helped cement him as one fo the most versatile drivers of all time. Despite his Daytona win, Andretti never expressed interest in a career in NASCAR, making just six more starts.
9. Mark Donohue
Mark Donohue is always near the top of any “drivers we lost too soon” lists. He was incredible racing driver that unfortunately lost his life in an on-track incident in 1975 at just 38-years-old. Donohue was one of the finest drivers of his generation and was widely regarded for his versatility. He won the Indy 500, raced in Formula One, and won the first ever IROC series championship. But what most people don’t know is that Donohue actually raced and won in NASCAR.
Donohue had a long-standing relationship with Roger Penske, driving for him in Formula One and at Indianapolis. In 1972, Penske gave Donohue the opportunity to race in NASCAR and he would make four starts that year with a best finish of 15th. Donohue would return for the 1973 season-opener at Riverside and won the race in dominating fashion. Unfortunately Donohue would make just one more NASCAR start before his death in 1975.
8. Nelson Piquet Jr.
A few years back, NASCAR kind of became the automatic landing spot for failed or flamed-out Formula One drivers. Jacques Villeneuve, Scott Speed, and of course Nelson Piquet Jr. are just a few of the drivers that showed up in NASCAR. Piquet made his debut in the Truck Series in 2010 at Daytona and finished a strong sixth. He would go full-time in the series in 2011 and 2012 winning two races and finishing seventh in points in 2012. Piquet also won the 2012 Xfinity Series race at Road America. He looked poised to make a name for himself in NASCAR and it sure did seem like he’d stick around.
Of course, he didn’t. Piquet ran the Xfinity Series full time in 2013 and had five top-ten finishes but at the end of the season his contract was not renewed and he has only made one start since, at Mid-Ohio in 2016.
7. Ricky Carmichael
From 1999 to 2007, Ricky Carmichael won 13 Motocross and Supercross championships to become the most highly regarded competitor in the world of motorbike racing. But in 2008, Carmichael had had enough of dominating on a dirt bike and decided to try his hand at NASCAR.
In 2008, Carmichael began racing at NASCAR’s regional level and made his Truck Series debut in 2009 for Kevin Harvick Incorporated. From 2009 to 2011, Carmichael would make 76 starts between the Truck and Xfinity Series and achieved a combined 19 top-ten finishes. At the end of the 2011 season Carmichael decided to leave NASCAR to become a Motocross broadcaster.
To this day Carmichael’s career in NASCAR is still one of those “yeah, that actually happened” sort of memories.
6. Jacques Villeneuve
Quite a few Formula One drivers have made starts in NASCAR but Jacques Villeneuve is arguably the most polarizing. Villeneuve announced his intention to race in NASCAR in 2007 and immediately signed a deal to race for Bill Davis Racing. He ran the final seven Truck Series races of the 2007 season and made two Cup Series starts with a best finish of 21st.
Villeneuve returned to the Cup Series for 2008 but failed to qualify for the season-opening Daytona 500. This caused his relationship with Bill Davis Racing to end and his disappearance from NASCAR. He would return at the 2008 Montreal Xfinity Series race with Braun Racing, finishing in the 16th position. He would make eight more Xfinity Series starts over the next four seasons, all on road courses with a best finish of third. Villeneueve would also make two more Cup Series starts but never finished higher than 29th. He has not raced in NASCAR since 2013.
5. Adrian Fernandez
In 2005, NASCAR announced that it would hold it’s first ever sanctioned race in Mexico. The third round of the NASCAR Busch (Now Xfinity) Series would take place at Mexico City’s world famous Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez road course. Naturally, several teams brought in road course ringers to drive their cars, many being native Mexicans. But the most famous of all Mexican drivers that raced that day was Adrian Fernandez.
At the time of the race, Fernandez was making a career transition from Indycar to sports car racing and was tabbed my Hendrick Motorsports to race their No. 5 car. He would finish tenth in the race after driving all the way through the field in the waning laps due to a pit road speeding penalty. Fernandez would return to the five car for five more races later in the season, all on oval tracks with a best finish of 28th. He would race four more times in NASCAR, the last of which was the 2008 Mexico City race and he has not returned since.
4. Travis Pastrana
Travis Pastrana is one of the craziest people on planet earth. If an activity involves nearly dying or potential serious injury, Pastrana is down. He’s best known for his career in rally and dirt bike racing. But in 2011, Pastrana decided to give NASCAR a try. He made his debut at the Toyota All-Star showdown, finishing sixth. In 2012 he would make his debut in the Xfinity Series in a partnership with Michael Waltrip Racing. In 2013, Pastrana would sign a deal with Roush Fenway Racing to run the full Xfinity Series schedule. He would end the season with four top-ten finishes and a 14th place finish in the points standings.
After the 2013 season, Pastrana decided to leave NASCAR citing frustration with his performance and boredom. Despite his retirement from NASCAR, Pastrana has raced a few times in the Truck Series, most recently in 2017.
3. Mattias Ekstrom
Mattias Ekstrom is a mainstay in the German DTM touring car series and has won a slew of championships in his racing career. He has enjoyed a career-long relationship with Red Bull which afforded him an opportunity to race in NASCAR. In 2010, Red Bull Racing’s NASCAR program was in a bit of disarray. Regular driver Brian Vickers was sidelined with blood clot issues and a bevy of less-than-steller substitutes were utilized. Guys like Reed Sorenson and Casey Mears look the reigns of the No. 83 car with very little success. When it came time for the Cup Series’ first road course race at Sonoma, enter Mattias Ekstrom.
Ekstrom’s debut went better than most though it would. He led seven laps and ran in the top-ten the majority of the day but he would end up finishing 21st. Red Bull would actually bring Ekstrom back later in the season to race on an oval at Richmond. Despite not having any oval track experience, Ekstrom finished a respectable 31st.
2. Dan Gurney
Dan Gurney is one of the greatest drivers in American auto racing history. He raced in Indycar, Sports Cars, Formula One, and surprisingly even made a few starts in NASCAR’s Cup Series. Gurney won four Formula One races during his career and had three podium finishes in the Indianapolis 500. In 1962, he was convinced to try his hand at racing stock cars and made his debut in the 1962 Daytona 500 with a fourth place finish. Over the next eight years, Gurney made 14 more starts in NASCAR, most of which were at Daytona and the Riverside road course. Here’s the crazy part though. Gurney didn’t just show up. He won five races, all at Riverside! He flat out dominated on the road course and put the other drivers to shame.
With all this domination, you’d think Gurney would want to continue with NASCAR but he actually decided to step aside after the 1970 race at Riverside. He would race in NASCAR just one more time, in 1980, and (of course) it was at Riverside.
1. Kimi Raikkonen
Yes, Formula One World Champion Kimi Raikkonen has raced in NASCAR. In fact, he raced in NASCAR’s Truck Series and developmental Xfinity Series. Yeah, let that sink in. Raikkonen took a break from the prestige of Formula One, the ultimate gentleman’s pursuit, and raced in a modified pickup truck.
In 2010, Raikkonen became disillusioned with Formula One and decided to try his hand at other forms of racing. In 2011, he signed a deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports to run a limited Truck Series schedule. He would debut in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway and finished a strong 15th. He would go on to race in the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte the following week and finished 27th after car issues and a speeding penalty. Raikkonen was set to make his Cup Series debut a few weeks later at Infineon Raceway with Robby Gordon Motorsports, but he crashed Gordon’s car during a test and the deal fell through.
Raikkonen was supposed to run several more races in NASCAR, but he never did. In 2012 he returned to Formula One where he remains to this day.