NASCAR is that sport where they just drive cars and turn left for four hours right? Well, yes but that’s only partially true. There are a few glorious times each season when NASCAR decides to say “screw it” and also turn right. Watkins Glen, Sonoma, and now the Charlotte Roval are the three road courses that NASCAR visits every year, providing fans with left and right turn action. For decades these races were merely seen by the drivers and teams as “let’s just not get in a wreck” weekends as most drivers had ZERO experience driving on road courses. But throughout the history of NASCAR, several drivers have stepped up and mastered the art of turning both ways and left other drivers in their dust. These are the 15 best road course drivers in NASCAR.
15. Ron Fellows
The only Canadian on our list is of course one of the most popular road course ringers of all time, Ron Fellows. Fellows made his Cup Series debut at Watkins Glen in 1995 and was a mainstay at the road course races in all three of NASCAR’s premier series. He would win his first sanctioned NASCAR race in the Truck Series at Watkins Glen in 1997 and he’d win again in 1999. During the late 1990s and early 2000s he entered a long relationship with Joe Nemechek of NEMCO Motorsports. He would win three Xfinity Series races for NEMCO, all at Watkins Glen in 1998, 2000, and 2001.
Fellows also ran several Cup Series races at Watkins Glen and Sonoma for teams like NEMCO, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, and PPI Motorsports. His best Cup Series finish is second place in 2004 at Watkins Glen. Fellows final win in NASCAR came in 2008 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, on his home soil. He would win a wild race that was coincidentally the first time NASCAR ever used rain tires in a race. Due to massive downpours, the race would be abandoned early and Fellows was awarded the win.
Although Fellows never managed to win a cup race, his domination at Watkins Glen in the lower NASCAR series securely places him on this list.
14. Ernie Irvan
Ernie Irvan is best known for his dominance at super speedways. He won two races at both Talladega and Daytona, including the Daytona 500 early in his career. But Irvan wasn’t just a superseded way driver, he was also a very accomplished road course racer. Irvan won three times on road courses in the Cup Series, twice at Sonoma and once at Watkins Glen. Irvan also holds nine top-ten finishes in his 23 road course starts in the Cup Series. Although these may seem as pretty vanilla stats, Irvan raced in an era when NASCAR had few drivers that had mastered road courses. Many teams had a “just make laps and don’t crash” approach when heading to the series’ two road courses. Irvan actually took the time to master turning left and right which gave him a big leg up on his competition.
13. Mark Martin
Mark Martin is one of NASCAR’s longest tenured and most respected drivers. He raced in four different decades and came oh-so-close to winning a Cup Series title on multiple occasions. But in addition to Martin’s racing prowess on NASCAR’s oval tracks, he was also a dominant force at the series’ two road course races.
Martin made 47 road course starts in his career and finished in the top-ten 32 times, a striking 68% of the time. Now, he did only win four of these races in his career but he had a dominant run at Watkins Glen, winning the race there each year from 1993-1995. In fact, he finished in the top-ten at Watkins Glen for 11 straight seasons, from 1989-1999. That’s a pretty impressive performance.
12. Robby Gordon
If you want to see proof of Robby Gordon’s road-racing skills, go on youtube and watch the 2005 Zippo 200 Busch Series race at Watkins Glen. The guy drove through the field twice after pit stop issues and came within one lap of winning the race. He was the fastest car on the track during the entire race. He straight up drove the wheels off the thing.
Robby Gordon came to NASCAR from CART and sports car racing and never really turned the corner to become a great NASCAR driver. He had some decent oval finishes, especially on super speedways but he was always bitten by the “bad luck bug.” But when it came to NASCAR’s two road course races, you had to watch out for Robby. Gordon has 11 top-ten finishes in his 28 road course starts and won both the race at Sonoma and at Watkins Glen in 2003. He is one of just four NASCAR drivers to have won both road course races in a single season.
No, Robby Gordon doesn’t have the stats that the other drivers here do, but if you put five drivers in equally prepared cars on track at Watkins Glen for a two-lap shootout, I’m taking Robby every time.
11. David Pearson
Before we get started, let’s take a moment and recognize that David Pearson has the best nickname in NASCAR history. He’s “The Silver Fox.” Okay, now that we have that out of the way…
David Pearson was one of the premier drivers during NASCAR’s ‘Golden Era’ of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He won 105 Cup Series races and three championships in a career that spanned 27 years. But Pearson didn’t just know how to turn left. He made 24 starts on road courses in his career, winning four times and finishing in the top ten 17 times. He also owns an average finish of 9.50 on road courses. To make things even more impressive, the seven races where he didn’t finish in the top-ten were all due to mechanical failure or crashes. So if he’d been able to keep his nose clean in those races, he might be a perfect 24 for 24 in the top-ten.
10. Dan Gurney
Dan Gurney drove and won in so many different racing series during his career, including Formula One and Trans-am. But when it comes to NASCAR, Gurney is the last experienced driver on this list. He made just 16 starts in NASCAR’s cup series…he also won five times. Gurney is the unofficial king of Riverside Speedway in California. Half of his starts came at Riverside where he was dominant, leading 696 laps, winning one pole position, and holding an average finish 8.78. Gurney also made several oval starts and finished fifth in the 1963 Daytona 500, but he’s always been considered a ringer for hire on road courses.
9. Darrell Waltrip
Darrell Waltrip is one of NASCAR’s funniest and most interesting personalities. Through his career as a driver and broadcaster, he’s been bringing joy to competitors and fans alike. Waltrip is one of NASCAR’s classic drivers; a hall of famer, three-time champion and 84-time winner in the cup series. Waltrip won on all different sizes of oval tracks but was no slouch when it came to racing on a road course.
Waltrip went to victory lane in five of his 53 career road course starts. He also won nine pole positions and had 22 top-ten finishes. What’s perhaps even more remarkable is that Waltrip completed over 90% of the laps in road course racing career. With all the wear and tear put on a stock car during a road course race, finishing that many laps is incredible. Waltrip might not have the most glamorous stats of the other drivers on this list, but in an era dominated by oval tracks, Waltrip found the time to master racing on the road course.
8. Rusty Wallace
I remember watching the Cup race at Sonoma in 2005 (coincidentally, Rusty’s last season) and the commentators were mentioning that Rusty Wallace was actually turning his engine off and costing during the downhill sections of the track to save fuel and firing the engine back up at the perfect spot. That’s friggin’ ridiculous. The guy definitely knew the ins and outs of road course racing.
In 46 road course starts, Wallace had 5 wins, 25 top-ten finishes, three poles, and led 364 laps. Wallace is also one of the few drivers to have won on three different road courses, Sonoma, Watkins Glen, and Riverside. In fact, Wallace won the final race at Riverside before it closed following the 1988 season. The stats speak for themselves, Wallace was a dominant road course driver and one of the best NASCAR has ever seen.
7. Bobby Allison
I’ll preface the spiel on Bobby Allison with this: Bobby Allison has led more laps on road courses than anyone else in NASCAR history. He led 924 laps to be exact. This is likely a record that will never be broken.
Bobby Allison is one of NASCAR’s classic drivers. He’s a hall of famer, the 1983 Cup Series champion, and an 84-time race winner. Allison could wheel a car on ovals, but he was just as good on a road course. In 46 road course starts, he won six times, had 26 top-ten finishes, and won five poles. AND as previously mentioned, he’s the all-time road course lap leader. His average finish of 11th is also one of the highest on this list. All of these accolades securely cement Allison as one of NASCAR’s best road racers.
6. Richard Petty
Richard Petty is the greatest driver in NASCAR history. He holds nearly every significant record in NASCAR’s Cup series and was a first-ballot hall of famer. When you think of Petty, you usually go straight to his seven Daytona 500 victories. But Petty wasn’t just a master of the super-speedway. Unbeknownst to most, Petty was actually one of NASCAR’s better road course racers.
Petty made 59 road course starts in his career and won six times, five of which were at Riverside. He also had 30 top-ten finishes and won six poles. Although his average finish is just 14.08, his six victories in an era before many drivers took the time to properly learn road racing are quite impressive. Petty actually earned the final top-ten finish of his career at the Watkins Glen road course in 1991. A fitting send off for a driver that was secretly a very good road course racer.
5. Ricky Rudd
Ricky Rudd was always one of NASCAR’s good guys. Nobody (Other than Kevin Harvick) have ever had a bad word to say about him. Rudd never won a championship, but you could always find him battling for the win on Sunday afternoons with NASCAR’s best, especially on road courses.
Ricky Rudd was one of NASCAR’s first great road course drivers. He was always a threat to win in the late stages of a race. In his 55 starts, Rudd had six wins, 30 top-tens, and six poles. He actually got the final win of his career at Sonoma in 2002 driving for Robert Yates Racing. But the stat I find most remarkable for Rudd is that he had just 9 DNFs (did not finish) in 55 races. He really knew how to take care of his stuff at a road course.
Although Rudd doesn’t have the most wins, or the highest average finish of drivers on this list, his consistency and longevity as a road course racer place him firmly in the top five.
4. Tim Richmond
Tim Richmond sadly passed away from AIDS in 1989 and we were never able to see his true potential. Under different circumstances, Richmond likely would have won multiple championships and would be touted today as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.
Richmond’s racing prowess was known throughout motorsports, especially his skills on a road course. Due to his short career, Richmond made just 16 starts on road courses but he won a miraculous five times and had 11 top-ten finishes. He also led 316 laps and had an average finish of 11.63, one of the best on this list.
Richmond has a small sample size but I’ve decided to give some leeway due to how his career ended. If Richmond hadn’t passed away from his illness, he’d likely be the all-time leader in road course wins in NASCAR.
3. Marcos Ambrose
When I found out that Marcos Ambrose was coming to NASCAR I was like “Who?” Then I found out he was Australian and I was beyond stoked. It was incredible to see a guy who had never run a stock car before show up in the Truck series in 2006. Ambrose of course had growing pains on oval tracks but his experience in the V-8 Supercar series in Australia made him a dominant force on road courses.
Ambrose made 14 Cup Series starts on road courses in his career and won two races at Watkins Glen. Now that doesn’t seem too impressive but let me give you some more numbers. In his 14 starts, he finished in the top-ten 12 times. The other two races, he suffered mechanical failure while racing near the front of the field. Ambrose was nearly unstoppable on a road course. He also won five Xfinity series road course races during his time in NASCAR.
Marcos Ambrose wasn’t around for very long, but he showed what he could do on a road course. He’s a top-five all time NASCAR road racer.
2. Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart actually began his racing career in the open-wheel ranks and won the 1996-97 Indycar series championship. When he came to NASCAR’s Cup series in 1999, no one expected him to have the success he did, especially at the series’ road course races.
Stewart had immediate success at NASCAR’s two road course races, finishing in the top-ten in four of hist first six starts. He would win his first race at Sonoma in 2001 and went on to have remarkable road racing stats. In all, Stewart won eight times, had an average finish of 10.91, and had just two DNFs in his career. Stewart is also one of just four drivers that have won both road course races in a single season, accomplishing the feat in 2005.
Like other drivers on this list, Stewart actually won the final race of his career on a road course, finding victory lane at Sonoma in 2016. The win put him in the 2016 NASCAR playoffs, a fitting end to a career for one of NASCAR’s best road racers.
1. Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon will go down in history as one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. His name is always one of the first to come to mind when you mention NASCAR. He had an impeccable career that garnered him four Cup Series championships, 93 race wins, and 447 top-ten finishes. Gordon also holds the distinction of winning at all but one active track (Kentucky) NASCAR currently visits. But there were two tracks in particular where Gordon enjoyed remarkable success. Watkins Glen and Sonoma, the two road courses.
Jeff Gordon is the undisputed NASCAR road racing king. In his 47 starts he won nine times, had 27 top-ten finishes, and won eight pole positions. He also won six consecutive road course races from 1997 to 2000. That’s three years of domination on tracks where you have to turn left and right.
Gordon has since retired from NASCAR and serves as an analyst of Fox’s coverage of NASCAR races. In 2017, he parlayed his road-racing skills into an overall victory at 24 Hours of Daytona, showing the racing community that he can do a lot more than turn left in a stock car.