Every sport has the great debate of what truly defines greatness. Is Dan Marino really a great quarterback? I mean, he never won a Superbowl but he did hold basically every passing record for the longest time. Is Mike Trout a great baseball player even without a World Series ring? Of course he is.
In NASCAR, winning a championship is even tougher to come by than in other sports. Each car only has one driver, and only one person can be named the Cup Series champion at the end of each season. Hundreds of drivers have found different levels of success in NASCAR. Countless drivers have won races, racked up top-ten finishes, and won multiple pole positions. But only a select few have managed to win a championship. For the 20 drivers ranked below, failing to win a title has done nothing to stop them from being remembered as some NASCAR’s greatest competitors.
20. Sterling Marlin
Sterling Marlin is an interesting addition to this list. He won a lot of races in the mid 1990s and early 2000s but was rarely in real contention for a NASCAR Cup series title. But Sterling Marlin makes this list solely for his heartbreaking 2002 campaign. Marlin is mainly known for his back-to-back Daytona 500 wins in 1994 and 1995. From 1995-2000, he’d enjoy only moderate success, but his career was renewed in 2001 when his race team was bought out by car owner Chip Ganassi.
In 2001, Marlin would win his first race in five seasons and finish third in the championship standings. 2002 was the year of Sterling Marlin. He was the points leader for the majority of the season and was having the most consistent results of his career. It looked as if Marlin would simply coast to the championship. Of course, had that happened, he wouldn’t be on this list. With just seven races to go in the 2002 season, Marlin would be involved in a crash at Kansas Speedway and crack a vertebra in his neck, ending his season. Marlin would never again come close to winning a NASCAR title and retired just a few seasons later.
19. Ryan Newman
Owner of one of NASCAR’s best nicknames, “Rocket Man” Ryan Newman is one of just two active drivers to appear in these rankings. Newman was a title-contender in NASCAR from day one. In his first season in 2002, he’d finish sixth in the championship standings. In fact, he’d finish no worse than seventh in the standings the first four years of his career. Newman would then have several down years, finishing just outside the top-ten in points.
Although always considered a consistent driver, Newman wouldn’t again come close to a championship until 2014 when he would finish second in the standings. This was a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that he didn’t win a race that season. Since 2014, Newman has won just one race and has been a mid-pack finisher in each season. Although Newman seems to be on the downswing of his career, his 18 career wins and multiple seasons as a championship contender cement his place in these rankings.
18. Jeff Burton
Jeff Burton’s career in NASCAR was full of peaks of success, and valleys of mediocrity. He started racing the Cup Series in 1994 and had back-to-back dismal seasons driving for Stavola Brothers Racing. In 1996, he headed to Roush Racing and began to find some traction. He would finish in the top-five in championship standings from 1997-2000 and would win 15 races over that four-year span. Burton would then have several down years until he joined Richard Childress Racing.
In 2006, Burton enjoyed a career resurgence. He’d win his first race in five years and finish seventh in the standings. Burton would also finish in the top-ten in the standings in both 2007 and 2008. Burton would retire after the 2013 season with 21 race wins and 254 top-ten finishes. Burton was never able to capture a title, but was a mainstay in NASCAR for 20 years and was in title contention for many of them.
17. Geoff Bodine
Geoff Bodine is the flagship member of NASCAR’s Bodine family. He and his brothers Brett and Todd have all raced in NASCAR’s Cup series with Geoff being the most successful of the three. Geoff Bodine had success in NASCAR right away, winning Cup Series “Rookie of the Year” in 1982. In 1984, he’d become the first driver for Hendrick Motorsports, now NASCAR’s most successful team.
Between 1984 and 1990, Bodine would finish in the top-ten in the standings six times and win 10 races. In his next eight full-time seasons, Bodine would never again crack the top-ten in the standings, but he would win an additional eight races for a career total of 18, including the 1986 Daytona 500. Bodine was never able to win a title, but his dominance in the late 1980s and early 1990s cement his spot as one of the best to never be named champion.
16. Ernie Irvan
Ernie Irvan was a classic All-American racer. He loaded in his pickup truck and left California in 1982 and drove to North Carolina to make his racing dreams come true. After working odd jobs and racing late-model cars, Irvan would make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in 1987. In 1988, he’d begin racing full-time, with moderate success. By 1990, he landed at legendary NASCAR team, Morgan-McClure Motorsports and would win his first race, at Bristol. In 1991, Irvan would shock the world by winning the Daytona 500 and finish the season fifth in the championship standings. He would finish 11th in series points in 1992, and sixth in 1993.
In 1994, Irvan would suffer a traumatic brain injury at Michigan International Speedway and missed the better part of two seasons. After returning from injury, Irvan had a great 1996 season and finished 10th in points. Irvan would have three more up and down years and would retire midway through the 1999 season after suffering another injury at Michigan. It’s hard to say whether or not Irvan’s injuries had a direct effect on his racing efforts, but he did have a noticeable decline after his initial brain injury. Before being hurt in 1994, Irvan looked poised to win his first title. Had Irvan not been injured, it is widely believed that he would have been the class of the field in NASCAR throughout the late 1990s.
15. Neil Bonnett
Neil Bonnett’s career in NASCAR spanned three decades and was a roller coaster of both good and bad. In the late 1970s, Bonnett began racing part time and found immediate success, often placing in the top-ten. He’d win his first race in 1977 but would never find himself in serious contention for a championship. For a brief moment in his career, he looked like a very “all or nothing” driver. He’d either finish in the top-five, or finish near the back of the pack. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that Bonnet would enjoy consistent success.
After joining Junior Johnson’s race team in 1984, Bonnet would finish in the top-ten in the championship standings in back-to-back seasons. These would prove to be his most successful years, as he would spend the next few seasons bouncing from team to team, winning just two races and having little consistency. Bonnett would spend several years out of racing until his return at the 1994 Daytona 500. Unfortunately, Bonnet would be killed in a practice crash at Daytona and was never able to compete for a series title.
14. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Many of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s critics have been trying for years to label him a bust in NASCAR. But how many busts have won 26 Cup series races and two Xfinity series championships? It’s time to admit it. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a great NASCAR driver, regardless whether or not he ever won the Cup Series title. His career accolades include winning two Daytona 500s and finishing in the top-ten in the points standings seven times. Junior also won two Xfinity series championships as a young driver and won 24 races in that series.
Did I mention he was also voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for 15 consecutive seasons? No, Jr. was never as good as his father, but it’s unrealistic to expect Dale Earnhardt’s son to win seven Cup Series championships. Let’s be honest with ourselves and give Earnhardt Jr. some credit. He had a great career and won a lot of races despite never winning the ultimate prize.
13. Curtis Turner
Curtis Turner’s story is unique, as he is the only driver on this list to enjoy two distinct careers in NASCAR — before his suspension, and after his suspension. Turner was actually suspended from NASCAR for four years. You see, Turner was a founder of the first NASCAR drivers’ union in 1961. The formation of a union angered NASCAR owner Bill France, you said that any driver who joined the union would be banned for life from NASCAR. Almost every driver sided with France and this left Turner banned from NASCAR. Eventually, he and France would bury the hatchet and Turner would return to NASCAR in 1965.
Turner’s more successful years came before the suspension, as 16 of his 17 career race wins came before 1961. After his return to NASCAR, Turner would win just one more race. To be completely honest, Turner never really came close to winning a NASCAR title, but he also never ran a complete season. His best points finish of fifth came in 1950, a season in which he only ran 16 of the 19 races, which is truly remarkable. Had Turner ever had the funding the to run a full season, it’s a safe bet to think he would have won at least one series title.
12. Harry Gant
“Mister September” himself, Harry Gant is one of NASCAR’s most loveable drivers. He made a name for older drivers in the series, proving that you could still win races in your 50s. Gant’s career in NASCAR didn’t start until the age of 33, and he didn’t win his first racenuntil he was 42 years old. Although he was a late bloomer, Gant had an incredibly consistent career in NASCAR’s Cup series. He would finish in the top-five in the championship standings six times in 16 full-time seasons.
Gant would win 18 races in his career and earn the nickname “Mister September” after winning all four September races in 1991. Gant would win his final race in 1992, at the age of 52. Gant’s run of success is an incredible feat for a driver of his age. Most NASCAR drivers’ careers tend to taper off in their early 40s and most usually retire around that age. Gant kept on trucking and carried the torch for senior drivers, proving that they could still win, even though he’d never win a series title.
11. Greg Biffle
Greg Biffle owns championships in two of NASCAR’s three premier, national touring series. He won the 2000 Camping World Truck Series title and the 2002 Xfinity series title. Many race fans were hoping Biffle would become the first driver to win the championship in all three of NASCAR’s premier series. But Biffle was never able to capture NASCAR’s ultimate prize, despite coming close many times. Biffle’s best chance at the title came in 2005. He won six races that season, but finished second in the standings to Tony Stewart by just 35 points.
Biffle would be in victory lane consistently throughout his career, winning 19 races, a level of success that most media members and fans never thought he’d accomplish. Biffle was an over-achiever throughout his career and NASCAR and he’d finish in the top-ten in the series’ standings six times but a Cup Series title would always allude him.
10. Tim Richmond
Tim Richmond’s career in NASCAR unfortunately lasted just 185 races. But in just four full-time Cup Series seasons, Richmond was always in title contention. Richmond came to NASCAR from open-wheel racing and immediately made a name for himself. In 1982, he’d win both races at the Riverside road course and have seven top-five finishes. Over the next five years, Richmond would win 13 races came and within just a few points of the championship in 1985, ultimately ending up in third place.
In 1986, Richmond left NASCAR citing an undisclosed illness as the reason for his departure. He would return later that year at Pocono and win the race, and then won again the following week at Riverside. After six more starts in 1986, Richmond left NASCAR again and revealed to the media that he was suffering from AIDS. Richmond died in 1989 at just 34 years of age. Had Richmond not lost his life to this terrible disease, he surely would have been a NASCAR champion several times.
9. Jim Paschal
Jim Paschal was never able to drive a full season in NASCAR’s Cup series, but that didn’t stop him from absolute tearing up the race track through NASCAR’s ‘Golden Era.’ Paschal would win 25 races, and finish in the top-ten in more than half of his 421 career races. As previously mentioned, Paschal never ran a full schedule in any of the 23 seasons he competed in.
Remarkably, that didn’t stop Paschal from finishing in the top-ten in championship points nine times. In 1956, he would skip 14 of the 56 scheduled races and still manage to claim a fifth place finish in the standings. Imagine if he’d run the full schedule every year. Paschal would likely be NASCAR’s most decorated champion and a first-ballot hall of fame inductee.
8. Fred Lorenzen
Fred Lorenzen was one of NASCAR’s great drivers during it’s golden era in the 1960s and 1970s. Lorenzen would attempt just 158 races during his career, the equivalent of just four of today’s seasons. But Lorenzen would win 26 races, meaning he won a staggering one out of every six races, a completely incredible winning ratio. He also finished in the top ten in over half of his career races. Lorenzen’s career would be highlighted by winning the 1965 Daytona 500. In fact, Lorenzen would attempt the Daytona 500 nine times, and only finished worse than fifth in two of them.
Overall, Lorenzen’s career was a flash in the NASCAR pan and he never won the Cup series’ title. But Lorenzen’s career winning percentage alone makes him one of the best NASCAR drivers to never hoist the championship trophy.
7. Ricky Rudd
If you were able to watch Ricky Rudd race near the end of his career, it was like watching a blast from the past. Here’s a guy in his late 40s barreling around the track in one of NASCAR’s most legendary cars, the No. 21. Rudd had racing savvy and moves on the track that drivers today just don’t have. He raced in NASCAR in four different decades, from the 1970s to the 2000s. In his 32-year career, he’d win 23 races and have 374 top-tens.
Rudd was one of NASCAR’s first generation of superstars to retire when he hung up his driving gloves after the 2007 season. In 25 full-time seasons, Rudd finished in the top-ten in the championship standings 17 times, including a second-place finish in 1990. Although Rudd had a couple of down years at the end of his career, he is remembered as one of NASCAR’s “good guys,” and will always be a fan favorite.
6. Davey Allison
Davey Allison is another member of this list whose career ended early due to tragedy. Allison’s first six seasons in NASCAR’s Cup Series were remarkably successful. From 1987 to 1992, Allison won 19 races and was is constant competition for the championship. He finished third in the championship standings in both 1991 and 1992 and looked poised to finally win the title in 1993. At the halfway point of the 1993 season, Allison had eight top-ten finishes and one win. He was squarely in contention for the championship heading in to the second half of the season.
Unfortunately, that never came to pass, as Allison was killed in a helicopter crash while on his way to Talladega Superspeedway. In Allison’s brief career, he won 19 races and finished in the top-ten 92 times. Many people in the racing community believe that he would have won the 1993 title if not for the unfortunate accident in which he lost his life.
5. Denny Hamlin
Unlike most of the drivers in our rankings, Denny Hamlin can still turn his fortunes around and win a title. Hamlin still drives in NASCAR for Joe Gibbs Racing and is considered one of NASCAR’s most talented drivers. He has won 31 Cup Series races in his career and has come oh-so close to winning a title several times. In Hamlin’s first full-time season in 2006, he finished third in the championship standings.
In 2010, he came even closer by finishing second in the standings to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. In just 12 full-time seasons so far in his career, Hamlin has finished in the top-ten in the points standings 10 times. If you don’t count 2013, where he missed several races due to injury, he’d likely have 11. If Denny Hamlin simply continues at the pace he’s going, he’ll no doubt be a NASCAR champion some time in the very near future.
4. Fireball Roberts
Yup, his name is actually “Fireball.” Nah, his actually name is Edward Glenn Roberts Jr., but he was known in NASCAR simply as Fireball. Roberts had one of the shortest careers of anyone on this list, but he made it count. Roberts’ NASCAR career began in the late 1950s and would span just six seasons. Roberts would make the best of his short NASCAR tenure by winning 33 races, 32 pole positions, and earning 122 top-ten finishes in just 206 races. Roberts’ career was capped off by a win in the 1962 Daytona 500, NASCAR’s premier event.
Roberts was never able to capture a Cup Series championship as he was unfortunately killed in a racing accident at Charlotte Speedway in 1964. Had Roberts survived the crash, we’d likely be talking about him as champion many times over. Although Roberts was lost at the young age of 35, his tragic death led to many advancements in driver safety such as the now-mandatory five-point harness.
3. Junior Johnson
Junior Johnson ran just 313 races over a 14-season career, but he won 50 of them. That’s right, the guy won one out of every six races he entered. Johnson was an absolute winning machine. The guy could drive anything; he probably would have won NASCAR races driving a shopping cart if you double-dared him to. But many critics point to the fact that he never won any championships or even finished very high in the points standings in any of his seasons.
Well, take a second and look at his racing record. Junior Johnson never even ran a full season in NASCAR, meaning he missed several races each year and still finished in the top-ten in the standings three times. If he’d ran like two or three more races per year, he’d likely have multiple championships. But champion or not, Johnson is one of NASCAR’s legends and was an inductee in NASCAR’s inaugural hall of fame class in 2010. Although his driving career was short, Johnson spent many more successful years as a car owner in NASCAR.
2. Carl Edwards
Carl Edwards is kind of like the Seinfeld of NASCAR — he disappeared right when he was at his most successful and most popular. Edwards started racing in NASCAR’s Cup series in 2004 as a fill-in driver for Roush Racing. His performance earned him a full-time job for 2005 and he would shock the NASCAR community by winning four races and finishing third in the championship standings. Edwards would race for 11 more seasons and never finish worse than 15th in the championship standings, including six finishes in the top-five.
In Edwards’ final season he’d win three races and finish fourth in points. It was widely believed that if Edwards simply kept up his results, eventually he’d win a title. But after the 2016 season, Edwards decided to hang up his driving gloves right at the height of his career. Since then, he has been rumored to return to NASCAR many times, but has stayed away from the racetrack and is showing no signs of returning to win his first championship.
1. Mark Martin
Mark Martin is like that one cousin that always complains about the fact that she’s been maid of honor at six weddings but can’t find a husband of her own. Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Martin is one of NASCAR’s most accomplished drivers with 40 race wins and 453 top-tens in 882 career races, but he was never able to capture the ultimate prize of a Cup Series championship. In a career that spanned 31 years, Martin was consistently competitive from start to finish and was winning races well into his 50s.
Martin finished second-place in the championship standings a whopping four times and was in title contention every season until his retirement in 2014. It was hard to find anyone that had a bad word to say about Mark Martin and many fellow drivers publicly cheered for him to finally win a NASCAR title. Although he’d never accomplish that, Mark Martin retired as one of NASCAR’s greatest and most respected drivers.