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Top NASCAR Greats Who Came Short of a Championship

Photo Credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series field was set on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway. In a reformed ‘playoff’ format, 16 drivers qualified to compete for an all-new trophy through the final 10 races of the season.

Announcing that the 2017 season will be his last full-time effort in the Cup series, Dale Earnhardt Jr would have been a fan favourite part of the playoff. While the #88 Chevrolet owned by Hendrick Motorsports has struggled through a large portion of the 2017 tour, there was still a longshot hope the driver could transfer with a win at the 400-mile Richmond race. Making a bold gamble in waiting for a caution to gain track position, the Hail Mary shot did not work. Out of the playoff fight in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Earnhardt Jr career will apparently not include an overall championship. Dale Earnhardt Sr’s record-tying seven Winston Cup titles remained a weight that many fans and critics used to assess his son. Presently owning 26 race wins including two Daytona 500 victories, a 2000 All-Star Race win at Charlotte Motor Speedway and two championships in the NASCAR Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series), does Dale Earnhardt Jr need a Cup title to exist as an NASCAR legend on his own credentials?

While a championship best cements a driver’s legacy, competition in NASCAR limits the number of racers able to capture the ultimate year-end award. Winners of dozens of events, Daytona 500 champions and stories of overcoming odds define a group of drivers missed out on a season title.

Keep in mind, Carl Edwards is excluded from this grouping. Edwards’ on-track achievements marked by 28 victories including Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 wins as well as a 2011 title contention where he lost in a tiebreaker to Tony Stewart would definitely qualify him but his undetermined career future has left the driver off the list.  

Fireball Roberts

Photo Credit: ISC Archives

Widely accepted as one of NASCAR’s first superstars, the man born as Glenn Roberts in 1929 would gain the name “Fireball” when he began competing as a pitcher in high school baseball. Stepping into a stock car in 1947, Fireball Roberts’ first win in NASCAR’s most elite series in 1950. The victory total would climb to 33 out of 206 starts including the 1962 Daytona 500. Roberts gained a reputation as a smart yet hard-charging competitor who could push the limits of equipment. In a time when auto manufacturers began to aggressively support NASCAR, the ace driver was highly popular achieving success with Pontiac and Ford. The career and life of Firebird Roberts ended tragically in 1965 following a flame-filled crash at the Charlotte’s World 600 race. Critically injured by burns, Roberts died after 39 days in a hospital at the year of 35. The death of the early NASCAR superstar led to improved measures preventing fuel tank explosions that led to the evolution of fuel cell currently used on Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race cars.

The point system in the time Roberts competed in the NASCAR series was considerably different from today by emphasizing higher-paying races. It seemed common practice for some drivers to avoid lower paying events through the 1950s and 1960s based on this factor with being Firebird Roberts no exception. Focused on running a partial schedule for most of his career, Firebird Roberts’ best year-end result in the championship was second place in 1950.

James Hylton

Photo Credit: Padraic Major/NASCAR

When looking at the career of James Hylton in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, some statistics would not indicate how close the driver was to being a champion.

Starting 602 race events between 1964 and 1993, Hylton won on just two occasions in the Cup series (at Richmond in 1970 and at Talladega in 1972). Despite few visits to victory lane in the top-level NASCAR tour, James Hylton consistently finished in the top-10 in the point standings. Hylton cracked the top-10 in the NASCAR championship for the first time in 1966 with a runner-up finish to David Pearson. The effort was enough to be recognized as Rookie of the Year in series. The next year, he finished second again in the points behind Richard Petty and his dream season run. Hylton would once more claim the runner-up spot to Petty in 1971. Although every result generally included a sizable point margin, the feat was considered extremely impressive since he competed as a driver/owner through much of his career without the same level of financial or manufacturer support teams like Petty Enterprises received.

James Hylton maintained a presence in stock car racing as a team owner in the ARCA (Automobile Racing Club of America) series. In 2007, at the year of 72, he attempted to qualify for the Daytona 500 but fell short of making the field. His final race behind the wheel of a stock car was at the ARCA Kansas Speedway event in 2013.

Fred Lorenzen

Photo Credit: ISC Archives via Getty Images

Though Fred Lorenzen’s NASCAR racing career could be seen as brief at just 158 races in an era where 50-race seasons were common, his skill behind the wheel of a stock car earned him the status of a legend. 26 race wins, 33 pole positions and the 1965 Daytona 500 are among the highlights for the Illinois native who shined as a member of the Ford camp in the 1960s. Nicknamed “Fearless Freddy and later “Golden Boy”, Lorenzen gained the latter moniker after the 1963 season when he became the first NASCAR driver to win more than $100,000 in a season. Lorenzen was rewarded with NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award twice in 1963 and 1965. Deciding to quit racing after 1967, Lorenzen returned to competition in the early 1970s. In 1971, Fred Lorenzen wore STP sponsorship a year before Day-Glo Red was mixed with Petty Blue on Richard Petty’s #43 racer.

In the 1990s, I picked up a wonderful NASCAR history book by D. Randy Riggs called Flat-Out Racing: An Insider’s Look at the World of Stock Cars that contained some great insight on Fred Lorenzen in the driver’s own words. Lorenzen said it was never his or his team’s intention to compete for a championship but did ultimately attempt one run. According to Fred Lorenzen’s statement, it appeared to have been the 1963 season where he finished third overall in the year’s title hunt. The only other season where he placed in the top-10 was 1963 with a seventh place ranking.

Davey Allison

Photo Credit: ISC Archives via Getty Images

A lot of the story of Davey Allison is what could have been if tragically was avoided. A second generation stock car driver who was the son of the great Bobby Allison, Davey’s Cup career was hitting a zenith in the early 1990s driving the #28 Texaco/Havoline Ford Thunderbird for Robert Yates Racing.

While his racing pedigree was known, Davey Allison’s road to the than NASCAR Winston Cup series was not instantaneous. First working for his father’s team, he would race locally in Alabama at the now-demolished Birmingham International Raceway before joining the ARCA series. Earning Rookie of the Year in the national ARCA series, Allison was eventually granted a handful of Cup series rides before receiving his big break with the Rainer-Lundy team in 1987. Replacing three-time champion Cale Yarborough in the #28 Ford, Allison won at Talladega and two races later captured victory at Dover. Taking the 1987 Rookie of the Year honours in NASCAR Cup competition, championship caliber pieces fell into place with when engine builder Robert Yates bought Davey Allison’s team ahead of the 1989 season and crew chief Larry McReynolds midway through the 1991 season. The young Alabama native won the 1992 Daytona 500 joining his father as a victor of the prized stock car event.

Coming off of career-best third in the championship in 1991, Davey Allison was part of a narrow point’s battle in the late part of the 1992 season. In fact, if he had finished sixth or better in the Atlanta Motor Speedway finale, he would have locked-up the title. In position to take the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup championship, Allison was involved in a late race wreck when Ernie Irvan suffered a blown tire resulting in a collision with the #28 Ford.    

A favourite for the title prior to 1993, Allison won the season’s third race at Richmond. The sadly short career and life of Davey Allison ended with the crash-landing of a helicopter he was piloting. His loss on July 13th 1993 deeply affected his family and the NASCAR community as a whole. Davey Allison posthumously won the IROC title.

Mark Martin

Photo Credit: Chris Stanford/ Getty Images

Mark Martin’s recognition for being a patiently aggressive driver made him willing to let other competitors go early in the race confident he could catch them later. Martin’s devotion to maintaining peak physical fitness was pioneering for its era and would serve as an example for current and upcoming professional stock car drivers. A once in a generation driver, Mark Martin path to NASCAR stardom was a lesson in perseverance that many of us can take to heart.

Beginning his career in the NASCAR Winston Cup series after winning the championship in ASA (American Speed Association) on three consecutive occasions, Martin entered a handful of races in 1981 before attempting a rookie run in 1982. Martin would finish second behind Geoff Bodine in the Rookie of the Year battle but found difficulty maintaining a presence in the Cup series. Returning to ASA to eventually capture a fourth series title in 1986, Mark Martin gained the recognition of car owner Jack Roush who was just entering NASCAR. The driver/owner pairing would become a potent duo.

Debuting in 1988, Mark Martin’s #6 Roush Racing Ford encountered difficulties finding consistency through the first season in a winless full-time campaign resulting in 15th place in the points. In 1989, Martin claimed his first Cup series win and catapulted to 3rd in the point standings. Gaining competitiveness at a rapid rate, 1990 saw the #6 Ford Thunderbird as a weekly threat. Finishing below 14th place on only two occasions in 1990, Mark Martin’s consistency and three wins made him championship material. Unfortunately, a hefty 46-point penalty handed to Martin following failed technical inspection after his win at the second race of the year was costly. Dale Earnhardt won the 1990 Winston Cup title by 26 points.

Arkansas’ Mark Martin would finish second in the points a total of five times with the latest coming in 2009 under a Chase format playoff. Obtaining 40 victories in what is now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, he is currently the most winningest driver not to possess a championship in the top stock car division. While not winning a title personally as a driver, Mark Martin can claim a championship as a co-owner with Jack Roush when protege Matt Kenseth won the 2003 title. The championship-winning #17 Ford was part of Roush Racing but placed in the name of Martin who was also an investor with the car.


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