Kenny Bruce, NASCAR Scene
After 54 years, these NASCAR records continue to stand the test of time
Babe Ruth’s 60 home runs. Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points in a single game. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. The sports world is filled with records, awash with statistics that provide reference points for what has taken place on the playing field. Sports records are not only historical footnotes, they serve as tools as well, formulas of a sort used to measure the greatness of a particular competitor.
NASCAR is no different. The numbers tell the story of stock car racing, from its early, back-road beginnings to today’s version of speed theater. Despite more durable equipment, an ever-increasing influx of money being spent in the sport and a talent pool that seems to grow deeper by the year, several of the sport’s records have continued to stand the test of time.
As the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup season prepares to get under way, here’s a look at some of those legendary records, and some of the competitors who appear ready to brush those marks aside.
The magnificient seven
All-time record: 7, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt
Modern-era record: 7, Dale Earnhardt
Over the past 55 years, 26 drivers have worn the NASCAR championship crown in what is now known as the Nextel Cup Series. Of those 26, 13 captured one title, six won the title twice, four drivers won it on three occasions, one driver is a four-time champion and only two drivers, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, scored seven championships during their careers.
Today, seven drivers with at least one championship remain active.
Jeff Gordon, whose four crowns places him third on the list, turns 33 in August. And many say he has the best shot at reaching seven championships, if not more, before his career is over.
“You never know,” Gordon says. “I couldn’t believe I won four in the amount of time I did, or especially the first three – in 1995, ’97 and ’98. I mean, that was pretty fast.
“You’re going, ‘Yeah, if I can stay on that kind of [pace], but you know that’s not going to last forever.”
Gordon reached three championships in only 188 starts, wrapping up his third title with one race remaining in the ’98 season. Earnhardt reached three titles in his 272th start. Like Gordon, he claimed his third title early, two races before the end of the ’87 season. Petty, on the other hand, had more than 560 career starts when he won his third title. Those numbers, however, are misleading – during the 1960s and until the 1972 season, the series schedule often included as many as 50 races.
“I would love to do it,” Gordon says. “But I just believe you’ve got to get to five first, then you’ve got to try to get to six and then just kind of see [what happens]. I mean, you never know. Right now, I’m honestly completely happy, I’m content with four. It’s allowed me to be in a category that’s very prestigious, that means a lot to me, it’s something that I never expected to do. It’s almost like the five and six would go unnoticed. They would mean a lot to me, though.”
Richard Childress, who fielded the team that helped carry Earnhardt to six of his seven titles, says winning one championship is difficult, let alone multiple titles. But, he says, Gordon is probably the driver to do it if anyone is to break the magical seven mark.
“I think the seven championships is realistic for a guy like Jeff,” Childress says. “After that, who knows? No. 1, you’ve got to get the people and the structure in place to contend for that first one. And then you’ve got to keep them, as well as continually improve, to maintain that level.
“But I would say Jeff is the next guy you’d look at.
“Dale and I talked about winning championships, but we never really talked about just winning the seventh. We talked about winning the eighth, the ninth. We were second in 2000 [in points], I guess it was, second a couple of years there in a row. We could have easily won more.”
Before he took the plunge into becoming a car owner, Ray Evernham was considered one of the sport’s top crew chiefs. He helped groom and develop Gordon for Hendrick Motorsports and served as Gordon’s crew chief during his first three championship seasons.
“I still feel like our first championship we won, we really weren’t ready to win it,” Evernham says of the 1995 title. “And that kind of messed us up a little bit. The next year, I feel like we should have won it. And we didn’t because of some mechanical problems. But ’97-98, we were able to back-to-back it.”
Sustaining that level of competition, however, is not only difficult because of the changes in technology that come about as the sport continues to evolve, but it can be emotionally draining on a team as well.
“I think one of the things that hurts the most is ... you’ve got to remember, we were so dominant, that I felt like if you went to the race track and you came home third, everybody was looking at you like, ‘What happened?,’” Evernham says. “So that puts a lot of pressure on you, too. It’s tough, it’s a lot keeping that deal together. It’s a lot more than people think.
“You’ve got other people trying to steal your guys, your guys are getting burned out, you’ve got to stay ahead of technology with the car ... from a driver standpoint, he’s got to be on every lap because so much is expected of him, and yet there are so many demands on them.
“The mental part of it is very, very difficult. I really think that that’s why in any professional sport, you see people in cycles, three- and four-year runs. There are teams that have those 3-4 year runs, and some that have 10-year cycles where they are probably average. But nobody’s winning championships 10 years in a row.”
All-time record: 3, Cale Yarborough (1976-78)
Modern-era record: 3, Cale Yarborough (1976-78)
Eight drivers have won consecutive titles, but only Cale Yarborough has enjoyed three straight championships. And it’s been 25 years since he accomplished the feat.
Four drivers nearly managed similar results but came up empty – Buck Baker, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip finished second after winning back-to-back titles.
The rigors of contending for a championship can exact a toll on a team. While competitors often talk about carrying momentum over from one season to the next, talking about such an effort is the easy part. Making it happen is much tougher. Especially today, when keeping teams together is not easy.
Still, sometimes it’s those types of changes that can help fuel a team, a bit of new blood that hopes to carry on past traditions.
“It takes a lot out of people, it really does,” says Evernham. “If you’re going to win three or four championships in today’s competition, you’ve got to have a lot of depth. No matter what, the human element still plays a big part in that. And what happens to your mindset or your psyche over a 3- or 4-year stretch ... it’s very, very intense when you’re in a championship battle. And that has a tendency to put a lot of pressure, a lot of burnout on people.
“I think once you get your equipment and you’ve got your talent, how can you keep it together for that 4-5 year stretch to win three championships in a row? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s going to be difficult.”
Childress saw Earnhardt miss the three-peat on two occasions – in 1988 he finished third and in ’92 he wound up 12th.
“That’s the toughest thing today, keeping everyone together,” Childress says. “Getting people to realize that the crews, the drivers ... [you have] somebody deciding that they want to go try something different. Or they get bought away or whatever. What it does, it ends up just totally upsetting the racing. That’s why I say you’ve got to get your people aligned, you’ve got to get your team aligned, your driver, everything has to be in that focus.”
When all is said and done
All-time record: 200, Richard Petty
Modern-era record: 84, Darrell Waltrip
Did you know: Ryan Newman led the series with eight wins in 2003. At that pace, it would take the Penske Racing South driver another 25 years (making him 51 years old) to break Petty’s all-time record.
It is perhaps the most secure mark in NASCAR’s growing record book. Richard Petty’s 200 career wins hasn’t just stood the test of time, it’s never even been challenged. And with changes in the sport, such as the reduction in the number of races on the schedule, it’s unlikely that it ever will be challenged.
Only two active drivers have 50 or more career wins – Gordon and Rusty Wallace. And even they admit Petty’s career-win record is likely secure. The modern-era record, held by Waltrip, appears to be within reach, however.
“Never,” Gordon says of Petty’s total. “I think if you look at (number) one, the competition always gets tougher and tougher every year. Which makes it harder. [Number two] the schedule – we’re racing 36 points races a year, and they raced a lot more.
“I think as the sport has grown, careers have gotten shorter. I think you’ll really start to see more of that in the next 10 years. Where people aren’t in the sport nearly as long as they used to be. Two hundred wins, I think everybody realizes that’s not even doable, so there’s no use sticking around trying.”
Childress says the mark is “one record that you won’t see broken.
“Richard was a great race driver,” he says, “and always will be in my opinion.”
Ryan Newman, who has nine career wins, including eight in 2003, agrees that the competitiveness of the sport today, and the number of races, stifle anyone’s chances at reaching the 200-win plateau. But should NASCAR decide to return to a much busier schedule – running one- and two-day shows – Newman says he wouldn’t object.
“If they had two-day events [or] one-day events, that would be fun. I wouldn’t mind doing 50 one-day events, to be honest. Nothing against that.
“But us spending three days [at one track], wasting so much time during the weekend, it’s good on one end, bad on another.”
Even Petty himself admits such a mark will be hard to erase.
“The sport’s just so much more technical now,” he says. “It’s not an individual sport like it used to be. If you had a good crew chief, a good driver and put those guys together, you had a pretty good combination. Now, that’s just two [parts] of the whole wheel. You’ve got to have engineers, you’ve got to have all the other stuff put together. It just gets more complicated just because it’s more technical.”
On a tear
All-time record: 27, Richard Petty (1967)
Modern-era record: 13, Richard Petty (1975); Jeff Gordon (1998)
Another mark that, because of changes in the season’s schedule, likely won’t be rewritten. The modern-era record is another matter, however. Gordon has already equaled Petty’s 13 wins, and twice he’s won 10 races in a season.
“I think I won 13 races in a 28-race season,” Petty says. “It took Gordon 32 or 33 [races]. Now, they’ve got 36 chances at it. If you win half the races, you’re there.
“But it’s just so hard right now, the way the system is, the way the cars all run. Track position and all that stuff just makes it tougher and tougher to win.”
Tougher, but clearly not impossible.
“I think it’s still attainable,” Newman says. “You have to have a heck of a season, one like Jeff had in 1998 when he did it. But, yeah, it’s still attainable. When you’re racing 36 times a year, you can still win 13 of them.”
In the groove
All-time record: 10, Richard Petty, 1967
Modern-era record: 4, Shared by 7 drivers (Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Harry Gant, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.)
When Petty won 27 times during the 1967 season, the schedule consisted of 49 races. So Petty won, roughly, 55 percent of the events. And it was during that run that he put together another impressive mark, winning 10 consecutive races. From Aug. 12, when he won at Bowman-Gray, through the fall event at North Wilkesboro, Petty was unstoppable.
Four drivers have won four consecutive races during the modern era, but only two – Mark Martin and Gordon – will be competing full-time in 2004.
Martin managed the feat in 1993, winning on perhaps the most diverse tracks on the circuit – the road course at Watkins Glen, Michigan’s wide-open, 2-mile oval, the tight confines of tiny Bristol and rugged Darlington Raceway.
Gordon strung together four straight during his 1998 campaign, winning at Pocono, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen and Michigan.
“Every team out here is so capable today,” Gordon says, “and you are going from tracks where you might be racing on a half-mile one weekend, a superspeedway the next. So, yeah, I think it’s especially tough to put together any sort of streak today.
“But it seems like when a team gets on a roll, it can seem like everything is going their way. And it can be pretty tough to stop them.”
It’s not where you start
All-time record: 126, Richard Petty
Modern-era record: 59, Darrell Waltrip
All-time record: 20, Bobby Isaac (1969)
Modern-era record: 14, Cale Yarborough (1980)
All-time record: 5, Shared by Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Bill Elliott
Modern-era record: 5, Shared by Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Bill Elliott
Qualifying may or may not take on added meaning beginning in 2004, depending on whether NASCAR rewrites the points system to award bonus points for where a team lands in the lineup. If such changes come, then you can bet teams will start putting even more emphasis on those one- and two-lap jaunts that currently have little if any effect on the outcome of a race.
Averaging five poles a season – not an impossible task – over the course of a 20-year career would put any driver within reach of Petty’s career record. Matching, or breaking the all-time single-season mark of 20 held by Bobby Isaac might be a bit more difficult. And while three drivers share the record for consecutive poles (5), it’s a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Bill Elliott turned the trick in 1985.
The modern-era mark for career poles – Darrell Waltrip holds the record with 59 – isn’t as rock solid. Three full-time drivers are already among the top 10 of all time – Rusty Wallace (36), Mark Martin (41) and Gordon (46). Bill Elliott, despite cutting back on his schedule in 2004, needs only four poles to tie Waltrip’s mark.
Just don’t forget the younger drivers who are beginning to make their mark in the sport. Newman, for instance, led the series the 2003 season with 11 No. 1 qualifying runs.
Records, he says, are kept for a reason, and he’d be happy to be the one to establish a new mark. Qualifying isn’t taken for granted in the Penske camp, a fact Newman’s team proved in ’03.
“Poles, I look at those just like wins,” he says. “They’re the same when it comes to wins and records.
“You’d be surprised [how much preparation goes into qualifying]. We put in a whole lot of effort in all aspects. We’re here to try and win everything. Whether it’s track records, most wins, most poles, most laps led. Whatever it is.”
Gone with the wind
Pre-restrictor plate record: 212.809 mph, Bill Elliott, 1987
Restrictor-plate record: 199.388 mph, Bill Elliott, 1990
With the advent of the restrictor plate, qualifying speeds have taken a nosedive at Daytona and Talladega, the two tracks where NASCAR tries to slow the pace of the race. As a result, Elliott’s mark of 212.809 mph is likely in the books for good.
Not that some drivers wouldn’t mind taking the plates off and giving it a shot.
“I would love to beat that one,” Gordon says, “but that’s up to NASCAR. If they took the restrictor plates off, we’d be blowing 212 away.”
Under race conditions, though, he’d just as soon see them continue to be a part of the sport.
“Just for fun, one time. Or maybe just for qualifying,” he says of taking the plates off. “But not in the race. I think it would be way too dangerous.
“I think we all realize that we can put on a great race at 190 mph. It seems to me like, if anything, we drop the numbers down and keep the racing close and tight and exciting, and keep the cars safer by keeping it down. It seems like every time we start getting over 190 and into the mid-190s, they start thinking about things they can do to get the speeds back down.”
Removing the plates, Newman says, would likely provide “some really hairy racing.
“But I’d like to try it just to see what it would be like. I think it would be cool if we could do that.”
Although he came to the sport long after the implementation of the plates, Newman’s gone plenty fast before.
“Oh yeah. I went 213 mph in an IRL car at Texas in 1998. But anybody could have done it. ... It didn’t feel any different [than our speeds].”
Elliott says the 212-mph qualifying lap “wasn’t that different,” but says he hasn’t forgotten how dangerous the sport was not that long ago. And qualifying, he says, could be just as dangerous as the actual race, given the climbing speeds on the race track.
Earlier in 1987, Elliott won the pole for the Daytona 500 with a lap of 210.364 mph. It was that lap, he says, that got his attention.
“I still think that 210 is my most impressive deal,” he says.
Even though it was two mph slower?
“Man, I tell you what,” Elliott says, “what a ride. It was ... it’s like I said when I left pit road, I didn’t know if I was coming back.”
From start to finish
All-time record: 1,184, Richard Petty
Modern-era record: 803, Ricky Rudd
By the time his career came to a close, Petty had amassed 1,184 official starts. In his first official Grand National race, which took place in Canada during the 1958 season, he was bumped out of the way by his father, Lee, who went on to win the race. In his final start at Atlanta in 1992, Petty was involved in a fiery crash early in the race, but returned to the track long enough to bring many of the fans to their feet.
His success in many areas remains unequaled, as does his longevity. Few drivers today have half as many starts as Petty, and only a handful are credited with 750 or more.
“They used to run so many races back then,” says Terry Labonte, who has 781 career starts. “I don’t know [if anyone can break that record]. It just depends on how many more races they keep adding. That’s the key to it – how many races they ran back then. Richard ran all those races and that’s how he got all those starts.
“With the schedule the way it is today, it would be almost impossible for somebody to do that.”
Drivers, Petty says, have no reason today to attempt to extend their careers beyond their 40s. As the sport has become more lucrative, it will likely become easier for drivers to step aside.
“Look at the monetary deal,” he says. “But yeah, you’ve got to look at the whole deal, too. We drove for the sheer fun of driving because there wasn’t that much money [to be made].”