At Texas Motor Speedway, it's the hat that makes the man -- at least in Victory Lane. The track awards cowboy hats to members of the winning race team, which can make the garage area feel a little like the OK Corral. They're even seasonal, which means white hats in the springtime, and black in the fall. And those black hats occasionally fit some drivers better than others.
The big track in Fort Worth will give out another passel of black cowboy hats Sunday evening, when the prairie palace hosts yet another key Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup event. Championship leaders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson head to the Lone Star State tied atop the standings, and everyone remembers what happened there last year -- Johnson and Brad Keselowski going at one another in the final laps like a pair of gunslingers, and providing the most riveting finish of the 2013 Chase.
But hold on there, little doggies. This isn't about the future, but the past -- and those drivers who have best worn a black hat of the more figurative variety. Every sport needs heroes and villains, and some play that latter role better than others, even if it's unwittingly. Now, that doesn't mean they're bad people, or they're bad drivers -- often in both cases the exact opposite is true. But they know how to rattle a cage, or dent a fender, or tweak a nose or perhaps even take a swing at it.
Of course, some drivers have been known to change hats mid-career -- Richard Petty and Fireball Roberts are among those who are known fondly as fan favorites today, even though they earned their share of derision at one point. But for others, reputations can be difficult to change. They may not have all won at Texas, but here are the top 10 drivers who best wore that metaphorical black hat.
10. Darrell Waltrip
He was the best driver in NASCAR, and he knew it. On the way to three premier series championships, Darrell Waltrip drove, acted and talked -- especially talked -- as if he had no rival. And for a time, he didn't. But his confidence often blurred into arrogance, at least in the eyes of fans who would toss beer cans or chicken bones at him, or wear "Anyone But Waltrip" shirts to the track. After being involved in an accident with Waltrip at the 1977 Southern 500 at Darlington, an irritated Cale Yarborough called him "that talky Jaws," and the nickname stuck. But a harrowing wreck in the 1983 Daytona 500 humbled Waltrip, and some of his hard edges softened over time. He's still talky, but these days it's his job at NASCAR's foremost television analyst. Of course, to many ears he's still polarizing, too.
It's hard to believe it now, listening to the NASCAR legend wax poetic about the sport's early days, but Junior Johnson was once the baddest man around -- particularly in the eyes of the U.S. government. Before he was a NASCAR Hall of Famer he was a bootlegger, honing his driving skills ferrying illegal hooch through the mountains, and once serving an 11-month federal prison sentence. In fact, one of his old stills sits in the Hall today. His reputation followed him into NASCAR, often leaving crowds polarized. Johnson didn't help his cause by being so aggressive on the race track, or by changing manufacturers. He was equally feisty as a car owner, not shy about getting into the faces of drivers who had wrecked his own. These days, it's impossible to not love Junior Johnson. But back in the heat of his competitive days, opinions were decidedly more split.
8. Robby Gordon
After crossing over from the open-wheel ranks, Robby Gordon won three races at NASCAR's top level, on oval as well as road layouts. But the way he did it often ruffled feathers, to the point that traditional NASCAR fans had a difficult time accepting him despite the acumen he showed on the track. His 2003 victory at Sonoma came after he passed then-teammate Kevin Harvick under caution, in the era before freezing the field under yellow. "Absolutely ridiculous," Jeff Gordon called it. "Chicken move," Harvick added. Then there was the Nationwide event at Montreal, where he took out Marcos Ambrose, was disqualified, and celebrated as if he'd won the race. There were skirmishes with other drivers on and off the track, including one notable shoving match with Tony Stewart at Daytona in 2000. To off-road fans, Gordon will always be a hero. To many NASCAR fans, he's remembered as a menace.
7. Jimmy Spencer
As a driver Jimmy Spencer was much like he his now as a television personality -- a larger-than-life figure who is unafraid to express opinions that might be unpopular, and whose presence and cigar smoke can fill up a room. They called him Mr. Excitement for a reason, from an aggressive driving style that facilitated his climb up the career ladder. And then there was 2003, when after a series of on-track run-ins with Kurt Busch that spanned the better part of two years, Spencer literally took matters in his own hands. Spencer punched Busch as the latter driver sat in his car at Michigan, and NASCAR suspended the Pennsylvania native for the next week's race at Bristol. Spencer later said the suspension was "extremely upsetting," but made him a better person. An archetype of the NASCAR antihero, Spencer remained popular due to his unfiltered personality and scrappy upbringing, which often contrasted with the younger drivers he competed against. Even today, he's difficult to dislike.
6. Kyle Busch
Where to begin? The bow that infuriates so many in the fan base after he wins a race? All those victories stockpiled in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits? The sometimes adventurous post-race interviews? The infamous intentional wreck of Ron Hornaday Jr. in a Truck Series race at Texas, that nearly cost him his sponsor? The younger Busch brother has been through it all, exploding onto the scene as a can't-miss teenager and getting only better from there. In fairness, the guy has matured with age and experience, benefitting from a wife, a crew chief and a car owner who have helped him balance that fiery temperament. The Kyle Busch of now has come a long way from the Kyle Busch of a few years ago. But reputations are sticky things, and fans remember all those run-ins with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and they get more agitated each time he dominated yet another Nationwide race.
5. Tony Stewart
He has three NASCAR championships, he co-owns a race team that's expanding to accommodate a fourth race team for next season, and right now he's also recovering from a broken leg. Let's not be too harsh on Tony Stewart, who away from the race track can be as friendly, as gregarious, and as accommodating as they come. But at the race track, when he's wheeling a stock car rather than the scooter he's piloting these days? "They put that helmet on ? they turn into the Hulk," Waltrip once said, and Stewart certainly fits that description perfectly. He may have mellowed a bit with age and team ownership, but at the track he's there to win, and he's not afraid of shooting down a reporter or going after another driver -- just ask Joey Logano -- in the process. Some fans see him as a bully, some as a champion of the everyman. Either way, things are rarely cloudy with Smoke.
If we needed a reminder that the Richard Childress Racing stalwart can be a handful, we got it last Saturday's Camping World Truck Series event, when he went at Ty Dillon on the track as well as off. While publicly trashing the boss' grandson might not the smartest move, Harvick has never been one to hide his true feelings. He certainly didn't in 2002, when he dumped Coy Gibbs in another Truck race at Martinsville, and was parked by NASCAR for the main event. Or in 2006, when he went after Greg Biffle following a Nationwide race at Bristol. Or in 2011, when he reached inside Kyle Busch's car after a run-in at Darlington. In fairness, Harvick can be candid and funny, and seen as something of a hero by those who like their drivers a little rough around the edges. But he also has a long memory, and you don't want to get on the guy's bad side.
3. Kurt Busch
The elder Busch brother is a little more difficult to classify these days, given that his one-year stint with the Furniture Row Racing team has often brought out his best. The influences of his girlfriend and her son have been evident, and it's hard to hammer on a guy who's become so outspoken on behalf of wounded veterans. And yet, so much of that stands out because it's in such stark contrast to Busch's past, which has been thorny to say the least. Yes, the guy probably made it too big, too soon, and perhaps wasn't as prepared as others to carry the mantle of a champion. There were all those run-ins with other drivers, with reporters, with his own race teams. There was that stunning split with Penske after the 2011 season that forced him to start all over again. He seems to be better for it all, and maybe we'll see more of this new Kurt Busch when he moves to Stewart-Haas next year.
2. Speedy Thompson
He won 20 races over the course of a successful career at NASCAR's top level, but Alfred "Speedy" Thompson was also the catalyst behind one of the most notorious crashes ever. Herb Thomas had won two championships and was leading the points with three races remaining when the circuit visited Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Shelby, N.C., in October of 1956. Thomas was second behind Buck Baker halfway through the event when Thompson hooked him into the guardrail entering the second turn, sending Thomas rebounding off the guardrail and into traffic. Thomas was struck by at least eight cars and suffered grave injuries that included a fractured skull. Although Thomas had a 118-point lead, he would lose that title to Baker, and his career was effectively ended -- the future NASCAR Hall of Famer would compete only three more times. Baker's car owner, Carl Kiekhaefer, would soon after leave the sport. And Thompson would become infamous for sparking a devastating crash that overshadowed his victories on the track.
Oh, how he was beloved. Oh, how he was reviled. Dale Earnhardt didn't just wear the black hat better than anyone before or since -- he seemed to invent it, as part of a persona that included a black race car, a black firesuit, big black sunglasses and the most intimidating nickname around. No question, the late seven-time champion was an icon who could leave fans awed by the way he wove through traffic. But he could also employ a rough style that left spectators and other competitors fuming. There's a reason why Rusty Wallace once threw a water bottle at him, a reason why he was booed in Victory Lane after rattling Terry Labonte's cage at Bristol. That night in 1999 summarized all that was so glorious and infuriating about Earnhardt, a driver who raced on his terms.
Even on his final weekend in 2001, the Intimidator loomed large -- after Eddie Cheever spun him in an International Race of Champions event at Daytona, Earnhardt returned the favor, and then stalked the open-wheel star on pit road. "I thought, 'I'm not even going to get to throw a punch here,' " Cheever said that day. "? How many times do you want me to say I'm sorry?" The menacing, mustachioed figure approached him -- and then wrapped him in a playful hug. It was all another example of how sometimes, the guys wearing the black hats aren't really that bad after all.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Darrell Waltrip
- Jimmy Spencer