The past few weeks have been all about champions, crowning a new one and celebrating current and former ones, all of them remembered in banners fluttering from the ceiling of a banquet hall. The apex of any sport is a championship, and to claim the title in the Sprint Cup Series is to earn the highest reward there is in NASCAR.
But championships alone do not necessarily equal greatness, as the ranks of those enshrined in and nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame will surely attest. In the sport's earlier days, there were drivers who never won a season-long title because such a thing didn't mean nearly as much in an era where the series competed 50 times per year, and some chased only the big events. In more recent times, there have been plenty of great drivers who never won a championship because of circumstances, or misfortunate, or because they had the bad timing of going up against the likes of Dale Earnhardt or Jimmie Johnson at their peak.
So yes, a title alone cannot be the sole barometer of greatness. The lack of one certainly didn't hurt Junior Johnson or Fireball Roberts from getting into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. So as Jimmie Johnson's 2013 celebration ends and everyone turns their eyes toward another title run to come in 2014, here are the top 10 drivers without a championship at NASCAR's highest level.
10. Geoffrey Bodine
The oldest of the racing Bodine brothers from Chemung, N.Y., Geoffrey was a star in the modified ranks -- he won 55 races in one season alone, 1978 -- long before he moved south and began his career in NASCAR's major league. Although many remember Bodine for the fiery Camping World Truck Series crash he survived in 2000, his record on the race track stands on its own. It was Bodine who delivered the first race victory to Rick Hendrick, then owner of a fledgling outfit called All-Star Racing, in 1984 at Martinsville. All told Bodine won 18 times, including the 1986 Daytona 500, and was among the best of his era on road courses. He never won the title -- the closest he came was third in 1990, well back of Earnhardt -- but he won just about everything else.
9. Tim Richmond
The 1986 season was when Tim Richmond emerged as the NASCAR superstar everyone knew he had the potential to be. A rambunctious playboy with a lion's mane of hair and an attitude to match, the former open-wheel star won seven times in 1986 and finished third in final points behind Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. It was only the beginning, everyone surmised. But the following season, Richmond missed the Daytona 500 with what reporters were told was double pneumonia. He came back, won twice more, and was out again. When he died in 1989 at age 34, the rumor of AIDS was confirmed by his death certificate. On the track, his career had been short but spectacular, netting 13 wins in just 185 races. Who knows what he might have accomplished had he lived longer, given that the illness took hold just as he neared the top.
8. Denny Hamlin
If a few things break a little bit differently, Denny Hamlin could very well have a pair of championship rings by now. If his fuel strategy doesn't backfire in the penultimate race of the 2010 season at Phoenix, if his car's master switch doesn't go on the fritz in the fourth-to-last event of the 2012 campaign at Martinsville -- well, who knows. If he doesn't break a bone in his back in a crash early this past season, maybe he contends then, too. Regardless, time and time again Hamlin has shown all the signs of being a champion waiting to happen -- except that it hasn't happened yet, despite 23 race wins and three finishes inside the top five in final points to date. The good news is, his back seems to be responding to treatment, and the 33-year-old would appear to have plenty of time left ahead of him.
7. Fred Lorenzen
There's a reason they called him Fast Freddy. Fred Lorenzen was first a star on the short tracks in and around his native Chicago -- including Soldier Field, which was an auto racing venue long before it was home of the Bears -- and then a success at NASCAR's national level in Holman-Moody equipment that helped deliver all 26 of his career victories, the 1965 Daytona 500 among them. But like many top drivers of his day, Lorenzen didn't compete in the full NASCAR season, chasing big-money events and other races along the way. His best career points finish was third in 1963, when he competed in just 29 of 55 events. But he won six of those, and notched 21 top-fives, and still finished well ahead of fourth-place Ned Jarrett, who made 24 more starts. Had Lorenzen raced a little more that season, he may have a NASCAR championship to his name.
6. Ricky Rudd
The Ironman is best known for his record for consecutive starts, which still stands at 788. But he was also a fierce competitor who won 23 times, and notched at least one victory a year for 16 consecutive seasons. Although Rudd enjoyed stints with car owners Richard Childress, Bud Moore and Rick Hendrick, he had an independent streak, and for six years carried the dual titles of driver and owner. But it was at the same time big-money sponsors and multi-car teams were becoming the standard, making it tougher for driver/owners to compete. Although Rudd continued to contend for race wins, those later years with his own team saw him take a tumble in the points. He rebounded with Robert Yates and enjoyed two of his best seasons, but his best shot at a title had been 1991, when he finished second in points behind Earnhardt.
5. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch is on the short list of drivers with the most natural talent in NASCAR, and he shows it almost every race weekend in his ability to flat-out dominate events. Contending for championships, though, is another matter altogether. It's somewhat shocking to realize that for all his ability, this past season's fourth-place finish was Rowdy's best ever at the premier level. More times than not, he's suffered early failures or accidents in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and wound up back in the pack -- which was certainly the case in 2008, his best season, when he won eight times but opened the playoff with three straight weeks of mechanical issues. Then there's the matter of Busch not having won a Chase race since 2005, when he wasn't even in the playoff. But he's only 28 and clearly one of the best in the business, so you're inclined to think the breakthrough will come with time.
4. Davey Allison
The son of a NASCAR champion, Davey Allison seemed unquestionably destined for greatness. He was just 32 years old when he notched his 19th career victory, in the spring of 1993 at Richmond. He had narrowly missed out on a title the previous season, finishing third behind Bill Elliott and champion Alan Kulwicki in the closest race ever to that point. But Allison's greatness was never to be fully realized -- on July 13, 1993, he crashed a helicopter he had bought just three weeks earlier, trying to land in the Talladega infield to see the son of driver Neil Bonnett test a car. Accounts from the time say the helicopter was a foot from landing when it shot up into the air and turned over, landing on the pilot's side. Allison died of a head injury in a Birmingham hospital. To this day, people still mourn not just the loss of a father, son, and husband, but also the promise of a career that was only beginning to blossom when it was tragically cut short.
3. Fireball Roberts
One of the biggest stars of early NASCAR, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts was an ace on the sport's biggest tracks. He won seven times at Daytona, the cornerstone of a career that produced 33 victories overall. But like many of his era, Roberts didn't pursue a points championship, instead picking off the races that paid the most. His best overall finish was second in 1950, a short 19-race campaign that marked the second season of NASCAR's premier division. But the schedule ballooned after that, and Roberts never finished higher than fifth. He was a star nonetheless, not to mention the sport's biggest career money winner, until he was involved in a fiery crash in 1964 at Charlotte. Burned over 75 percent of his body, Roberts seemed to make early progress before succumbing to pneumonia and blood poisoning. He death at 35 prompted a series of safety changes that transformed the sport.
2. Mark Martin
Blessed with a mixture of longevity and talent, Mark Martin used a physical fitness regime to remain competitive at NASCAR's highest level well into his 50s. Particularly during his heyday driving for Jack Roush, the man was a force behind the wheel, a major player for wins and championships in an era where the competition at the top was steep. He won 40 races but never a title, enduring five runner-up finishes. The most painful of those was likely 1990, when Martin was penalized 46 points by NASCAR for an illegal carburetor space at Richmond, and lost the championship to Earnhardt by 26 points. Martin had mellowed by 2009, when he won five times and finished an unlikely second to Jimmie Johnson, and later added valuable leadership to Michael Waltrip Racing. When he stepped out of the car after this past season's finale, it was likely for the last time.
1. Junior Johnson
Goodness, did Junior Johnson do it all. The man has been a moonshiner, a winning driver, a crew chief, an engine builder, a jack man, a maker of excellent pork products, a championship car owner, and now a NASCAR Hall of Famer. But the one thing the "Last American Hero" never did was win a title as a driver at the sport's top level, even though he claimed 50 races over a 14-year career that ended in 1966. Once again, it was a matter of choosing limited races over a full season. In 1965, for instance, he won 13 times -- as many as that season's champion, Ned Jarrett -- but because he started just 36 out of 55 races, he finished 12th in final points. In fact, when it comes to best overall finish, Johnson was never better than sixth.
Of course, none of that dilutes the Junior Johnson legacy. He started as a master of short tracks, then became a master of super speedways, and in between mastered just about everything else. He won the Daytona 500 in 1960, won 132 races and six titles -- three each with Cale Yarborough and Waltrip -- as an owner, and was part of the Hall of Fame's inaugural class in 2010. Yes, for someone who never won a championship as a driver, ol' Junior didn't do too badly after all.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- NASCAR Hall of Fame
- Dale Earnhardt
- Junior Johnson
- Geoffrey Bodine
- Denny Hamlin