For most of its 75-year history, and particularly since the early 1970s, the focal point of the NASCAR Cup Series has been the season championship.
Winning the title was noteworthy prior to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. joining NASCAR as its primary sponsor, but the stacks of money provided by the Winston cigarette brand increased the importance of the championship exponentially. To be known as a “Winston Cup champion” became a much-coveted honor.
Over the years, many talented drivers have chased the championship, won dozens of races, come close to winning the title trophy and built Hall of Fame careers, all while failing to reach that ultimate goal.
Here are 10 of the best “non-champions.”
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1. Denny Hamlin — Hamlin had the look of a championship driver from his first full-time season (2006), when he finished third in the standings. Along the way, he has won the Daytona 500 three times, won 48 Cup races and built a Hall of Fame resume. In the race for the championship, however, he has finished second, third three times, fourth twice and fifth twice.
2. Mark Martin — Martin was Denny Hamlin before Denny Hamlin. He chased the championship across 23 full-time seasons in the sport, falling short on several agonizing occasions. He was second five times and was in the top five in eight other years. Forty Cup victories and a reputation as a racer’s racer gave him clear entry into the Hall of Fame.
3. Junior Johnson — Johnson was the opposite of a “points” racer. He drove cars like there was no tomorrow. The result was typically a win, a wreck or an exploding engine. Although he won 50 races as a driver and later six championships as a team owner, there would be no driving title for Johnson.
4. Davey Allison — Truly his father’s son (Bobby won the championship in 1983), Davey checked every box that might be listed under “champion” in the early years of his career. He barely lost the title in 1992 but seemed on track to compete for numerous championships down the road. He died in a helicopter crash in 1993.
5. Fred Lorenzen — “Fearless” Freddy, smart, fast and handsome, was a runaway star in Cup racing in the 1960s. He won 26 times between 1961 and 1967 and never ran a full schedule (although he finished third in points in 1963).
6. Fireball Roberts — The sport’s first superstar never raced a full Cup season. He won 33 races, including at least one every year between 1956 and 1964, when he died from injuries suffered in a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished in the points top 10 six times.
7. Ricky Rudd — Rudd drove for numerous teams, including his own, and won 23 times. A fierce competitor (ask Kevin Harvick about this), Rudd won at least one time every season for 16 consecutive years. He scored his best points finish — second — in 1991.
8. Carl Edwards — Edwards was solidly consistent throughout a career that produced 28 victories and earned him a shot at the title in 2011, when he tied Tony Stewart but lost the championship on a tiebreaker. He likely would have been in more championship races in future years but decided to retire early.
10. Tim Richmond — Richmond had a short but brilliant career, winning 13 times across seven seasons. In 1986, he won seven races and finished third in points. Fast, fearless and controversial, he died of AIDS in 1989, two years after his final race.
Honorable mentions: Jeff Burton, Jim Paschal, Curtis Turner, Geoffrey Bodine, Buddy Baker, Greg Biffle, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant.
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NASCAR Power Rankings: Best drivers without a Cup championship originally appeared on NBCSports.com