It has truly been an incredible ten years for NASCAR racing. The decade began with Dale Earnhardt winning four titles in five years. His championship run ended in 1995 when an upstart driver named Jeff Gordon captured three Winston Cup titles in four seasons. The 90's saw the sport grow in both fan base and market share. New tracks in major markets such as Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami, and Dallas, brought NASCAR increasing popularity. Not to mention the fact that the series began racing at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The early part of the decade saw the retirement of Richard Petty, and the untimely deaths of Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki. The mid-90's saw Dale Earnhardt tie Petty's mark of seven Winston Cup titles, along with the emergence of Jeff Gordon. The latter part of the decade saw Gordon post 49 victories and capture three Winston Cup titles. By the end of the decade, a new television contract was signed which will bring the majority of stock car races to network television by 2001. Something that would surely have seemed like a pipe dream when the decade began. Prize money, endorsements, and merchandising have put drivers in a financial situation that would probably have seemed unrealistic in 1990. In terms of exposure, popularity, and prominence, the 90's were the most successful decade in NASCAR history.
1. Jeff Gordon
In 1990 Jeff Gordon was a sprint car driver with a strong fan base in the Midwestern states. Ten years later, he's a three-time Winston Cup champion with fans worldwide. His rise to the top of the NASCAR world occurred over a relatively short period of time. After a brief stint in stock cars at the end of 1990, Gordon raced full time on the Busch series in 1991-1992. He won a few Busch races in 1992 and moved up to Winston Cup in 1993. He won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 and followed that up with a seven win season in 1995 to claim his first Winston Cup title. He won ten races in 1996, and followed that up with another ten win season in 1997 and his second Winston Cup title. In 1998, he dominated the sport like nobody had seen since the days of Richard Petty by winning 13 races. Seven more wins in 1999 brought his career total to 49, easily the winningest NASCAR driver of the 90's. Though Dale Earnhardt won 4 titles to Gordon's 3 during the decade, the choice for Driver of the Decade was not a difficult one. Gordon's 49 victories far outpace Earnhardt's 35. His winning percentage of 21.5 is far ahead of Earnhardt's 11.3. Gordon has a higher percentage of finishing in the top five and top ten than Earnhardt. But, percentages aside, Gordon simply accomplished more. He won four consecutive Southern 500 races at Darlington, two Daytona 500's, two Brickyard 400's, won the coveted Winston Million (by winning 3 out of 4 "big" races in a single season), won five consecutive road course races (Earnhardt has won just one in his career), won four consecutive spring races at Bristol, and won The Winston twice. He won the inaugural race at California Speedway and posted victories on every Winston Cup track except for three. When Earnhardt faltered, Gordon was there to rise to the occasion. After Earnhardt crashed at The Winston in 1995, Gordon won. When Earnhardt was involved in a wreck while leading at Talladega in 1996, Gordon won the race. After Earnhardt flipped over at Daytona in 1997, Gordon went on to win. Gordon also has held off the Intimidator in on-track battles. The final 11 laps of the 1999 Daytona 500 saw Gordon and Earnhardt wage a spirited battle, with Gordon winning. He also held off the Intimidator on the Martinsville short track a few months later. Gordon won the most money and most races in the 90's. The bigger the race, the better Jeff Gordon drove. Dale Earnhardt dominated the circuit in terms of championships until 1995, but Jeff Gordon's last five years of the decade (1995-1999) were simply more dominant than Earnhardt's first five years of the 90's.
2. Dale Earnhardt
At the end of the 1994 season, Dale Earnhardt was on top of the NASCAR world. He was so far on top of the mountain that an eighth Winston Cup title in 1995 seemed like a sure thing. However, 1995 would be the beginning of the end of his dominance. After earning the moniker "Intimidator" for his driving style of the 80's, Earnhardt redefined his driving at the start of the decade. After losing the 1989 Winston Cup battle to Rusty Wallace, Earnhardt focused on consistency over victories. The strategy paid off with four championships in five seasons. In 1990, he won 9 races and won the title by 26 points over Mark Martin. The following year, his margin was more comfortable but his win total slipped to four. His "rock bottom" year in the 90's was 1992. Earnhardt struggled throughout the season winning just one race and finishing out of the top ten in points for the first time since 1982. After longtime crew chief Kirk Schelmerdine departed, the team regrouped for the 1993 season with Andy Petree calling the shots. Earnhardt posted six victories en route to his third title of the decade. His most memorable victory that season was at Pocono in July at the first race after the death of Davey Allison. Earnhardt stopped at the start-finish line and made a victory lap carrying a #28 flag. In 1994, Earnhardt posted a career high 25 top ten finishes. He clinched the title at Rockingham, two races before the end of the season. The 1995 season would prove to be the turning point of the decade. At The Winston, Earnhardt overdrove his car into turn four creating a wreck. Jeff Gordon dove low to avoid the wreck and take the win. Suddenly, there was a new kid on the block. Earnhardt won five races, but Gordon won seven and the 1995 championship. In 1996, Earnhardt won two races and slipped to fourth in points with only 17 top ten finishes. At Talladega he was involved in a wreck that sent the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet tumbling down the frontstretch. He suffered numerous injuries but didn't miss a race. Though, he wouldn't visit victory lane again until 1998. He struggled with new crew chief Larry McReynolds in 1997 leading some to suggest that he was pre-occupied in building Dale Earnhardt, Inc. After finishing fifth in points in 1997 (while Gordon won his second title), the likelihood of an eighth title seemed to be slipping further away. In one of the most memorable moments in NASCAR history, Earnhardt returned to victory lane by winning the 1998 Daytona 500, a race he had tried unsuccessfully to win 20 times. However, 1998 would be another year for Gordon (13 wins and his third title). In 1999, Earnhardt swept both Talladega races and won at Bristol after wrecking Terry Labonte on the final lap. He showed flashes of his earlier brilliance and seems poised for another championship run. The only question regarding Earnhardt's future success is consistency. Sure, he's still going to win races. But he hasn't shown the week-to-week consistency necessary to contend for the title since 1995. Earnhardt accomplished a lot in the 90's. He won 4 Winston Cup titles, won the Daytona 500, won the Brickyard 400, and proved he can still win races into his late 40's. But Earnhardt's career is approaching its conclusion. And his time for winning an eighth title is starting to slip away.
3. Dale Jarrett
Dale Jarrett put an exclamation point on an incredible decade of racing by winning the 1999 Winston Cup title. Jarrett started the 90's as a journeyman driver in the Wood Brothers #21 Citgo Ford. In 1990, he attempted just 24 races and posted 7 top ten finishes. He would end the decade in much better shape. His first victory came in 1991 at Michigan. He dueled door-to-door with Davey Allison on the final lap to take the win. He departed the Wood Brothers after the 1991 season to join a neophyte team at Joe Gibbs Racing. After a season of struggling, the team burst out of the gate in 1993 by winning the Daytona 500. He held off a late challenge from Dale Earnhardt to take the win. Jarrett would go on to post 18 top ten finishes in 1993 and finish fourth in the final standings. In 1994, he won at Charlotte but struggled over the course of the season and dropped to 16th in points. He left Gibbs to drive for Robert Yates Racing in 1995. It was originally just a one-year contract as Ernie Irvan recovered from serious injuries after a 1994 crash. Jarrett won at Pocono but his season in the #28 Texaco Ford was a general disappointment. Yates started a second team when Irvan was ready to return. However, the driver was still in question. Jarrett's name was not at the top of Yates' list. Jarrett could have signed with anyone at that point. His future was uncertain. But Yates decided to take a chance and sign Jarrett for the second team. Jarrett and the new #88 Quality Care Ford team won the 1996 Daytona 500 in their first race together. It marked the fourth different race team that Jarrett won with during the decade. He would go on to win the 1996 Brickyard 400 and finished a career best third in points. In 1997, Jarrett won 7 races (Atlanta, Darlington, Pocono, Bristol, Richmond, Charlotte, and Phoenix) and finished 10 points behind Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon. He was on the threshold of a championship and barely missed... just barely. It was a year where he proved he was a threat to win on every type of race track. He posted a career best road course finish (4th at Sears Point) during the season and was the early favorite to win the 1998 title. During 1998, he would visit victory lane just three times. Late in the year, he battled gallbladder problems but still finished third in points. When 1999 began, the 42-year-old Jarrett was considered a title contender, but not the favorite. He would go on to win 4 races (including his second Brickyard 400), post 24 top five finishes, and 29 top ten finishes in 34 starts to claim the Winston Cup title. Dale Jarrett went from journeyman to Winston Cup champion during the decade. He won two Daytona 500's, two Brickyard 400's, claimed a Winston Million bonus, and won a Winston Cup title. His career is headed into its twilight, but he's still got a few good years left. Should he be able to minimize potential distractions, his reign as champion might be longer than one year.
4. Mark Martin
Mark Martin was the 90's most consistent driver. He finished in the top six in the points standings every year, including three runner-up finishes to the Winston Cup champion. He won 30 races and firmly established himself as one of the stars of the show. Martin also won four IROC titles in the decade. Yet for all of his accomplishments, he only rates as the fourth best NASCAR driver. Why? Because he hasn't won a Winston Cup title and he hasn't won the Daytona 500 or Brickyard 400, the two richest events in the sport. Nevertheless, Martin is a fierce competitor and weekly front-runner. He posted victories on every type of track. From road courses, to short tracks, to intermediate tracks, to the superspeedway of Talladega, Martin has visited victory lane. He drives for the top funded organization in NASCAR (Roush Racing) and has put together three seasons that would normally be good enough to win championships. In 1990, he was fined and points were taken away after he won at Richmond using an unapproved engine part. He would lose the championship by a scant 26 points to Dale Earnhardt. In 1997, he posted four victories and 24 top ten finishes. Yet he finished third in points behind Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett. In 1998, he was runner-up to Gordon, though the margin was not nearly as close. After struggling with knee and back problems throughout 1999, Martin opted for off-season back surgery which should allow him greater flexibility in his back for the coming years. Martin is a perennial threat for the Winston Cup title and at times he seems to be consumed by the quest. It's easy to say that his career is incomplete without a championship. But, truth be told, it is.
5. Rusty Wallace
Rusty Wallace is an enigma. He's probably the most knowledgable driver on the circuit in terms of chassis setup. He knows shocks and springs like a painter knows oils and colors. Robin Pemberton is considered by many to be among the best crew chiefs in racing. Penske Racing South spares no expense to prepare the Miller Fords for the track. Despite winning 33 races, Wallace failed to win a championship in the decade. He only finished in the top 3 in the final points standings twice. In the early part of the decade, the superspeedways were his downfall. At every race at Daytona or Talladega, he'd either wreck or blow an engine. In recent years, his superspeedway performance has improved somewhat, but his performance at other tracks has fallen off. From 1993-1996, Wallace won 25 of his 33 races that he won during the decade. He dominated short tracks, won on road courses, was a threat to win at the intermediate tracks, and was always a frontrunner on the long speedways like Michigan and Charlotte. By 1997, his performance sank to a single victory and just 12 top ten finishes. He rebounded with a strong start to the 1998 season (he led the points until May), though he once again only won a single race that year. As a new decade dawns, time seems to be running out on Rusty. He'll turn 44 in August, still young enough to win races and championships. All the pieces are in place for Wallace to have a championship season in 2000. There's no reason why he can't win the 2000 title. With 49 career wins and a perennial threat on short tracks, his resume speaks for itself. But will his stellar, race-winning career be incomplete without a second Winston Cup title?
6. Terry Labonte
Terry Labonte experienced a rebirth in the 90's. After a successful decade in the 80's in which he won the 1984 Winston Cup title and 10 races, he failed to visit victory lane from 1990-1993. He joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1994 and the "Iceman" returned to the saddle. After he slipped to a career low 18th in points in 1993, Labonte rebounded to win three races and finish seventh in the 1994 points standings. In 1995, he finished sixth in the points and again won three events. His most memorable victory came at Bristol in 1995 when he led Dale Earnhardt off the final corner. Earnhardt hit Labonte's car in the rear sending him into a sideways spin across the finish line and into the frontstretch wall. He put together the most consistent season of his career in 1996 en route to his second Winston Cup title. Though he only posted two victories on the year, his 24 top ten finishes were enough to win the elusive title. Labonte won just a single race the following year and struggled through 1998, though he remained in the top ten in points. The 1999 season was another up and down season for him. Labonte scored major victories at Texas and at The Winston, but mechanical failures and general inconsistency hindered his efforts. As the Kelloggs team looks ahead to 2000, the reunion of Labonte with crew chief Gary Dehart should be the elixir to bring the #5 Chevrolet back into contender's status.
7. Ricky Rudd
Ricky Rudd had a steady decade of racing. He started the 90's driving the #5 Tide Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. In 1991, he was the runner-up to Dale Earnhardt for the Winston Cup title. Though he never won more than two races in a season, he picked up victories in every year except 1999. He left Hendrick Motorsports after the 1993 season to form his own team with Tide as the major sponsor. In an era of multi-car conglomerates, Rudd became the most successful owner-driver on the circuit. He turned heads in 1997 with the biggest win of his career in the Brickyard 400. During the decade, he posted victories at Dover, Pocono, Watkins Glen, Darlington, Phoenix, and Rockingham. His final victory of the 90's was the result of a determined effort on a hot September day at Martinsville in 1998. Through the ten year period, Rudd posted 10 victories and 7 top ten finishes in the points standings. In terms of driving ability, he's definitely among the elite. Nearing his mid-40's, Rudd's career will be invigorated next season when he steps into Robert Yates' Texaco Havoline Ford. After struggling the last few seasons, Rudd should once again be among the title contenders.
8. Ernie Irvan
If not for an unfortunate crash on a Saturday morning in Michigan in 1994, Ernie Irvan might be ranked a lot higher. As it is, Irvan won 15 races in the decade. He began the 90's by earning the nickname "Swervin' Irvan." When there was a multi-car incident, Irvan was usually the cause. It became such a problem that Irvan asked to address the drivers before the DieHard 500 at Talladega in 1991. He offered an apology for rough driving and hoped to earn back the other drivers respect. In time, he did. Irvan would go on to win the 1991 Daytona 500 and finished a career best 5th in points that year. In September 1993, he stepped into the Texaco Havoline Ford after Davey Allison's death. He led the points standings before suffering near fatal injuries in a Michigan practice crash. He made a miraculous recovery, but he would never be the same after that incident. In 1996, he capped his comeback by winning two races but bore the brunt of the blame for a Talladega wreck that injured Dale Earnhardt. His final victory came at Michigan in 1997. The track would come back to haunt him two years later. While practicing for a Busch race at Michigan, he crashed and suffered a severe concussion thus ending his driving career.
9. Bobby Labonte
After winning the 1991 Busch series title and finishing a close second in the BGN series in 1992, Bobby moved up to Winston Cup in 1993 driving for Bill Davis Racing. He was the runner-up to Jeff Gordon in the 1993 Rookie of the Year voting after finishing a respectable 19th in the points. In 1995, he left Davis to drive for Joe Gibbs. His first victory came later that season at Charlotte in the Coca Cola 600 and he followed that up by winning both Michigan races that year on his way to the 10th position in the final points standings. In 1996, he finished 11th in points. His season was highlighted by a victory in the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta in which his brother, Terry, won the Winston Cup title. He put together a more consistent season in 1997 with a 7th place effort in the final standings. In 1998, he finished 6th in points and picked up Pontiac's first win at Talladega since 1983. The 1999 season was Labonte's breakthrough year. Though he finished a distant second to Dale Jarrett in the Winston Cup title race, he won at Michigan, Dover, swept both at Pocono, and captured a 125-mile Qualifying Race for the Daytona 500. Poor finishes on the road courses hindered any title hopes he may have had, but he finished the decade poised as a title contender. Though he will make unforced errors at times (Charlotte 1998), and his fiery temper (remember his infamous "kick the car" tantrum at Bristol several years ago?) can hinder his efforts. With the financial backing of Interstate Batteries and the talent pool at Joe Gibbs Racing, Labonte will likely be a Winston Cup title contender for years to come.
10. Davey Allison/Alan Kulwicki
Their respective paths to Winston Cup racing could not have been more different. However, both seem to be permanently linked by tragedy during the 1993 season when they both lost their lives in aviation accidents three months apart. Allison won 13 races from 1990-1993, posting victories in high profile events such as the Daytona 500, Southern 500, and Coca Cola 600. He was named 1992 NASCAR Driver of the Year in a season that saw him take the points lead into the final race only to see his title hopes dashed after a wreck. Kulwicki posted four victories from 1990-1993 and won the 1992 Winston Cup title by 10 points, the closest margin in NASCAR history. Allison and Kulwicki seemed destined for future success during the 90's. For as great as they were, I'm forced to wonder what might have been.
Just Missed The Cut
Geoffrey Bodine and Jeff Burton both won 11 races in the 90's. Bodine won The Winston in 1996 and picked up a handful of wins at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro. Burton broke into the series in 1994 and won his first race in 1997. He has remained a perennial contender and has picked up notable wins at Texas and Darlington, but he has yet to put together a championship caliber season.
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