I believe Mike Joy started calling Kyle Busch “Wild Thing” during his breakout year of 2008 when he joined Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s not really wild, and doesn’t exactly conjure images of Ricky Vaughn (who wore No. 99, not 18). Maybe if he got that zig-zag Vegimatic haircut in the back it might work. Or if he threw a baseball at an ump. Well, he threw up a couple zingers at a NASCAR official once … maybe that counts.
Nothing like some self-deprecating humor to help spawn a nickname. Todd Bodine’s ovoid appearance helped create the name that stuck, along with a wildly grinning onion character on the roof of his truck. Competing semi-regularly now, the two-time Truck Series Champ remains one of the most recognizable faces (and figures) in the Truck Series.
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Carl Edwards – “Cousin Carl”
Who’s cousin? Oh, Ken Schrader. Eh, I get it … but they could’ve come up with something better. After his trysts with Brad Keselowski, fake-punch of a teammate and attempted choke-out of Kevin Harvick, I was thinking something like “Berserker” would do. Kurt Busch came up with “The Carl,” which is actually kind of funny. It would have worked better if his name were Todd.
“The Rooster” — not the ode to Jerry Cantrell’s father that he and Layne Staley warbled on the 1992 classic, but rather one to Ricky Rudd. You want one of the ultimate tough guy stories? Flips car at Daytona in the Busch Clash (née, Sprint Unlimited), comes back with eyes taped open to race then wins the next weekend in Richmond. Go ahead and stamp “Man’s Game” on that one. Rudd was never one to back down from anybody or anything, from hurdling the wall at Darlington to grabbing an unconscious Ward Burton out of his car following a qualifying accident to glossing Kevin Harvick with “Yip Yap” after a hood-stomping incident at Richmond. Heck, he even got into a fight with one of his engine guys when he drove the No. 28.
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Terry Labonte – “The Ice Man”
Other notables have used the moniker: George Gervin. Chuck Liddell. Val Kilmer. Well, with Val it’s probably more like “The Ice Cream Man” these days, but Texas Terry wore the name best courtesy of his cool, calm demeanor. Even when Dale Earnhardt “rattled his cage” at Bristol in 1999, Labonte eschewed any hysterics or theatrics in the post-race interview.
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Mark Martin – “The Kid”
Kyle Larson, Dylan Kwasniewski and Austin Dillon might be the young guns of today, but back it the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was a youngster tearing up the Midwest short track scene, beating up on veterans like Dick Trickle, Larry Phillips and Bob Senneker. Back then, most drivers were in their 30’s when they were finally trusted with a Cup car, so Martin — at 22 — tried to field his own. It didn’t work out so hot the first time, but when he returned it stuck. In his final seasons, Kenny Wallace worked hard to ironically reincorporate the name, which fit well since Martin was more than twice the age of some of the newcomers. Martin is now absent from competition, but the nickname will remain.
Simple, direct, monosyllabic and to the point — kind of like Tony Stewart himself. The name was given to him during his open wheel days, when he’d routinely smoke the right rear tire coming off the corners. It has helped lead to a number of clichéd headlines and a barbecue sauce, so it’s been a big winner for everybody. Stewart’s roof has even been adorned with just his nickname for the last several seasons.
Wow, really? “Sliced Bread”? What, “Diced Onions” didn’t want any of that? Since Joey Logano started off driving the orange Home Depot car, why not “Orange Slice”? Being Italian, I’m sure somebody could’ve conjured up something a bit more creative than that (“Melba Toast,” anyone?). Or something like …
In 1961, the U.S. stood on the brink of all-out nuclear combat with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Aric Almirola hasn’t exactly obliterated 50 square miles and lit up the sky like a thousand suns, but he’s done well with the equipment provided.
It’s a term of endearment, but at the same time one of reverence and respect. “The Captain,” as in “Captain of (Billion Dollar) Industry;” as in, owner of 15 Indy 500 wins, a Daytona 500, a NASCAR Nationwide championship, and most recently, a Sprint Cup title. From Ferrari dealerships to moving trucks, Penske has run and done it all. He came within a few hours of owning his own car company when he nearly completed purchasing Saturn from Government Motors during the 2009 bankruptcy reorganization but some 11th hour political wrangling put the kibosh on the deal. Come to think of it, why hasn’t he ever run for president? Penske’s stern stare alone would put a shirtless Vlad Putin in his place real quick.
An elder statesman of the NASCAR garage, Burton is one of the best at explaining an issue while not alienating either side. His perspective and way with words have positioned him to join NBC as a member of its NASCAR broadcast team. Burton is running a limited schedule with Michael Waltrip Racing this year, and rumor has it there could be a political run in his future as well. No, not some local township seat, let’s talk congressional level. The only real question is when will brother Ward pursue the same path. That’s a debate I’d go to in person.
One of the most dishonorable things a man can do is gloss his own nickname. Kurt cleared the air on this topic during the Daytona 500 rain delay this year, explaining that a PR/marketing executive-type coined the term that now adorns the roof rails of his No. 41 Stewart-Haas Chevrolet. Still, he could’ve let it die on the vine, but instead continues to perpetuate it. Not really sure if “Outlaw” is all that accurate, save for that incident with Sheriff Joe’s deputies back in 2005. The ’04 Sprint Cup champ has been in scramble mode trying to salvage his career, reputation and public persona since 2011, though honestly, I never really saw what the big deal was; his radio traffic was the stuff of legend. Own it.
Before Tenacious D penned the epic ballad, Dale Earnhardt hit Jeff Gordon with “Wonderboy” — a bit of a jab, but also a tip of the cap to the new face of NASCAR. Gordon was handed the torch as the face of NASCAR — a torch carried by the likes of Cale Yarborough, David Pearson and Richard Petty, then Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Gordon made good on Big E’s nickname, to date winning four championships, three Daytona 500s and four Brickyard 400s. He’s still one of “the” faces of the sport, and while Gordon hasn’t won as much recently, continues to steal headlines with his Pepsi-fueled stunts.
Kind of hard to put Dale Earnhardt second on this list, but part of the reason is because he has so many different nicknames. “The Intimidator,” “One Tough Customer,” “The Man In Black,” “The ‘Stache.” OK, that last one was mine, but you’d be hard pressed to find a marketing campaign better designed than. A black Chevrolet, black bubble goggles and a reputation for roughhousing made that red Chevrolet emblem on the hood more of a “move over” sign than a sponsor’s emblem. How identifiable was it was the persona? Chevrolet sold black and silver “Intimidator” edition Monte Carlos through 2007.
The nickname that has endured for six decades, “The King” is the most fitting nickname for any driver in NASCAR history. Richard Petty garnered the name after the 1967 season in which he established records that will never be broken. Never. Ever. Twenty-seven wins. Ten consecutive. Yeah, yeah, they ran a bunch of races sometimes twice a week. So? He still showed up, ran and won. His performance and persona brought the sport from an underground regional recreation to national prominence. Two hundred wins, seven Daytona 500 triumphs and seven championships won against six of the drivers who ranked in the top 10 on NASCAR’s all-time wins list (with 20 championships amongst them). Jimmie Johnson could win 10 titles under the points system of the month, but he will simply never be “The King.”
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