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NASCAR's greatest runs of success at it's most daunting racetracks
Jimmie Johnson’s eighth career win at Martinsville last Sunday highlighted his dominance at that particular track. Johnson has won seven of the last 14 visits to the track and in 23 starts has an average finish of 5.3. While he still has a way to go to match Richard Petty’s mark of 15 wins at the paperclip, it did bring to mind some past performances at other tracks by NASCAR stars who were able to hit on some unmistakable magic. Let's take a look at the top 12 most dominant streaks in NASCAR:
12. Rusty Wallace – Martinsville Speedway, 1993-96
Some may have scoffed when Rusty Wallace was inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year, but his performances on short tracks over the years were as impressive as any driver in the sport’s modern era. Dale Earnhardt may have dubbed him “Rubberhead,” but Wallace was rock solid on tracks under a one mile. Credit his Midwest ASA short track roots, as his best facility statistically was Bristol, but it was at Martinsville where he really went on a tear. From 1993-96, he won five times at the track, as well as posted one runner-up and one third-place showing. In 1993, he made a mockery of the event, leading 409 of 500 laps – so much for the good ol’ golden days of the early- and mid-1990s for competition, eh? Fittingly, Rusty would win the final race of his career in 2004 at Martinsville.
11. Kyle Petty – North Carolina Motor Speedway, 1990-92
Long before he was tearing up Twitter (check out last week’s response to a guy threatening to cut his pony tail) and the highways of North America for his charity motorcycle ride, the heir to the Petty throne was getting his legs under him as a Cup contender in the late 1980s. Once he decided he wasn’t going to take Nashville by storm as a country music singer, he focused his attention to the Sand Hills of North Carolina, turning venerable Rockingham into his own personal concert. From 1990-92, he won five poles in a six-race span and at the 1990 event, put on a clinic leading, 433 of 500 laps (and winning $284,450 in the process — a princely sum by way of some Unocal 76 bonus money for winning from the pole). Two more wins would follow in ’91 and ’92 for Kyle, making “The Rock” the only Cup track where he would score multiple victories.
10. Mark Martin – Watkins Glen International, 1993-95
For all the talk of road course ringers, it’s interesting that most of the successful Cup Series drivers have rather storied road-race histories themselves. Mark Martin was part of 24-Hours of Daytona class wins with Jack Roush in the 1990s and lists learning to drive on gravel roads around Batesville, Ark., in his father’s lap as part of that training. From 1993-95, Martin’s Valvoline Thunderbird was a force to be reckoned with on NASCAR’s roadies. He won three consecutive events during this time – all from the pole. The ’93 race saw him take the win after Dale Earnhardt and Kyle Petty tangled in the closing laps, though Martin twice had to overcome stripped-out lug nuts on pit stops. In ’94 he led 75 of 90 laps, and 61 of 90 laps the following year. Martin was on the verge of great things at The Glen prior to his three-year streak. In 1991 he spun while passing Ernie Irvan for the lead on the final lap and in ’92 was in contention when the race was called for rain just past halfway. All told, he averaged an amazing 2.7-place finish at the historic road course from 1989-98, never placing outside of the top 5.
9. Bobby Labonte – Atlanta Motor Speedway, 1996-99
In 1996, Terry Labonte was in the process of winning his second Winston Cup title. Meanwhile, brother Bobby was starting to run roughshod over the field at Atlanta Motor Speedway. After Mike Skinner nearly won his first Cup race in Atlanta dueling with Labonte, he half-jokingly lamented about “Bobby Labonte showing up here in his damn Pontiac.” The younger Labonte earned his second career win at the ’96 season finale in Atlanta from the pole and would start a span of seven races that saw him win four times, as well as posting a second- and a fourth-place run with a pair of poles, to boot. He would later add two more wins at AMS, including his last to date in 2003. It should come as no surprise that Kyle Busch’s first win with the Joe Gibbs Racing organization also occurred at AMS in 2008.
8. Jimmie Johnson – Charlotte Motor Speedway, 2003-06
With the number of obscene statistics that Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have compiled over the past decade, none highlight the dominant nature of their success than the run of results at what was then appropriately titled “Lowe’s Motor Speedway.” From 2003-06, Johnson posted five points-paying wins, a pair of seconds, a third and a pair of wins in the All-Star Race. Johnson went dry for a few years at Charlotte afterward, but returned to win from the pole in 2009 and won the All-Star race again last year for a third time.
7. Darrell Waltrip – Bristol Motor Speedway, 1981-84
Over the last 12 years, we’ve all become aware of DW’s “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” on Sunday afternoons. Yeah, it might be wearing a little long in the tooth, but behind all of the shameless self-promotion is one of the all-time great drivers (who had an even better catchphrase back in the day with, “Follow me in Tennessee!”). From 1981-84, Waltrip dominated rough ‘n’ tumble Bristol in what some fans viewed as a downright offensive manner. Eight straight wins — three in a row from the pole — with never more than five cars on the same lap highlight the dominance of his Junior Johnson-owned team. Looking back further, it seems Waltip was getting primed for his run, finishing in the top 3 (two wins) in the seven visits prior to the eight-win streak. In ’92, he won his final race at Bristol as well as the Southern 500 at Darlington the following week, the final two triumphs of his Hall of Fame career.
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Talladega Superspeedway, 2001-06
To say the superspeedway gene runs deep in the Earnhardt family would be an understatement. Back when he was synonymous with “The King of Beers,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. was presiding over his own kingdom of Eastaboga, Ala. Then, the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Chevrolets were nearly unbeatable on NASCAR’s plate tracks, as Earnhardt Jr. drove to five wins over the span of seven races. The two he didn’t win? Both runner-up showings; one to teammate Michael Waltrip, the other under caution to Jeff Gordon, which resulted in the No. 24 car being pelted with a barrage of beer cans. Junior’s last win at Talladega, in 2004, was the source of much controversy. After being told of the accomplishment of winning for a fifth time at the track, his reply to Matt Yocum was the now-infamous, “Well it don’t mean sh*t … Daddy done won here 10 times so I gotta do a little more winnin’!” His exuberance cost him 25 points, a fine levied by NASCAR for cursing on television, in the midst of a title run that saw him taking the points lead after having bounced back from massive burns suffered in a practice crash for a Grand Am race in Sonoma.
5. Dale Earnhardt Sr. – Talladega Superspeedway, 1990-2000
If you ever get the chance to travel to Talladega, you will notice there are three flags flown: the United States flag, the Confederate flag and a black flag with a white No. 3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have been penalized 25 points for stating a fact, but it was his father’s success at Talladega that helped give birth to a legend. They say he could see the air. Not really, though – with his seat reclined at a 45-degree angle and wearing an open-faced helmet, he could probably feel the air on his face more than “see” it. That said, the Man in Black owned Talladega for the better part of a decade, winning eight of 22 races, with seven finishes of fourth or better in those he didn’t claim. He swept the events in 1990 and ’99, and his final — and perhaps most memorable — victory was came in 2000, when he drove from 18th to the win in the final six laps. Yeah, you’ve seen it before, but take a few minutes and watch perhaps the greatest superspeedway performance of all time.
4. Bill Elliott – Michigan International Speedway, 1984-89
“Awesome Bill from Dawsonville” is remembered for a number of accomplishments. Chief among them: two Daytona 500 wins, making up two laps at Talladega under green to win, posting the fastest qualifying lap in NASCAR history, winning the inaugural Winston Million in 1985 and claiming the 1988 Winston Cup championship. Overlooked during this decade of dominance was his performance at car owner Harry Melling’s home track, Michigan International Speedway. MIS has always had a reputation as being a Ford track – legend has it the torque curve coming off the corners helped the Blue Ovals dominate there for nearly 20 years. And from 1984-89, Elliott’s No. 9 Coors T-bird won seven poles and seven races, including sweeps in ’85 and ’86.
3. Jeff Gordon – Darlington Raceway, 1995-98
The mid-1990s was a turning point for NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt was suddenly presented with a natural rival in the form of young upstart Jeff Gordon — Earnhardt’s polar opposite in the eyes of NASCAR Nation. Where the new Wonderboy really excelled, coincidentally, was at NASCAR’s oldest and toughest speedway: Darlington. From 1995-98, Gordon won five races at “The Track Too Tough to Tame,” including four Southern 500s and the ’97 event that saw him banging fenders and blocking (gasp!) Jeff Burton down the frontstretch for a million-dollar payday. Oh, and those two races that he didn’t win? Third- and second-place runs. Gordon’s success at Darlington during these years helped propel him to title wins in 1995, ’97 and ’98.
2. David Pearson – Darlington Raceway, 1970-1980
There are certain tracks that some drivers are forever linked to, and that is certainly the case with David Pearson and his home state track of Darlington Raceway. From 1970-1980 the Silver Fox won nine races, nine poles, three Southern 500s and did so driving for three different car owners – the Wood Brothers, Hoss Ellington and Rod Osterlund, the latter in relief for an injured Dale Earnhardt in 1979. Pearson scored his most wins at Darlington (10 of his 105 triumphs), however it was not the only track where he enjoyed a field day. In 13 races from 1972-78 at Michigan, Pearson nearly equaled his Darlington dominance, posting eight wins, eight poles and never finishing outside of the top 5.
1. Richard Petty – Martinsville Speedway, 1967-75
You know those memes that pop up on Facebook that picture an accomplishment of some significance, and one victorious line of sentiment underneath? Feel free to draw one up with The King, who won a total of 15 races at Martinsville. From 1967-75, Petty would win 11 times. 1967 was Petty’s second title season, and the one that earned him the nickname “King Richard.” He posted 27 wins that season, including 10 in a row. Two of those wins came at Martinsville. While the Petty persona may be synonymous with Daytona, having won the 500 a record seven times, it’s this Martinsville feat that stands the test of time, and the mark that every driver – even Jimmie Johnson – aspires to.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Photos courtesy of Actions Sports, Inc.