The Debate: Top Driver in NASCAR History Never to Have Won a Cup Championship

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Debate: The Best NASCAR Driver Without a Cup TitleRacingOne - Getty Images
  • OK, who is the greatest NASCAR Cup driver never to have won a Cup Championship?

  • We asked a dozen retired and active NASCAR beat writers for their opinion.

  • We polled team owners, industry insiders, radio/TV broadcasters, and track operators.

  • See if you agree with the Big Three.

Let’s have a debate. Not an argument, but a debate. Civil. Thoughtful. Respectful. Facts, not shady distortions of the truth. On an intellectual level … if there’s any such thing these days. Let’s keep it clean.

The topic: Best NASCAR driver—past or present—never to have won a Cup Series championship.

Three logical candidates: the late Junior Johnson; the long-retired Mark Martin; or current championship Playoff contender Denny Hamlin. But voters are allowed—encouraged, even—to nominate anyone outside that threesome. Surely, there must be others who came close but never won the big trophy.


We asked a dozen retired and active NASCAR beat writers for their opinion. We polled team owners, industry insiders, radio/TV broadcasters, and track operators. We even polled a random fan or two. In total, their experience around the sport on an almost-daily basis reaches almost 500 years. (Our four Autoweek contributors alone totaled almost 175 years). Nobody on the panel ever worked with Hamlin, Martin, or Johnson, although most had covered them closely during the past 50-plus years.

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Why not me? Denny Hamlin seems like a perfect answer to the question of greatest driver in NASCAR history without a Cup championship.Logan Riely - Getty Images

These stats are helpful, but certainly don’t tell the full story:

Big Three: Mark Martin, Denny Hamlin, Junior Johnson

Hamlin: 40 poles and 50 victories in 641 starts; three Daytona 500s; a Coca-Cola 600; a Southern 500; two Talladega victories; a NASCAR all-star victory; 14 top-10 points seasons; victories at 19 different tracks; 2006 Rookie of the Year, all accomplished with Joe Gibbs Racing;

Martin: 56 poles and 40 victories in 882 starts at 20 tracks; five points runner-up seasons and four third-place seasons; 17 top-10 points seasons; Southern 500, Coca-Cola 500, and Talladega 500 victories; won on road courses, superspeedways, short tracks, and intermediate tracks; 35 victories with Roush-Fenway-Keselowski Racing, five with Hendrick Motorsports;

Johnson: 46 poles and 50 victories in 313 starts; four top-10 points seasons while never running the full schedule; only 12 of 50 victories came on current tracks; won the second Daytona 500 on a day when it was widely reported he “discovered” drafting (others dispute that); best points finish was sixth in 1955 and 1961; he spent parts of the 1956-1957 in an Ohio prison after being caught, tried, and convicted of moonshining.

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Mark Martin was a runner-up for the Cup championship no less than five times in his career.Tyler Barrick - Getty Images

Among the comments from the panel regarding the greatest driver without a championship:

• “Easily, Mark Martin. A five-time championship runner-up, four-time third-place finisher. Honorable mention: Carl Edwards. Ironically, both had title hopes dashed by NASCAR points penalties to their Jack Roush-owned cars that had no bearing on race worthiness: Martin, an intake manifold spacer at Richmond in 1990 and Edwards, an oil tank lid at Las Vegas in 2008.”

• “I’ll have to go with Hamlin because he’s won the Daytona 500 three times and won Talladega twice. Martin never won Daytona and he won Talladega just once.”

• “Gotta be Mark Martin. Tough as nails and a reliable points racer who was second-best all-time (to Matt Kenseth) in that category. Martin was the prototypical stock car driver: smart, steady and stubborn as the day is long, convinced he could get the job done under any and all circumstances. His lack of Cup championships is a crazy black hole in the sport's history.”

• “Just looking at the numbers, it has to be Junior Johnson. He got his 50 wins in 313 starts. It took Hamlin 641 starts to get 50 wins. Mark Martin got 40 wins in 882 starts.”

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Curtis Turner had 54 top-5 finishes in 184 career starts from 1949 to 1968.RacingOne - Getty Images

Curtis Turner was among the greatest driving talents of all time and a world-class party animal. He never focused on a championship run. He was too busy building a speedway (Charlotte), making and losing fortunes in other business ventures (lumber), hobnobbing with Hollywood types, and daring to defy Bill France Sr. by trying to organize a drivers’ union, etc.”

• “A vote for Martin. He was so consistent race to race, year to year with Roush, but couldn’t get past Earnhardt and Childress. Then (he couldn’t get by) Gordon. Like, ahem, Hamlin, it would seem he tended to not fare well in a final showdown due to nervousness.”

• “Junior Johnson, no contest. Country-smart, talented, gritty, and gutsy. He would have run circles around the “other” Johnson (Jimmie) with a load of ’shine sloshing in the trunk.”

• “After considering the number of races, the point systems, and the years they drove, I go with Denny Hamlin. Since his debut in 2005, he has failed to win in only one season (2018). He even won in 2013, when he missed four races (due to injury). He and Junior Johnson are tied in victories, but Hamlin has more top-5 and top-10 finishes, and more laps led.”

• “Turner, just because he was such a badass in every respect.”

• “My gut says Hamlin for performance, Martin for likeability, and Junior for legendary status. Hamlin and Johnson each won 50 races and Martin 40, but three Daytona 500s (by Hamlin) breaks any ties. Also, more cheating back in Junior's time.”

• “Mark Martin is the first who comes to mind. Five second-place points finishes, 13 top-5 points finishes and 40 career wins. Only Richard Petty has more runner-up points finishes (6) and only Bobby Allison has as many (5). The 26-point loss to Dale Earnhardt in 1990 due to an early-season points penalty is still a point of contention for many Martin supporters. Minus the 46-point loss, for a carburetor spacer issue, he would seemingly have won the title by 20 points. He was 31 when he missed the 1990 title to Earnhardt. Nineteen years later, at 50, he was still chasing championships, finishing second to (Hendrick Motorsports) teammate Jimmie Johnson.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his 26 career wins got the attention of one NASCAR expert on our panel.Jonathan Daniel - Getty Images

• “Dale Earnhardt Jr. is another legitimate candidate. He had at least one good chance to win it before he crashed in Atlanta (late in 2004) and had an impressive number of career victories (26). He was burdened by loyalty to an average crew chief at best and his own lack of stamina, which he exacerbated instead of working on it. The talent was there.”

• “As a journalist, I covered Mark Martin’s entire Cup career and saw him miss winning the Daytona 500 by inches. I was in Atlanta when, in the last race of 1989, he was poised to win the championship. Jack Roush told me on race morning they’d upped the RPM limit to try to win the race. Instead, the engine blew. I’m a sucker for guys who try so hard and miss; that was Martin. He put so much into his racing. I never met anyone who tried harder. He deserved to have been champion several times over.”

• “Junior Johnson would perhaps be the best overall driver of the three you mentioned. Like virtually all the drivers of his era, he was best on the shorter tracks. But my vote would be for Fireball Roberts. He was the first superspeedway superstar and he was always very competitive on the short tracks. His owners didn’t chase championships, but rather went to the big-money races.”

• “Mark Martin is a no-brainer; always the bridesmaid, never the champion! Hamlin is still racing, so it’s too early to predict. I think (the late) Tim Richmond would have been part of this group had he competed longer.”

Your turn, gentle reader: what say you?