1990 Paydays, Making Bank
by Tom Jensen October 21, 2020
NASCAR’s boom decade of the 1990s helped drivers cash in on opportunities in a big way.
While NASCAR continued to expand in the 1970s and ‘80s, it positively exploded in the 1990s, experiencing one of its largest growth spurts ever.
Fueled in large part by a move into new, major markets, along with the dream rivalry between two Hall of Famers, established star and working-class hero Dale Earnhardt (2010) and the young, media-savvy and sophisticated newcomer Jeff Gordon (2019) NASCAR hit record levels of popularity in the 1990s.
During the 1990s boom, beautiful new race tracks opened near Los Angeles (Auto Club Speedway), Dallas (Texas Motor Speedway), Boston (New Hampshire Motor Speedway), Miami (Homestead-Miami Speedway) and last but not least, Las Vegas (Las Vegas Motor Speedway). Not to mention the fact that NASCAR began racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, arguably the world’s most famous race track, in 1994.
The move to newer, bigger markets, along with the Earnhardt-Gordon rivalry, paid immediate dividends, as purse money rapidly escalated to record levels. In the 1980s, no NASCAR driver earned as much as $10 million over the decade. In the 1990s, eight drivers earned more than $11.9 million each; six of those eight earned at least $15 million in the ‘90s.
Here are the five NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees who earned the most purse money during the 1990s. (All stats courtesy of racing-reference.info).
5. Rusty Wallace, $15,866,069
For the second decade in a row, Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace (2013) ranked fifth on the NASCAR earnings list. The nearly $16 million Wallace earned in the 1990s was almost triple what he earned the prior decade, when he pocketed nearly $5.4 million. Wallace won 33 races during the 90s, including a career-year in 1993, when he won 10 events driving for fellow Hall of Famer Roger Penske (2019). The following season, Wallace claimed eight more victories.
4. Dale Jarrett, $19,459,918
After winning just three races in the first half of the decade, Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett (2014) went on a tear in the second half, winning 19 races from 1995-99. From 1996 to ’98, Jarrett never finished lower than third in the points, and in ’99 the second-generation Hall of Famer won a premier series championship for himself and Hall of Famer team owner Robert Yates (2018). During his title season, Jarrett finished in the top five in 24 of 34 races.
3. Mark Martin, $20,762,237
Hall of Famer Mark Martin (2017) has been described by some as one of the greatest NASCAR premier series drivers to never win a championship. Title or not, in terms of getting paid, Martin did quite well for himself when he drove for fellow Hall of Famer Jack Roush (2019) in the 1990s. All told, 30 of Martin’s 40 career premier series race victories came in Roush-owned Fords during the 90s. In that decade, Martin never finished worse than sixth in points and was runner-up three times (1990, ’94 and ’98).
2. Dale Earnhardt, $26,923,787
The 1990s saw Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt (2010) hit his peak, winning championships in 1990, ’91, ’93 and ’94. From 1990-99, “The Intimidator” also won 35 premier series races, with 126 top fives and 195 top 10s. Although he raced for parts of 27 seasons, Earnhardt accumulated 64 percent of his career earnings during just the 1990s. He earned nearly three times as much that decade than he did when he was NASCAR’s leading money winner in the 1980s. Earnhardt’s seventh championship car, a Richard Childress Racing 1994 Chevrolet Lumina, is on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of our “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit, which was curated by Dale Earnhardt Jr.
1. Jeff Gordon, $31,865,679
The leading money winner for the decade, Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon (2019) earned more than 3.3 times as much as Dale Earnhardt (2010) did in the 1980s, when Earnhardt out-earned all his fellow competitors. What’s remarkable about Gordon’s performance in the 1990s is that he earned 19 percent more money that decade than second-place Earnhardt, despite making only one premier series start from 1990-92. During that same three-year span Earnhardt made 87 starts, winning 14 races and a pair of championships. In the 90s, Gordon won three championships (1995, ’97 and ’98) and led all drivers with 49 victories.
Gordon’s Daytona 500-winning 1997 Chevrolet is on display at the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of our “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions” exhibit, curated by Dale Earnhardt Jr.