From Rookie Sensations to Hall of Famers
by Tom Jensen July 17, 2020
To date, just eight premier series rookie-of-the-year winners have had Hall of Fame careers.
Flashing early talent as a NASCAR driver is one thing; sustaining excellence over an entire career is something else entirely, and it’s a key trait for anyone with aspirations of making it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
NASCAR officially began recognizing a premier series rookie of the year way back in 1954. That year North Carolina native Blackie Pitt took the honors on the basis of six top-10 finishes and an 11th-place finish in the championship.
Since that time, eight drivers have won rookie-of-the-year and then went on to have careers that landed them in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And in a bizarre piece of trivia, six of the eight competed together in the final race of the 1992 season, the Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Here they are in chronological order.
1959 - Richard Petty
Although he wouldn’t score his first victory until 1960, as a rookie, Richard Petty had six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 21 races, earning $8,110 for the year. During his rookie season, Petty competed in the first Daytona 500, completing just eight laps before the engine let go in his Oldsmobile. As a result, Petty finished 57th in the 59-car field, the worst result of his career. Petty rebounded nicely from his initial Daytona disappointment, going on to win the Great American Race a record seven times.
1960 - David Pearson (2011)
As a rookie, David Pearson entered 22 races in his own No. 67 Chevrolet, posting three top-five and seven top-10 results and his first career pole position. Pearson did not lead a lap in his rookie year, but won $5,030. His best race came at Gamecock Speedway in Sumter, South Carolina, where Pearson qualified on the pole and finished second behind fellow Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett (2011) and one position ahead of Junior Johnson (2010). For his career, Pearson won 105 premier series races, second only to Petty’s 200.
1979 - Dale Earnhardt (2010)
It was a solid first full-time campaign for Dale Earnhardt, who drove for team owner Rod Osterlund, with legendary crew chief “Suitcase Jake” Elder turning the wrenches. As a rookie, Earnhardt won his first of 76 premier series races in the spring event at Bristol Motor Speedway. He earned $274,810 after scoring 11 top fives and 17 top 10s. During the 1979 season, Earnhardt drove Chevrolets at short tracks and road courses, and Buicks and Oldsmobiles at the longer, faster tracks.
1984 - Rusty Wallace (2013)
Rusty Wallace made his first premier series start in 1980 when he piloted a Chevrolet owned by fellow Hall of Famer Roger Penske (2019) to a runner-up finish in the Atlanta 500 at Atlanta International Raceway (now Atlanta Motor Speedway). But Wallace made only a handful of starts before campaigning for rookie honors in 1984 with team owner Cliff Stewart. In his first full premier series season, Wallace posted a pair of top fives and four top 10s, leading 11 laps and winning $201,729 in 30 races.
1986 - Alan Kulwicki (2019)
The ultimate underdog, Alan Kulwicki failed to qualify for one third of the first 18 races of the season. But after purchasing the team from Bill Terry, Kulwicki made the field for each of the final 10 races of the year. Despite his early season struggles, Kulwicki pieced together enough good runs, including one top five and four top 10s, to defeat better-funded operations, earning $94,450 on the season. A fourth-place finish at Martinsville Speedway in the spring helped Kulwicki to convince sponsor Quincy’s Steakhouse to stick with the team for the full season.
1987 - Davey Allison (2019)
The son of Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (2011), Davey Allison had to work in his father’s shop for years before he got his own shot in NASCAR’s top series. And when Davey finally got that shot, he made the most of it from the start. The second-generation Hall of Famer was the first NASCAR rookie to win twice in his rookie season. Allison earned $361,080 on the strength of the two wins, nine top fives and 10 top 10s. Winning the Winston 500 at his home track, Alabama International Motor Speedway (now Talladega Superspeedway), was a career highlight.
1993 - Jeff Gordon (2019)
Despite some rough moments as rookie, Jeff Gordon showed great promise, claiming seven top fives and 11 top 10s and a pole position in the Charlotte fall race. Gordon’s best results as a rookie were runner-up finishes in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and in the Miller Genuine Draft 400 at Michigan International Speedway. He also led 230 laps and earned $765,188. Gordon was part of a Hall of Fame trio with car owner Rick Hendrick (2017) and crew chief Ray Evernham (2018).
1999 - Tony Stewart (2020)
Although he didn’t start racing in the premier series until he was 27, Tony Stewart posted big rookie numbers driving for Hall of Fame team owner Joe Gibbs (2020) with another Hall of Famer, Bobby Labonte (2020), as his teammate. In his first season in NASCAR’s top division, Stewart won three times in the final 10 races of the year, coming on strong late. The Indiana native also earned 12 top fives and 21 top 10s, along with a pair of poles. He earned $3,190,149 and finished fourth in the championship.
Six-Pack of Stars
One of the most famous races in NASCAR history was the season-ending 1992 Hooters 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Five drivers entered the race with a chance to win the premier series championship. Hall of Famer Bill Elliott (2015) won the race, but runner-up Alan Kulwicki (2019) claimed the title by finishing second and leading the most laps. Six of the eight rookies of the year who went on to be Hall of Famers competed in this race. They included Kulwicki, Richard Petty (2010), Dale Earnhardt (2010), Rusty Wallace (2013), Davey Allison (2019) and Jeff Gordon (2019).