A four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion is not a bad choice to fill in for the sport’s most popular driver.
The NASCAR world was all abuzz Wednesday when Hendrick Motorsports announced that Jeff Gordon would fill in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet SS the next two weeks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.
This got us thinking, which could be a dangerous thing. But I digress.
There are several teams that have been around the sport for a long time and have had numerous drivers compete for them. Of course, some of these drivers have rewritten the record books and changed the sport of NASCAR … some of them, not so much.
This naturally led us to ponder this question: if your favorite team had to call on the services of one of its past drivers to fill in for a race, who would they tap on the shoulder?
For our exercise, we looked at seven teams and their stable of past drivers to determine who they might select to fill in for one of their current drivers. Before making our choices, we established the following guidelines:
- The replacement driver must still be alive;
- The replacement driver must be fully retired from driving in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series;
- The replacement driver must have completed in at least one race for the team he’d be racing for; and
- The selection of the replacement driver must be based on that driver’s current physical condition and age (not when the replacement driver was at his peak).
Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates: Four of Sterling Marlin‘s 10 career wins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series came while driving for Chip Ganassi’s team back in 2001 and 2002. What pushes him over the top in my mind, however, is that he’s still competing at other levels of motorsports (e.g., late models) and winning. He’d be a nice substitute for a race or two for Jamie McMurray or Kyle Larson.
Honorable mention: Juan Pablo Montoya
Hendrick Motorsports: The easy choice would be Jeff Gordon, but I’m not going in that direction since his substituting for Dale Jr. is what prompted this entire exercise. That leaves us with some great choices, but I’m going with Darrell Waltrip. Although his three titles came with a different operation, he still had nine wins while with Hendrick Motorsports. Additionally, Waltrip is probably still capable of handling a car. I think if we asked him nicely, he would come down from the broadcasting booth to suit up for one last race.
Honorable mentions: Jeff Gordon, Geoffrey Bodine, Terry Labonte, Ricky Rudd
Joe Gibbs Racing: In my opinion, this is a two-person race — Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte. They both have titles; however, Jarrett’s came with a different team. Despite this, I’d probably go with Jarrett, though I would be ecstatic with either. If push came to shove, how could I stray from the guy who gave Joe Gibbs his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win. Plus, I’d hope his father, Ned Jarrett, would be able to call the race. You know, for old times’ sake.
Honorable mention: Bobby Labonte
Richard Childress Racing: After seeing Ricky Rudd at the unveiling of Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman’s Darlington throwback cars in Welcome, N.C., a couple months ago, Rudd is my choice as a fill-in should Dillon, Newman or Paul Menard have to step away from the car for a race. Yes, the Iron Man only drove for RCR for two seasons, but he gave the organization its first two wins. Even more important is the fact that he’s probably in good enough condition to handle the rigors associated with driving today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series cars.
Honorable mentions: Jeff Burton, Mike Skinner
Roush Fenway Racing: Mark Martin drove for Jack Roush’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series team from 1988 until 2006. That type of longevity and loyalty should be rewarded. In 19 seasons driving for Roush Fenway Racing, Martin posted 35 of his 40 career wins. In his later years of racing, he was often praised for his physical fitness even though he was one of the oldest drivers on the circuit, if not the oldest. Even at 57 years old, I would go out on a limb and says he’s probably still in peak condition. This would go a long way if he had to jump back into a race car on a moment’s notice.
Honorable mention: Jeff Burton
Team Penske: In 1980, Rusty Wallace debuted in NASCAR’s premier series at the helm of the No. 16 Chevrolet for what is now Team Penske. After several years of racing for other teams, Wallace returned to Team Penske for the start of the 1991 season — two years after winning the series title. For the next 15 years, the Missouri native piloted the No. 2 car, where he earned 37 of his 55 wins. At 59 years old, Wallace probably has enough left in the tank to be competitive if he was asked to step in for a race or two.
Honorable mentions: Bobby Allison
Wood Brothers Racing: I’ll be honest — this was by far the hardest one to choose. Having fielded race cars in NASCAR’s premier series since 1953, Wood Brothers Racing has a long list of drivers they could pick from. And many of them are legends and NASCAR Hall of Famers. My pick is a little more selfish than previous selections, primarily because my choice is 77. I’d love to see Cale Yarborough get behind the wheel of one of the cars today, and if he was in decent equipment, I bet he’d hold his own.
Honorable mentions: David Pearson, Junior Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty, Michael Waltrip