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NASCAR Legends’ Worst Season in Their PRIME

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Joshua Lipowski

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What’s Happening?

NASCAR is a hard sport to win races in, and it is even harder to win Championships. Even some of the sports’ best drivers stumble during their prime. This is not simply their worst seasons though, but we are specifically looking at the era when they were thought to be at the top of their game. These are some of NASCAR legends’ worst seasons in their prime.

You Need to Know:

  • For this list, we will focus on when these legends were in the prime of their racing career. Many of these drivers’ worst statistical seasons came at the end of their careers when they were clearly on a downward trend.
  • In order for a season to be counted on this list, the driver must have either won multiple races or a Championship in at least three separate seasons before OR following the season listed. Therefore, entries like any Richard Petty season pre-1963 or post-1981 are ineligible.
  • Fans love to look back on the greatest moments drivers ever had. However, not every season is a fond memory for fans or drivers alike.

Richard Petty 1978

Heading into 1978, Richard Petty was on a hot streak. He finished in the top-2 in points in 6 of the previous 7 seasons with 4 Championships. It seemed Championship number 7 was destined to happen soon, but, 1978 was not the year for Petty.

He failed to win a race for the first time since 1959, his rookie season. He finished outside of the top-5 in points for the first time in a full season since 1961. He also had 12 DNFs, which was the most he had since NASCAR’s “Modern Era” began in 1972. It was so bad, that Petty switched from longtime manufacturer, Chrysler, to General Motors late in the season to slightly better results.

1979 proved that 1978 was just a fluke as Petty won 5 races and his 7th Cup Series Championship. He won multiple races in 5 of the next 6 seasons between 1979 and 1984. He was still capable of winning races, but, 1978 was an off-year.

Dale Earnhardt 1992

Between 1986 and 1994, Dale Earnhardt won 6 Championships and 48 races. He was unstoppable, except in 1992. While NASCAR was mired in its’ greatest Championship battle, “The Intimidator” was nowhere to be found.

Despite a rocky start, Earhnhardt won the Coca-Cola 600, and he was second in points before Pocono in June. Four engine failures over the rest of the season, including three in five races, was what did Earnhardt in. He fell all the way to 12th in the standings to finish the year.

After the year, longtime crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine left the team. Andy Petree came in, and Earnhardt was back on track in 1993. He won Championships in 1993 and 1994, and he finished second in 1995 before Petree left.

Jeff Gordon 2008

Jeff Gordon narrowly missed out on the Championship in 2007 despite 6 wins and 30 Top-10s. Hendrick Motorsports seemed to have the edge with the “Car of Tomorrow”, so, Gordon was expected to do the same in 2008. Not everything worked out as planned.

He failed to finish two of the first three races, despite leading laps in all three. A crash at Las Vegas set the tone for the rest of his season. He was not terrible in 2008, but, for the first time since his rookie season in 1993, he failed to win a race.

This set Gordon on a tough stretch where he only won 1 race between 2008 and 2010. However, he was back on track with 3 wins in 2011, and he nearly won his fifth Championship in 2014 and 2015 before retiring,

Tony Stewart 2008

While Tony Stewart’s 2006 season is the bad one many remember, 2008 was statistically worse. He had a worse average finish, fewer top-5s, fewer top-10s, and fewer wins. His only win came in October at Talladega after Regan Smith was penalized for passing Stewart below the yellow line.

Matters were made worse when Stewart announced he was moving on from Joe Gibbs Racing in the middle of the season to become an owner-driver at the new “Stewart-Haas Racing”. It was just a disappointing season with many distractions.

By 2009, Stewart was back to form in the 14-car with 4 wins. In 2011, he won his third Cup Series Championship. Maybe the distractions in 2008 caused the issues for Stewart, but, still, it was a puzzling season for him.

Kevin Harvick 2012

Between 2010 and 2021, Kevin Harvick finished outside of the top-5 in points only twice. The worst of that bunch was 2012. Coming off of two consecutive third-place points finishes in 2010 and 2011, Harvick seemed poised for another great season.

He remained winless throughout much of the season until Phoenix in November. He only led laps in 8 of the 36 races, and he hit his biggest snag between the late summer and early fall. Between Indianapolis and Martinsville, Harvick had only 2 top-10s in 14 races, and he was out of the Championship running early in the Playoffs.

By 2013, Harvick was back in the top-3 in points, and he won a Championship in 2014. He became one of the most dominant drivers in the sport throughout the 2010s, but, 2012 was the one year he was basically a nonfactor.

What was the worst season for your favorite driver? Did it come during the prime of their career?

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Picture of Joshua Lipowski

Joshua Lipowski

All Posts