"River of the '90's" - Who Will It Be?

Who'll be the "Driver of the '90s?" By Brett Borden DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 27, 1999) With one NASCAR Winston Cup Series season left in the 1990s, it's time to set the stage for the decade's ultimate honor, beginning with Speedweeks 1999 at...

Who'll be the "Driver of the '90s?" By Brett Borden

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Jan. 27, 1999) With one NASCAR Winston Cup Series season left in the 1990s, it's time to set the stage for the decade's ultimate honor, beginning with Speedweeks 1999 at Daytona International Speedway, which begins Feb. 4 when NASCAR Winston Cup teams sign into the "World Center of Racing's" garage area.

Statistically speaking, three drivers have separated themselves from the pack in the race for consideration as the "Driver of the '90s." With a good year in 1999, each member of this trio can add another line to his own unique resume.

Contestant No. 1 has earned four NASCAR Winston Cup Series titles in the 1990s, is tied for second in wins and has sole possession of second place in top-five finishes and top-10s during that span.

Contestant No. 2 has three championships, is first in wins despite not making his series debut until the last race of 1992 and has just put together the most dominating year the sport has seen in a long, long time.

Contestant No. 3? He's first in total points in the 1990s, first in top-fives and top-10s. He has yet to win a championship but has been runner-up three times, finished third twice and never finished worse than sixth in this decade.

Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin -- contestants 1, 2, and 3, respectively -- have all had remarkable runs in the 1990s. Certainly other drivers deserve mention, but these are the three men who have put themselves in position to lay claim to the throne with a strong season in 1999.

Dale Earnhardt

If this subject had come up in 1995, there would be nothing to argue about. From 1990-94, Earnhardt so dominated the circuit that his name became synonymous with the sport. In that five-year span, "The Intimidator" won an incredible four championships, along with 24 races. Earnhardt's black Chevrolet received three-fingered salutes from his legions of fans every time he flashed by them on the track, and it seemed as if he won everything not named the Daytona 500 in those days.

Lately, however, the Daytona 500 is the only thing Earnhardt has won in a long time. The seven-time series champion, who also won two titles in the second half of the 1980s, has had flashes of brilliance since his last title, but nothing like what he and his fans had become accustomed to.

He came oh-so-close to a record eighth overall championship (and fifth in the '90s) in 1995, but a pretty good young driver named Gordon was just a little bit better. Earnhardt bolted from the gate with 10 top-five finishes in the first 12 races of 1996, but his world (and championship hopes) were turned literally upside down in a nasty wreck at Talladega.

The following season, Earnhardt began rounding back into form with back-to-back runner-up finishes late in the year, but a scary incident at Darlington in which he passed out in his car had people wondering if he would ever be back.

He made it back to Victory Lane in 1998 -- in the Daytona 500, of all races -- after 19 failed attempts. He set his sights once again on an unprecedented eighth championship, but instead slid to eighth in the final point standings.

Earnhardt vows that he'll return to his old intimidating self again. If he does it this year, he could lay to rest any and all arguments about who is "Driver of the '90s." But there are two other drivers who plan on saying something about that.

Jeff Gordon

If the early 1990s belonged to Earnhardt, the late 1990s have been owned by the "anti-Earnhardt" -- Gordon. Away from the track, Earnhardt likes hunting and fishing. Gordon hunts for the latest NASCAR video games and collects Bud Poles -- not fishing poles. On the track, Earnhardt has been called "Ironhead" on more than one occasion. Gordon's head is covered with feathers -- multicolored ones painted on his racing helmet that serve as a tribute to his Rainbow Warriors pit crew.

But these two vastly different personalities have one thing in common -- a knack for sitting at the champion's tables at postseason awards banquets. Gordon has won three of the last four championships, and narrowly missed out on a fourth despite winning 10 races that year. In fact, the 27-year-old phenom has won an average of 10 races a year during his amazing run, and has 42 wins to his credit already.

In 1998, Gordon found an extra gear in the race for the championship, winning 13 races and earning top-five finishes in 23 of the season's last 25 races. If Gordon has another year like last year it would make it awfully difficult not to give him major "Driver of the '90s" consideration.

One wonders what Gordon's numbers in the 1990s would look like if he hadn't missed all but one race in the decade's first three years. He won NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1993, climbed to seventh in the standings in 1994 and has dominated ever since.

In the seven years he and Earnhardt have both competed full time, Gordon has out-pointed his senior rival by better than 200 points. But as good as both multiple champions have been, there is someone who has out-pointed both of them in that span.

Mark Martin

Martin has earned more points than anyone has in the 1990s. He also has the most top-five finishes and top-10s in that span. He has never finished lower than sixth in this decade. But if Earnhardt had a monkey on his back named the Daytona 500, Martin has Mighty Joe Young on his -- he has yet to win a NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship.

Martin has knocked on the door repeatedly, but fate has yet to invite him in. He finished second to Earnhardt by just 26 points in 1990. He was runner-up to Earnhardt again in 1994 and played bridesmaid to Gordon last year. He finished a distant third in 1993, and was third again by only 29 points in 1997.

But the "Mark of Consistency" has managed to out-point not only Earnhardt in the nine years they have run head-to-head in the 1990s, but Gordon in their six-year battle as well. He is there at the finish race by race, and season by season, too.

Perhaps that elusive championship will belong to Martin this season. It would go a long way towards putting him in the same regard as multiple champions Earnhardt and Gordon. It might even earn him consideration as the best of the best, considering his steadiness all decade long.

It will be interesting to see which of these drivers steps to the front in 1999. All three have built a strong case for themselves in the past nine years, and it's tough to argue with any of them. The race for "Driver of the '90s" is so close, it might just come down to the last lap of the last race in 1999.

Source: NASCAR Online

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Gordon , Mark Martin