Darlington Raceway president Kerry Tharp could barely contain himself as he thought about the group of greats he was about to host.
“You’re looking an iconic list of who’s who in motorsports,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s ever going to happen again, not in my lifetime.”
The last 25 of NASCAR’s greatest 75 drivers — the first 50 were named before the 50th anniversary in 1998 — were rolled out the past few months and ended over the weekend at South Carolina’s Darlington Raceway.
There were 33 of them on hand, including 95-year-old Hall of Famer Herchel McGriff, with grey, button-down shirts with their names stitched just below the right lapel.
“I tell you, it’s a pretty impressive list,” said Greg Biffle, who won 56 races combined in NASCAR’s top three series, including 19 in the Cup Series.
“When I got the call from Mr. (Mike) Helton, I was quite shocked and quite surprised,” Biffle said with a smile.
Not everyone in the final 25, which included nine drivers who raced in Darlington’s Goodyear 400 on Sunday, knew what to think when NASCAR officials called to let them know.
Kyle Larson, the 2021 series champion who drives for Hendrick Motorsports, was on a bike ride last month when Helton called with the news. Larson was worried about returning the call; he had recently tangled with Ryan Preece during the Bristol dirt race.
“I’m nervous because I’m like, man, Bristol just happened, am I in trouble for something?” Larson said.
Denny Hamlin, who has three Daytona 500 wins among 49 career victories, saw that NASCAR CEO Jim France had called him and immediately thought he was in trouble again.
“My one-on-one calls with him usually aren’t that pleasant,” Hamlin said.
France, whose father, William “Big Bill” France, founded NASCAR, told Hamlin what an accomplishment it was for the 42-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing driver to join a list that included greats like “King” Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
Hamlin was honored. He also noted that talented drivers like 25-year-old Darlington winner William Byron will surely “work their way into that list as time goes on,” he said. “There are a lot of young guys who will join us.”
For those already on the list and done with their NASCAR careers, Darlington was a chance to reconnect and enjoy stories of wild times and shared finishes.
Rusty Wallace, the dynamic 1989 series champion, recalled one Darlington race when Earnhardt dumped three cans of sardines under his seat cushion leaving an awful smell during the long, hot event.
The following week, Wallace got his payback when he took the steering wheel — drivers typically left it on the cars’ roofs before getting in — from Earnhardt’s car. As the Intimidator’s team scrambled to find it, Wallace stuck it out the window and waved it at Earnhardt.
“You got me!” Wallace recalled Earnhardt shouting. “Now, we’re even.”
Bobby Labonte, the 2000 NASCAR champion, joined his brother Terry in the group. Terry Labonte was selected 25 years ago in the 50 greatest drivers and 59-year-old Bobby had his fingers crossed he would join him.
“If I didn’t get in this time, I probably wouldn’t make the next one,” Bobby joked.
Kurt Busch and brother Kyle were the other set of brothers among the 75. Kyle, who has two NASCAR championships and 62 career Cup Series victories, was happy with the recognition.
“To say that you’ve had a really good career is great,” said Busch, 38. “Obviously, hopefully, it’s not over.”
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