Which career would you rather have: Rusty Wallace or Denny Hamlin?

Rusty Wallace and Denny Hamlin with Joe Gibbs(LAT Photo USA)

Is winning a championship the best gauge of career success in the NASCAR Cup Series?

Many contend that Denny Hamlin is the best driver to have never(at least not yet) won a championship at the sport’s top level. It’s not very likely that anyone would say the 42-year-old driver’s career has been a disappointment despite not having earned a title. After all, he has won a total of 48 Cup races during his time wheeling the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11.

Importantly, among those victories have been three Daytona 500 triumphs which, of course, is NASCAR’s premier event. But still, he has not won a championship and if that is the primary measure of success in this sport, he has fallen short so far.

Conversely, Rusty Wallace was in fact the 1989 NASCAR Cup Series champion. During his career, the NASCAR Hall of Fame member notched 55 wins in the sport’s top division. But unlike Hamlin, Wallace was never able to win the Daytona 500 so he fell short in terms of claiming that particular marquee prize.

Without a doubt, both of these drivers have a prominent place in NASCAR history. 

Other drivers have had their names tossed about in similar conversations. 

Mark Martin won 40 Cup Series races but was never crowned as a champion at that level. He also never won the Daytona 500 but surely no one would argue that he didn’t have a great career. 

Brothers Terry and Bobby Labonte were both champions with Terry grabbing two of those trophies while Bobby claimed one. Terry won 22 races over the course of his career while Bobby drove to victory lane on 21 occasions. Neither won the Daytona 500 but both have been inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in recognition of their accomplishments. 

Because so much emphasis is placed on the NASCAR Cup Series championship, achieving that has to be considered the greatest feat in the sport. At the same time, piling up wins in the crown jewel events such as the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 are almost as noteworthy. So the question of just how much weight to give those race wins versus a championship is the question. 

Wallace and Hamlin have each won one Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway while Hamlin has won the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on three separate occasions. Wallace never won at Darlington.

So, is it more remarkable in terms of having a great career to win a championship or to win big races?

The reason the drivers at the beginning of this piece were chosen is to illustrate that point. Would you rather have had Rusty Wallace’s career or Denny Hamlin’s? 

Some will no doubt point to the ways in which championships are won to support one or the other sides of the debate. Many purists might contend that championships were more indicative of a great season under the old formula in which points were collected over an entire season and that the current NASCAR Playoffs system is more of a gimmick. As a result, the modern NASCAR championship is diminished in its value because of the format.

On the other hand, some might argue that winning the Daytona 500 in the restrictor plate area could be considered more of a crapshoot than a true race win. 

There will always be viewpoints to uplift one side of the argument or the other. 

As with most debates, the real answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. If it were my call, I would rather have had Hamlin’s career than Wallace’s or either of the Labonte brothers because I value multiple crown jewel wins over a single championship. At the same time, I could see the other side of the argument. 

I guess it all comes down to a matter of taste. 

The discussion of who had the better career is one of those topics some might use to pass the time during the off-season. In the long run, there is no right or wrong answer as each of those mentioned above are the possessors of remarkable achievements in the sport.

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Richard Allen has been covering NASCAR and other forms of motorsports since 2008.

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