Top 10: Ranking the best that come in threes
July 31, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
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As those old Saturday morning educational cartoons used to teach us, three is indeed the magic number. Of course, the folks at Pocono Raceway didn't need "Schoolhouse Rock" to tell them that -- they've known it since 1971, when the big 2.5-mile triangular track first opened, and today it remains the lone facility with just three turns hosting NASCAR's premier series.
So yes, they're well familiar with the number three in the mountains of northeast Pennsylvania, where Pocono's trio of turns are modeled after corners from tracks in Trenton, New Jersey, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, respectively. Sunday the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the facility for the 74th time, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will attempt to sweep both annual races at Pocono for the first time since Denny Hamlin did it eight years ago.
But Pocono is far from the only thing in NASCAR where the number three looms large. No, we're not talking about that No. 3 -- easy, Dale Earnhardt die-hards and Austin Dillon fans -- but three-peats and triples and accomplishments being recorded for a third time. Seven, the championship benchmark Jimmie Johnson is attempting to equal this season, may stand as the sport's greatest milestone. But three remains magical for reasons beyond the digit on the Intimidator's door panel. In honor of another trip to three-turned Pocono, here are the top 10.
10. Three times for Ingram
Jack Ingram was the "Iron Man" because he competed tirelessly on short tracks around America en route to a Hall of Fame career. He won two titles in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series, but Ingram was a feared short-track racer well before that circuit was formed. The pride of Asheville, North Carolina, was a terror on NASCAR's former Late Model Sportsman circuit, which would later become the Nationwide tour. Ingram won three straight titles in that series, claiming championships in 1972, 1973, and 1974, and building the foundation of a career that would one day place him alongside the sport's greats.
9. Richmond in Pocono
Before there was Tom Cruise and Robert Duvall, there was Tim Richmond and Harry Hyde. Together they owned Pocono in the mid-1980s, sweeping three straight races there over a period that saw the emergence of Richmond's health problems. But in 1986 they were every bit the "Days of Thunder" duo at Pocono, winning for Rick Hendrick first in the rain, and then in the fog. The next spring, after a stay in the hospital and amid rampant rumors about his health, Richmond returned to the triangular track and led the final 46 laps en route to a victory that left him in tears. It would prove the penultimate win of a career that would end prematurely, soon after that day in the Poconos.
8. Three is enough
For all his accomplishments on the track, David Pearson remains something of an enigma, because he still leaves us wondering what he might have been capable of had he run the full season more often. No question those 105 career wins stand on their own, and the Silver Fox's greatness is undisputed. Still -- this is a driver who really only attempted the full schedule three times, and he won championships in every year he did. Those crowns in 1966, '68 and '69 only stoke the imagination over how many more titles Pearson might have claimed had he not been content to run a limited slate. But he was, and for the king of Spartanburg, South Carolina, three evidently was enough.
7. Busch's tripleheader
Kyle Busch has never been shy about driving anything with wheels, and often he drives straight to Victory Lane. As a Sprint Cup star who regularly also competes in companion events, sometimes Busch finds him driving in all three legs of a tripleheader weekend -- with the intention of winning every one. After a handful of near misses he finally achieved it at Bristol in 2010, when he became the first driver to sweep a tripleheader since NASCAR's national division was expanded to a third series in 1995. He led 116 laps to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race from the pole, led 116 more en route to a Nationwide Series victory, and capped it with a dominating performance in the Sprint Cup Series event, where he led 283 laps to write his own chapter of history.
6. DEI at Daytona
When it came to restrictor-plate racing in the early 2000s, there was no organization better than Dale Earnhardt Inc. DEI was the favorite from the moment the hauler doors dropped, and the team backed it up in an amazing stretch of plate-track dominance. The team founded by Dale Earnhardt saved its best for NASCAR's biggest event, claiming three Daytona 500 titles in a four-year stretch, a feat equaled only by the Petty Enterprises juggernaut of the 1970s. Michael Waltrip broke through on that dark day in 2001 when we lost the Intimidator, backed it up in a rain-shortened event two years later, and then in 2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr. claimed a triumph that left grown men in tears. DEI is gone, but at Daytona, its legacy lives on.
It was 2006, and the Jimmie Johnson dynasty seemed over before it even started. He had fallen into a huge points hole after being inadvertently wrecked at Talladega, and was still 41 behind Matt Kenseth after a victory at Martinsville. What came next was an amazing stretch that essentially won Johnson his first championship, without him needing to visit Victory Lane the rest of the way. Johnson recorded three consecutive runner-up finishes, at Atlanta, Texas and Phoenix, to leap into the points lead and take a healthy 63-point advantage into the finale, where he easily secured the title. That stretch run in 2006 remains a hallmark to consistency, and proof that Johnson would be a contender regardless of the championship format.
4. Waltrip sees triple
Darrell Waltrip won back-to-back titles in 1981 and '82 driving for Junior Johnson, and narrowly missed another the following year. Still, his third career championship in 1985 stands as something of a landmark, given that Waltrip was arguably the best driver in one of the most competitive eras in NASCAR history, a time that saw fading legends like Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty still gunning for victories, while the likes of Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Terry Labonte and others were making their names. Waltrip bridged that gap, fighting off rivals both old and new in the process, a fact which makes his three titles stand out even though he didn't claim them consecutively.
3. A pair of threes
As the 2000s drew to a close, there was no driver better on road courses than Jeff Gordon, who simply dominated opponents on tracks which required right turns as well as left. He didn't just win three straight at Sonoma Raceway. He didn't just win three straight at Watkins Glen International. He unleashed those concurrent road-course three-peats at the same time, combining them to form a six-race win streak on serpentine circuits that hasn't been duplicated since. From 1997 at Watkins Glen through 2000 at Sonoma, Gordon won every road-course race at NASCAR's top level, taking three straight at each facility. Gordon remains a threat on road courses today, but even he would be hard-pressed to replicate that feat.
2. Tony's trifecta
Tony Stewart came to Martinsville Speedway in the fall of 2011 ranked fourth in Sprint Cup points, and with time running out. What happened next is the stuff of NASCAR legend, a combination of driving talent and mental gamesmanship that resulted in a third career championship for the driver called "Smoke." And he blew plenty of it, especially after winning at Martinsville, where he lodged himself inside point leader Carl Edwards' head and refused to budge. He won again the next week at Texas, effectively taking control of the title race even though Edwards led the points. And two weeks later at Homestead, the masterpiece -- a third victory in four races, which earned him a third title in a tiebreaker.
1. Cale's triple crown
How had no one ever done it? Looking back, it seems almost incomprehensible -- how had the great Richard Petty, driving for the most dominant team of his era, never won three consecutive premier-series championships? How had David Pearson not done it? Lee Petty? Ned Jarrett? Tim Flock? It took a bulldog of a man from South Carolina tobacco country to kick down that door, and he did it with force. Cale Yarborough claimed three straight titles from 1976-78 driving for Junior Johnson's powerhouse, a feat that was unprecedented at the time, and wound stand on its own for another three decades. Jimmie Johnson matched and then surpassed it, of course, his five straight titles comprising the current record. But in his era, and for long afterward, Cale Yarborough stood tall.