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Is Dale Jr. Overlooked as One of Late Model Stock Car's All-Time Greats?

If not, then who is the greatest LMSC hero turned NASCAR star?


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The anticipation behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s appearance at North Wilkesboro Speedway this weekend can not be overstated. Anytime the 15-time Most Popular Driver returns behind the wheel, usually in a one-off in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, it draws extra attention and constant media coverage. Even by those standards, next Wednesday's appearance at North Wilkesboro is a blockbuster. Junior has been one of the most vocal proponents of bringing racing back to the facility for years, personally helping clear the track of debris to scan it into iRacing a few years back. As soon as they announced asphalt racing would return to North Wilkesboro in August, you knew he would find his way back behind the wheel.

But I feel as though, from a historical angle, Jr.'s return to Late Model Stock Car (LMSC) competition is underselling how important he has been to this particular discipline of late models.

It is his first start in this class since 1997. That same year he began racing in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series, going on to win the 1998 and 1999 titles and shooting toward the Cup ranks in 2000. In a sense, Junior was a trailblazer for LMSC guys with big-league aspirations. Most of the famous Mid-Atlantic drivers that had come to NASCAR in the 70s and 80s had taken the Late Model Sportsman route to the big leagues. We'll explain a little more of the history of these different Late Model classes, but for the longest time the LMSC was the little brother to the Sportsman cars. Junior was the one of the first to go directly from the class to the big leagues.

So that begs the question that I sat down to answer in this article - Is Dale Earnhardt, Jr. the most successful driver in big-league NASCAR history who started out in LMSCs? I'll spoil it a little - No. But I have him second! So who is the greatest LMSC hero turned NASCAR star?

Setting Some Ground Rules

The toughest part of making a list of who the greatest LMSC-turned-national drivers are is determining when exactly when Late Model Stock Cars "started". I'm going to say 1990 for the sake of the list we're making today. You could rationally argue the current era of LMSC competition started a few years earlier, or a few years later.

Back in the 1980s, NASCAR short track late model racing featured three types of cars. There were the Late Model Sportsman machines - the big boxy V6s. This had been the dominant class of NASCAR-sanctioned Late Models in the 60s and 70s, but economic pressures had begun to shrink their footprint by the early 80s. In response, NASCAR formed a national tour, the NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series, in 1982. This became the NASCAR Busch Series and eventually the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

The big competition for the Sportsman cars was what was most commonly called "Grand American Sport Car" late models. As opposed to the boxy sedan look of Sportsman machines, these were slick looking sports cars - Corvettes and Mustangs and Sunbirds. These became popular in the Deep South and West Coast very quickly, and became the background of stars like Davey Allison and Ernie Irvan. These were essentially what became the Super Late Models of 1990s and 2000s.

Then there were the Late Model Stock Cars. Of these three classes of late models, LMSCs of today are the closest in spirit to their 80s brethren. But still in the general pecking order they were viewed more like what we call a Limited Late Model in the Mid-Atlantic today.

So I've picked 1990 because by then a lot of the upheavel in NASCAR's late model ranks was over. Busch Series cars left their Sportsman roots behind by adopting Cup body standards in 1989 and as such the local track sportsman pathway up the ladder dried up quickly. "Sportsman" became demoted to a more entry-level track division.

The "Grand American" cars had their rules changed a lot too by the end of the 1980s and NASCAR dropped the moniker altogether than they bought the All Pro Series at the end of 1990 and merged their Grand American tour into it. From then on, "Grand American" local divisions mostly just became "Late Models" and drivers there would follow the path to NASCAR's regional late model series (known as the Elite Division in the 2000s).

The end result of all of this is Late Model Stock Cars became the headline division in the Mid-Atlantic, their rules eventually taking on a bit of a hybrid approach between the old Sportsman cars and the typical LMSC cars. Big LMSC races began being held at Martinsville, North Wilkesboro, and South Boston.

So - for the purposes of this article - we will define the modern Late Model Stock Car era as beginning in 1990. A driver must have competed at least one year primarily in LMSC's before moving up the ladder to be eligible to be considered.

10th - Stacy Compton
9th - Timothy Peters
8th - Josh Berry
7th - Elliott Sadler
6th - Dennis Setzer

Here's a collection of drivers who found mild success in the NASCAR National ranks after being stars on their local short tracks. Berry is of course, a promising prospect whose best chance of being a star was derailed by lack of funding for the last five years, but is solidly an Xfinity championship contender this year. Elliott Sadler is the only Cup winner of the bunch and Setzer was the quintessential short track veteran who finished runner-up in the Truck championship three times straight.

5th - Bubba Wallace

I give the slight nod of Wallace over Setzer simply because he's a Cup winner and a charisma that has made him a nationally-known star. Wallace started out racing both Legends cars and late model stocks. He broke through for a UARA touring victory at Caraway in 2008. A couple of years later, he was winning in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and moving on up.

4th - Jack Sprague

Sprague is probably the driver who had the most success on the short tracks before ascending up the ladder. He was Mr. Concord Speedway for the first years of the 1990s. In 1994, he won 21 times and probably would have won the national NASCAR Weekly Series title any other year had it not been for the late great David Rogers putting in a perfect 22 wins into the points system that took a driver's top 22 finishes. His consolation though was moving up to the brand new NASCAR Truck Series, where he won 28 times and won three titles. A lackluster move beyond the Trucks - a single Xfinity win and then being sacked halfway through his Cup rookie season - probably puts him behind the third place driver...

3rd - William Byron

Bryon's rise has been so swift and meteoric that you probably forgot about the one season he raced Late Model Stocks for JR Motorsports at Hickory Motor Speedway. Honestly, that year was probably his least successful one of any - teammate Berry cruised to victory after victory ahead of the youngster, though Byron was able to rack up some triumphs at the end of that rookie season. Clearly he learned a lot in the LMSC ranks, because he was quickly a winner in K&N East and never looked back. He's won a NASCAR Xfinity title, probably should have won the NASCAR Truck championship had it not been for an unlucky engine failure, and is already a 4-time winner in Cup.

2nd - Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

We'll slot Junior in here. Like many drivers on this list, his LMSC career was relatively brief and merely respectable though you figure if he had stayed in LMSC for a few more years he would have been a track or regional champion. He won a few times at the always tough Myrtle Beach and East Carolina and ran respectably in the big-money fall races. But he was quickly to the Busch Series, the 98 and 99 Busch titles and eventually 26 Cup wins including two Daytona 500s.

1st - Denny Hamlin

We'll give Hamlin the nod as the most successful LMSC-rooted driver in NASCAR history. In 2003, Hamlin won 25 races and the Southern National track title, enough to secure a driver development deal with Joe Gibbs Racing. Moderately successful in his rookie NASCAR Busch Series season, Hamlin caught fire with an early promotion to Cup. While the competition between him and Jr. was tight because Hamlin has yet to win any NASCAR national title, it's hard to argue with Hamlin's 48 Cup wins, sterling record in Crown Jewel races (including 3 500s), and 17 Xfinity and 2 Truck victories.

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Oct 3, 2022