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Saturday, July 30, 2011
NASCAR's majors help define careers

By David Newton
ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jack Nicklaus is considered one of the best golfers of all time because he's won more major championships than anybody. Roger Federer is considered one of the best tennis players of all time because he has more Grand Slam titles than anybody.

So what if that theory applied to NASCAR?

What if drivers were judged by the number of times they've won the sport's four biggest races -- Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, Coca-Cola 600 and Darlington (previously the Southern 500 on Labor Day weekend, but since that doesn't exists anymore, a win at Darlington still ranks among the top four)?

What would we think of some of the drivers considered to be major stars today?

Carl Edwards leads the points, has finished second in the championship standings twice and is being offered a boat-load of money to leave Roush Fenway Racing for Joe Gibbs Racing, and he's won none of the Big Four.

Kyle Busch has won 100 races in NASCAR's top three series, and his 2008 victory at Darlington is his only major win.

Tony Stewart has two titles and is considered by some one of the greatest drivers of all time, but his only big wins are at the 2005 and 2007 Brickyard 400s.

Kurt Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, is a victory in the 2010 Coca-Cola 600 from being shut out like Edwards.

Only two current drivers -- Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson -- have won all four majors. Gordon leads the way with 17 wins in those events, followed by Johnson with nine.

The only other driver close is Kevin Harvick, who needs a win at Darlington to complete his NASCAR slam. Only three other current drivers -- Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin and Jeff Burton -- have won two of the four.

Jamie McMurray
Jamie McMurray knows his Brickyard 400 victory last season was a major moment in his career.

It doesn't say a lot about today's stars. It says there are a lot of drivers like golfers Steve Stricker and Colin Montgomerie out there, drivers who make a career out of collecting wins at lesser venues.

Don't think that hasn't crossed the mind of a few as they prepare for Sunday's Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET on ESPN). They know, championships aside, they'll be judged by the number of wins in big races such as this.

They know kissing the bricks would be a great place to start.

There was a time, before winning the title was worth millions, in which winning majors arguably was the No. 1 thing drivers were judged on. You've heard Richard Petty talked about for being a seven-time Daytona 500 champion as much as he was a seven-time champion.

That was before the championship became the focus, when fans were drawn more to big events instead of who wins the title. It's why many have been turned off by the Chase, which puts all of the emphasis on winning the championship.

It's why many of us looked at defending Brickyard champion McMurray as if he was crazy last year when he said he wouldn't trade his Daytona 500 and Indy wins for making the Chase and having at least a shot at running for the title.

But ultimately, to be considered great, even the champions need majors on their resume. It's why Dale Earnhardt was so emotional when he won the Daytona 500 after 20 tries and Darrell Waltrip the same when he won it after 17.

They knew their careers would be incomplete without it.

It's why a driver such as 1989 champion Rusty Wallace won't be looked at by some as highly as 1999 champion Dale Jarrett, because Wallace never won a Daytona 500, Brick yard 400 or a race at am. He did win the 1990 Coca-Cola 600.

Jarrett won all four, including three Daytona 500s.

"There's a lot of things you can do in this sport without winning some of the big races," said Jarrett, now an analyst for ESPN. "The Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500 at Darlington, the Coca-Cola 600, those are the ones I always looked at and said these are the major races, even one of the races at Talladega.

"There's so many more opportunities, but I think that does help define your career if you can win those. Obviously, winning a championship is the ultimate goal, but winning those big races is very important."

It's no different in the IndyCar Series. You'll probably find more people that can tell you A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser won the Indianapolis 500 four times than can tell you how many titles they won.

"When you sit down at the end of your career, you'll look at it more and realize that it meant a whole lot more to you to have won those big races," Jarrett said. "That says something about a driver and his focus in this sport as to the things that are really important."

For better or worse, winning championships remains the ultimate goal and the way drivers are measured today. But winning big races such as the Brickyard separates champions from champions.

That's why fans tune in, regardless of whether the racing is great.

"You look at Daytona versus Indianapolis, to me the two biggest races that we have," said Gordon, a four-time Brickyard 400 champion. "They're completely different in what it takes from a driver standpoint and a car standpoint to win.

"When you win at those two tracks, I think it does separate you and put you into an elite group."

Don't think that hasn't gone unnoticed by Kyle Busch, whose impressive win total in NASCAR's top three series would be a lot more impressive if he could add a win at Indianapolis on Sunday.

Stewart
Tony Stewart's Brickyard 400 victories are two of the biggest highlights of his career.

"I don't know that you need them [to make a career], but certainly it helps the prestige of your career a little bit more," Busch said of winning majors. "I haven't won at any of the big three [Daytona, Indianapolis, Charlotte] yet. I'm certainly looking forward to the day that I can.

"It's something that I've really looked toward … since I was a young guy and even before I started here. You watch guys like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt and those guys work so hard to win these races. It only comes around once a year so it takes you 365 more days before you get your next opportunity."

When Stewart talks about his career, he definitely puts the two wins at Indianapolis up there with his two championships. He longs to add the other majors to his legacy.

"The guys that have won all four, that's why they are where they are," Stewart said. "I don't think it totally defines a driver's career, but I think it is a benchmark for sure."

Three-time Brickyard 400 champion Johnson said he doesn't think majors define a career, either, but his five consecutive titles wouldn't be as polished without those wins. And he certainly would be talking with a lot more passion about wanting a win at Indianapolis if he didn't have one.

Edwards will tell you in one breath the majors aren't career-defining, and in the other that "as a fan, I remember who wins those big races."

Until Edwards wins one of those races, he'll be like Phil Mickelson before he won the Masters, a driver with a nice career but far from being considered among the all-time greats. The same for Busch and others who strive to be Hall of Fame-caliber.

A win at Indianapolis could be the first step for some, or another step toward immortality for others, such as Gordon and Johnson.

"I feel like it does seem like the best teams, the best drivers when they're paired up together, do seem to excel at those races that are the big ones," Gordon said. "So to me they're a sign of, you know, a great team, no doubt. "

They are major accomplishments, indeed.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.