The early 2000s in NASCAR was defined by the lowest of lows and the highest of highs.
In 2000 alone, three drivers (Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin Jr., and Tony Roper) tragically lost their lives on the track. Then, just a year later, came the ultimate tragedy, when Dale Earnhardt was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Yet, the 2000s also ushered in the dominance of Jimmie Johnson, who won five of his seven championships from 2006-2010.
In between the highs and lows were a number of drivers, from hungry rookies to established vets, who showed that they truly belonged in NASCAR's premier series.
Here, we'll look at 10 of those drivers who defined the decade.
The 10 Best NASCAR Drivers of the 2000s
10. Greg Biffle
Greg Biffle scored his first win for Roush Racing in the 2003 Pepsi 400 and, over the following six seasons, amassed 14 wins in the No. 16 Ford. Biffle's strength was on the intermediate and larger ovals, as he earned nine of those wins on tracks 1.5 miles or longer in length.
Biffle finished second (2005) and third (2008) in the points, but could never bring home a Cup title. The Washington state native did, however, win a Truck Series championship in 2000 and an Xfinity Series championship in 2002.
9. Kyle Busch
The younger brother of Kurt Busch made his mark in NASCAR driving for Hendrick Motorsports in the mid-2000s, but a move to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2008 put the Las Vegas native on the fast track to Victory Lane.
After grabbing four wins in three seasons in the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet, Kyle Busch won 12 times in the next two seasons to close out the 2000s with 16 wins, setting him up for two Cup championships in the following decade.
8. Kevin Harvick
Expecting to just race in the Xfinity Series in 2001, Kevin Harvick received the call of a lifetime when Richard Childress tapped the Californian to replace Dale Earnhardt in 2001. Harvick won in his third start that year and finished ninth in Cup points while winning his first of two Xfinity championships (his second would come in 2006).
Harvick would win the 2003 Brickyard 400 and the 2007 Daytona 500 ahead of Mark Martin, ending the decade with 11 wins and earning three seasons of top-five results in points.
7. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After the death of his father during the 2001 Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to carry the weight and expectations of his father's fans throughout the rest of his career. Earnhardt Jr. won 18 races in the 2000s, including the 2004 Daytona 500 and five races at Talladega Superspeedway.
Earnhardt ended the decade away from the team started by his father, driving for Rick Hendrick in 2008 and 2009, winning at Michigan in 2008 for his final win of the early 2000s.
6. Kurt Busch
After the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company left NASCAR at the end of the 2003 season, cell phone service provider Nextel replaced Winston as the main sponsor of the Cup Series. In 2004, Kurt Busch would go on to be first driver to win the title during the shortly-lived Nextel era.
2004 also marked the first Chase for the Cup playoff format, with the final 10 races determining the championship between the top-10 drivers (and any driver within 400 points of the lead) after 26 races. Busch had only one finish outside the top 10 in the chase to win Jack Roush's second title in a row.
Busch left for Roger Penske's team after the 2005 season, which ended on a sour note after a DUI arrest in Phoenix. Busch ended the decade with 20 wins, placing him fourth on the all-decade list.
5. Matt Kenseth
The final champion of the Winston Cup era won the 2003 championship with consistent drives that resulted in NASCAR changing how their titles were decided in subsequent years.
Matt Kenseth won in only the third race of the year at Las Vegas, but 11 top-fives and 25 top-10s out of 36 races gave the Wisconsin native enough points that a last-place finish at the season finale at Homestead still gave him the title over Jimmie Johnson by 90 points, even as Johnson ended the year with three second-place and three third-place finishes in the final six races.
Kenseth would finish second in the 2006 Cup points and won a rain-shortened 2009 Daytona 500, but would never get a second title to match his 2003 crown.
4. Mark Martin
Mark Martin's early 2000s mirrored much of his '90s in that he finished second in points twice (2002 and 2009) and was usually in contention for a win, but there was always an all-time great around the corner.
In 2002, that great was Stewart. As that year's championship wound down, Martin had three finishes of 15th or worse in the final eight races of the season. This included a 30th-place finish at Talladega, after his steering box locked up on the parade lap from second place on the grid, causing a collision with Jimmie Johnson.
In 2009, Martin won five races, but three finishes of 12th or worse in the Chase, coupled with Johnson's stranglehold on that championship format, meant that Martin would finish 141 points down on his teammate.
3. Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon won his fourth and final Cup title in 2001 and, after that, remained a force to be reckoned with on the NASCAR circuit, winning 33 races in the decade and only finishing outside the top 10 in points once.
While Gordon did win six races in his championship season in 2001, he also had a six-win campaign in 2007, but his teammate Johnson would win four races in a row in the Chase playoffs that year, and Gordon lost that title by 73 points.
Gordon also won the 2005 Daytona 500, as well as the 2001 and 2004 Brickyard 400s.
2. Tony Stewart
After a two-win rookie season in NASCAR in 1999, Stewart started the 2000s by winning six races en route to a sixth-place finish in the 2000 Cup points standings. Two years later, Stewart would win his first of two Cup titles in the decade after a close battle with Mark Martin as the season wound down.
Stewart would finish outside of the top 10 in points once during the decade, and after Joe Gibbs Racing moved to Toyotas in 2008 and Stewart won once, he formed Stewart-Haas Racing with Gene Haas and drove for himself for the rest of his career, winning four times in the final year of the decade.
1. Jimmie Johnson
After starting three races in 2001, Jimmie Johnson went full time with Hendrick Motorsports in 2001 and never finished lower than fifth place in the standings. Johnson would win 47 races as he and crew chief Chad Knaus mastered the new Chase playoff format to go on a five-peat championship run.
Along with his five titles, Johnson also won the 2006 Daytona 500, the 2006, 2008, and 2009 Brickyard 400s, and three straight Coca Cola 600s from 2003-2005.
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