Just this one writer’s opinion, but the best thing a Hall of Fame provides for a sport is the discussions it inspires amongst sportswriters and fans. Now that Matt McLaughlin has so eloquently made the case for the next five inductees, and I can’t dispute much of it, I thought I’d look at current folks in NASCAR who have a future shot at Charlotte immortality.
Halls of Fame are enigmas in a certain regard. Members of these exclusive best in history clubs aren’t necessarily invited based on numbers and statistics; since they are elected by writers in nearly every case, there is no set standard of achievement that guarantees induction. Barry Bonds is baseball’s home run king, but he will not likely be voted into baseball’s Hall, at least not right away, as writers still hold him in contempt (and rightly so) for steroid use. For many years Richie Ashburn, a lifetime .300 hitter, was inexplicably denied entry in Cooperstown.
I once met ESPN football analyst Sal Paolantonio at a book signing, and we had a friendly debate about whether four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy belonged in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (he is in it). He said no; I said yes. He argued that Levy never won a Super Bowl; I argued that neither did Dan Marino.
Debates like that are sports at their finest.
In most cases, I’d like to believe that Hall of Fame electors honorably put personal biases aside and judge each potential inductee on the merits. The one exception is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is an utter insult and should be denied any funding until the scum from Rolling Stone are removed from the election process.
But I digress. Other than the initial exclusion of David Pearson, an injustice that will almost certainly be corrected in a year’s time, there wasn’t too much squabbling over the initial inductees into NASCAR’s Hall. Yet someday down the road, of course, there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth over the induction of some figures and the exclusion of others.
So I thought I’d kick the ball off and get it rolling with some current names in the sport today.
Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart are obvious locks, and along with them Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush, Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs. Drivers or owners with multiple championships to their credit have cemented themselves among the all-time greats; other than the oddball writer who will make a stupid case against their induction just to sound smarter than everyone else, their future enshrining is certain. So we won’t waste any more time on that. Similarly, crew chiefs with multiple Cup championships should probably be inducted. For the moment, the only active chiefs in the sport with such credentials are Chad Knaus and Greg Zipadelli. Knaus, absolutely, gets in on the first ballot.
Now let’s go to some other names currently wheeling Cup cars.
You could make a Paolantonio-esque argument that a driver needs to win a championship to make the Hall, but it would still be a travesty to deny Mark Martin. To finish in the top five in the standings 13 times is a far more impressive achievement than winning one title, even if there aren’t any trophies for it. Not to mention that his last runner-up finish came at the age of 50. Martin would also get the benefit of the popular-guy vote, the kind that can push a teetering potential inductee over the top. There is nothing wrong with that so long as impressive numbers are there. And they are. 40 Cup wins is Hall-worthy, championship or not.
Matt Kenseth is an interesting conundrum. His 2003 championship and 2009 Daytona 500 win surely put him on the ballot, but does he have the numbers overall to have a plaque emblazoned in the same room with Dale Earnhardt? Should he put up similar numbers as he has been for the rest of his career, the answer would be absolutely… but Roush Fenway seems to have lost a bit of mojo of late, and if it keeps up, we may not see many more wins than Kenseth’s total of 18 when he hangs up his helmet. However, I still say yes on Kenseth, if for no other reason than his being the inspiration for a ridiculous playoff.
How about Kurt Busch? He’s also a champion, and there isn’t going to be any consideration against that for it being a Chase championship, sympathetic as I may be to the argument. Still, he has only finished top five three times in his career thus far and has 21 race wins, not quite enough now. But he has many more years left in him, and could well reach at least 30 wins in his career. Kurt’s a tough call right now, but he’ll probably make it.
His brother Kyle should someday find his place among the greatest. Not only is he racking up wins — 17 Cup wins at the age of 25 — he’s doing it in all three major series, with an astonishing total of 67 overall. Kyle has already started to put up Hall-worthy numbers; should he nail down a Cup title a trip to Charlotte at the end of his career should go with it. But part of his problem is those last 10 races each year. If he doesn’t fix that, it could hurt his chances. Believe it or not, Kyle has only won one Chase event, the 2005 Phoenix race.
It pains me to say it, because I’m a big fan of his, but I doubt that at this point that it would be fair to include Jeff Burton. Maybe as one of those second or third ballot guys, whatever that means. But no titles and only 21 wins, in a career that probably doesn’t have too many more seasons, isn’t there at least as far as stats are concerned. He’s been a good, consistent driver throughout his career, but averaging just over one victory a year isn’t quite enough. I’d vote him in just on his being a decent guy and a great ambassador for the sport, but using just those criteria you could vote in Kenny Wallace.
Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards are still too early in their careers to start hammering out the plaque just yet, but both drivers can someday etch their names in the Hall simply by performing the way that they have over 10 more years or so. Both drivers have come very close to winning titles; should either pull one off it could seal the deal.
OK, here’s the obvious fight-starter. What about Dale Earnhardt Jr.? I and probably most motorsports journalists would say no. He doesn’t have the numbers—just 18 wins in 11-plus seasons. That seven of them came at plate tracks devalues almost a third of them, to this writer anyway. All seven of Junior’s plate wins came at the time when DEI was very strong at plate tracks; no one is likely to contend that Michael Waltrip belongs in the Hall. Compare that to Kenseth with one of 18 wins at plate tracks, and even with identical totals, I think Kenseth’s total is more impressive simply based on the venues.
There will undoubtedly be some attempting to justify Little E’s place among the greats of the sport. Maybe there will be some merit to it. It’s impossible to measure the intangible lift the sport got, not only from his continuing to race without blinking following his father’s untimely and very public passing, but also from winning the next race at the track where the tragedy occurred. This is, after all, a Hall of “Fame,” and Junior’s carrying of a shaken sport through rough times might be worthy of some consideration. I still say no, but if someone made the case, I’d understand it.
Bobby Labonte is a tough one. A champion, yes, so based on that maybe he gets in, but he went into a sharp decline almost immediately following his 2000 title, to the point where several lackluster years at Joe Gibbs Racing were followed by some mediocre years at Petty Enterprises. Other than his championship season, Labonte finished in the top 10 in the standings just five times and in the top five just once. I would vote for him because I like the guy, which is surely an edge that good fellas like Labonte will have, but I don’t know that a majority would.
Kevin Harvick? Probably not unless he gets a title under his belt. Joey Logano, maybe, someday? Far too early to tell, and so far, heck no. Greg Biffle? No. Clint Bowyer needs a lot of help for the rest of his racing days. Kasey Kahne? Homina homina homina… not likely on his numbers thus far, but let’s reserve judgment until he’s raced for Rick Hendrick for a few seasons. Juan Pablo Montoya, if he becomes the first driver since AJ Foyt to win both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500? I like that, but no. Not even with a Cup championship, unless he starts winning somewhere besides road courses. Besides, Indy 500 wins don’t count here.
Other than drivers, crew chiefs and owners, I can think of a few other potential future candidates for the Hall. Should Mike Joy stick around another decade, I could argue his being placed on the ballot as a broadcaster, although I can’t think of anyone else in the booth today that merits such distinction. Like him or not, SMI owner Bruton Smith and his ex-sidekick track promoter Humpy Wheeler may both find their places on a future Hall ballot. And while Kyle Petty accomplished little on the racetrack to be so honored, his philanthropic efforts, especially the formation of the Victory Junction Gang Camp, might make him a candidate. Brian France? I’ll let you hardcore fans debate that one. Easy on those keyboards.
It’s fun just writing about it. Nothing legitimizes a sport like passionate arguments over who was the best of the best. Nothing provokes such arguments like a Hall of Fame.
- Our newsletter reported earlier this week that Jason Keller will be attempting to make the Nationwide field at Dover for his 500th start, the first driver to reach such a milestone. This would make Keller the Crash Davis of NASCAR, although Crash probably isn’t a good nickname for a racecar driver.
- Stewart has lost Old Spice as a sponsor. I’m not sure what the reasoning was behind that. I do wonder why a company who markets shaving cream as one of their signature products would select a driver who is often seen with unsightly facial growth to represent them. Hopefully ol’ Smoke can find a replacement.
- This writer is happy to see that Richard Childress is close to re-signing Harvick, if the news reports are to be believed. Leaving aside that Harvick doesn’t have too many other options, I like to see a guy drive the same number his whole career. Especially when something historic happened with it, like the finish in Atlanta three weeks after Earnhardt’s death. I’d be ticked at all the new t-shirts I’d have to buy again next year if I were a Kurt Busch fan.
- I still do not yet know why Brian Vickers has been hospitalized, but we at Frontstretch wish him Godspeed and a full and quick recovery, as full-time utility driver Casey Mears takes over for him at Dover. Best to you Brian.