The NASCAR Hall of Fame has spent a decade enshrining some of the sport’s best inside its building. But as the 2020 nominating class revealed this week, an honor designed for a select few now finds itself mired in mediocrity.
From the moment one of the top-five greatest drivers — maybe even the best ever — David Pearson, was left out of its inaugural class, the NASCAR Hall of Fame began a negative trajectory. Sure, the obvious choices have always gotten in, from Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson and Bill France Sr. in the first class, down the line to Jeff Gordon and Jack Roush in the most recent list of inductees. But it’s in the deeper picks, the ones that require some research, where Hall of Fame voters have shown a lack of judgment.
For example, last year Roger Penske was inducted into the Hall of Fame prior to winning his second championship with Joey Logano. Yes, Penske is one of the greatest motorsports car owners of all time, armed with more Indy 500 victories you could count on both hands. But we’re talking the NASCAR Hall of Fame, not IndyCar. The voters failed to take that difference into account and elected Penske prematurely.
Don’t get me wrong; Penske will have enough success to eventually earn his spot in the Hall. But while he was celebrated, four-time championship owner Joe Gibbs and two-time championship owners John Holman and Ralph Moody were left out.
For a while, the problem was mainly in the voting for the actual inductees. The nomination committee, especially in the early years, had been putting up solid choices. Sure, they left out legendary car owner and mechanic Smokey Yunick year after year. But as long as the France family runs the show, the committee is likely not allowed to vote Yunick. A lifetime of feuds has left grudges that transcend generations.
I have no issue with the twenty 2020 #NASCAR Hall nominees. Everyone worthy of induction will get in eventually. But after eleven years Smokey Yunick hasn't even made it onto a ballot, even for the special awards. I know he wasn't a France family favorite, but that feels wrong. pic.twitter.com/t0KxELlEL1
— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) March 13, 2019
In recent years, the nominating committee has also gone downhill. For me, it hit its breaking point when this year’s nominees were announced on Wednesday evening (March 13).
Sure, Tony Stewart was the obvious pick that voters had to include as a first-time nominee. And I do applaud the committee for including Sam Ard and Red Vogt; both have been deserving of induction for some time. Ard dominated what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series during his three seasons in it. The man was so dominant, he missed the last race of the 1984 season due to a career-ending injury and still won the championship. Ard also won numerous races in the Late Model Sportsman Division before it became what we now know as Xfinity.
As for Vogt, much like Bill France Sr. and Raymond Parks, there would be no NASCAR without his impact. The man is universally revered as one of the sport’s first master mechanics.
But the other first-time nominees are drivers Neil Bonnett, Marvin Panch and Jim Paschal. They pushed out crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine, excluded despite being nominated last year. How could anyone look at the stats and impact of Bonnett, Panch and Paschal and seriously vote for them over Shelmerdine?
Shelmerdine earned more championships than that trio of drivers combined. He won four as Dale Earnhardt’s crew chief while Bonnett, Panch and Paschal have zero. Sure, Earnhardt was able to win three without Shelmerdine. But that doesn’t mean Earnhardt was 100 percent responsible for the ones they won together.
The most amazing stat about Shelmerdine is he won all of those championships before age 34. He then started his own team and pursued a driving career, winning three ARCA races.
Shelmerdine also won 46 races on the pit box with Earnhardt and Ricky Rudd. By comparison, neither Bonnett, Panch or Paschal cracked 30 wins as a driver. Kurt Busch said after he picked up his 30th Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win at Bristol Motor Speedway last summer he felt like 30 wins and a championship was what it would take him to get into the Hall of Fame. Well, based off the nominating and induction committees’ actions, Busch could’ve retired years ago. He would not only have been a Hall of Famer but beaten out crew chiefs with better stats to do so.
I don’t mean any disrespect to Bonnett, Panch, Paschal or any other driver who drives an uninterrupted NASCAR career and ends up with less than 30 wins and zero championships. It takes loads of talent to win just one NASCAR race, let alone 17 like Panch, 18 like Bonnett or 25 like Paschal. But these drivers shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. Yeah, they had pretty good careers. But the sport’s highest honor is supposed to represent the legends, the best of the best — not those that were just pretty good.
If the current trajectory continues, then every driver who has ever won a Cup race will end up nominated. Or, even worse, popular drivers who never even won a race like Danica Patrick could get in. The Hall of Fame these days has become more of a popularity contest than an according measure of greatness.
Meanwhile, deserving crew chiefs, owners and local racing phenoms get ignored. Shelmerdine is far from the only one. Herb Nab won at least 83 races (he could’ve won more but crew chief stats from that time are hard to find) and guided Cale Yarborough to two championships. Yet Nab has never been nominated.
I don’t understand how Jake Elder and Herb Nabb are never mentioned for nominees into the @NASCARHall these guy won races and championships with great drivers and teams, I wish they could get their deserved recognition !
— Darrell Waltrip (@AllWaltrip) March 13, 2019
Mr. Modified himself, Ray Hendrick, is one of the drivers who is constantly overlooked. After all, he’s the only person to win at Martinsville Speedway more than Richard Petty, visiting Victory Lane 20 times at the track. When fellow modified legends Jerry Cook and Richie Evans were inducted, I thought it opened the door for Hendrick to get in as well.
When Denny Hamlin won the Southern 500 in a Hendrick’s “Flying 11” throwback paint scheme, I thought it would get Hendrick the attention of the voters. But the man has yet to be nominated despite being named one of NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, a list that came out in 1998. Many on the Hall of Fame nominee committee probably see Ray Hendrick’s name and think, “Oh, we already voted Rick Hendrick in.”
So after this most recent disaster of a nomination process, Winston Kelley and the other folks that run the Hall of Fame need to go back to the drawing board. They need to decide if the current list of voters have enough NASCAR knowledge to be worthy of their vote. And once they weed out the weak links, they need to decide how to motivate the panels to vote for people that are actual racing legends instead of just drivers they thought were cool.