(Photo: Barry Cantrell/NKP)

4 Burning Questions: Who Should Be Part of the 2021 NASCAR Hall of Fame Class?

Did the NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination process work this time?

Last season, I refused to give a serious look at the class of 2020 nominees simply because of the broken nomination system.

Now the hall has decided to make changes addressing some of these concerns. The modern era nomination committee is still very flawed and rewards recent drivers (Sam Ard being bumped while Jeff Burton gets nominated), but the new pioneer committee… made some choices.

In retrospect, their choices made sense. Committee members Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison probably had the biggest voices in the room judging by these nominations. John Holman got shown the door probably because he really wasn’t very popular in the garage compared to Ralph Moody, who stayed on. Banjo Matthews is one of the unsung heroes in NASCAR history, Jake Elder was beloved by a lot of people in that very garage, Red Farmer is Red Farmer and Hershel McGriff has performed very well while on the ballot in the past.

The pioneer committee didn’t nominate Ray Fox, who finished seventh in voting on the ballot last year. Red Vogt, the grandfather of NASCAR mechanics, was left off. It also did not nominate Smokey Yunick, which at this point has completely devolved into a meme.

At first, these moves are shocking, but at the same time, there’s really not too many guys left from that era to vouch for these candidates. And of the ones still around, they themselves may not have been the biggest fans of these three.

Limiting every year’s class to just three inductees is a great change. Once again, the best way to make this work would be getting people in by vote percentage; Bobby Labonte would have missed out on being inducted this year under this system even though he had 67% of the total vote. If you get 60% or above, you’re a hall of fame inductee. But it’s still better than five every year in a slowly depleting pool of either viable candidates or candidates about whom the modern era committee doesn’t care.

Who should be the pioneer era inductee?

I mean, what else is there really to say at this point about Banjo Matthews? Great name, great driving career, good car owner, gave Yarborough his first big break, the best chassis man in NASCAR history. His chassis won 72% of Cup races over a 12-year period and every single race in 1978. Both of these are records that are completely untouchable. In the five-person pioneer ballot, the only one that was the undisputed best at what he did was Matthews, and that should be all you need to say to make it in.

Who should be the first modern era inductee?

As accomplished as eight of the other nominees (Jeff Burton has no business being on the ballot compared to people off of it) are on the modern era ballot, Mike Stefanik would be the most deserving of the nine based on accolades and feats.

Stefanik won nine NASCAR championships. Nine! Only one other person in history, Richie Evans, has won as many NASCAR championships, and Evans is already in the hall of fame.

This man won two NASCAR championships in one year. And he did in two completely different types of cars, the ARCA Menards Series East and the Whelen Modified Series. How many people have won championships in what’s essentially a stock car series and an open wheel series in one year? I can’t find anybody in my research, and even if I could find somebody, I don’t think they did it two years in a row. Yes, Stefanik won four NASCAR championships in a two-year span (1997-1998).

In 1998, Stefanik had 21 top-10 finishes in 22 modified tour starts. He had an average finish of 3.1 in that series on top of, again, winning a championship in another series. In the modified stats that Racing Reference has uploaded (all seasons/races since 1985), Stefanik has the most wins with 74- 30 more than the second place driver. He also leads the series in top fives, top 10s, poles, laps led and ranks third on average finish, which is insane considering the two ahead of him have 300 less starts. And remember, this is a series, comparatively speaking, without that much turnover or really, that much moving up to a higher series.

Yes, he never had a NASCAR Cup Series start. Yes, he under performed in his lone full time Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series season. Yes, he said “bullshit” on live television once. But Stefanik is easily the best modified series driver since Evans and is a top five East driver of all time on top of that. That’s more than hall of fame worthy.

Who should be the second modern era inductee?

Last week, I argued for the candidacy of Ricky Rudd and how good (not great but definitely good) Rudd was for just a ludicrous amount of time. Not even Jimmie Johnson, arguably the GOAT, could break the modern-era record Rudd set for most consecutive seasons with a win. And the only driver within striking distance of breaking that record (Kyle Busch with 15 from 2005-2019) is in serious danger right now thanks to the coronavirus potentially shortening the season.

Now that the nominees are out and having done more research into them, it’s clear to me that Stefanik should be joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Let’s get this out of the way: nobody should go, “well, I think he’s too new to go in.” A hall of fame nominee is a hall of fame nominee. Their accomplishments, how they succeeded as per the circumstances of their era/situation and, most importantly, their legacy on the history stock car racing, should be the only criteria voters look at once they are on the ballot.

Earnhardt wasn’t as successful as Carl Edwards and didn’t have nearly the longevity/consistency of Rudd. But he did win 26 Cup races, very good considering how competitive Cup was during his career, two Daytona 500 wins, and two Xfinity Series championships. He has also been a very successful owner, fielding cars that have won 47 NXS races and three NXS championships, including the last two. His eye for talent led to future Cup champion Brad Keselowski getting his big break, and another future Cup champion, Martin Truex Jr., also leaned heavily on Earnhardt as a mentor early on in his career.

But let’s get away from those stats for a second and look at his impact on the sport. Earnhardt was the most popular/beloved driver in NASCAR since Richard Petty. Yes, Bill Elliott won more most popular driver awards, but it was also an open secret that Elliott’s fanbase was much more engaged and determined to get the soft spoken Georgian voted in year after year. Can you really say Elliott had as much cultural relevance in 1998 as his contemporaries Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin had by that time, or what Earnhardt still has today, 20 years after his Cup debut? Could any random person polled outside a grocery store know who Elliott was (outside of the state of Georgia) in 1998 at the same rate as Earnhardt throughout the entire country today?

After Elliott retired from full time racing, ratings went up. When Earnhardt retired from full time racing, ratings nosedived. It’s not fair to Elliott because 2004 NASCAR had much more going for it than 2018 NASCAR, but if Elliott was as popular as he’s truly made out to be, why was there absolutely no dropoff after he retired?

I’m not saying Elliott wasn’t popular or that he wasn’t big in the 1980s. But he wasn’t in the same tier as Earnhardt still is two years after retirement, or even the name Gordon still has four years removed as well. Earnhardt was the face of the sport for 15 years, taking the baton in the worst possible circumstance (his own father, who was also the sport’s biggest driver, dying in his rearview mirror) and carrying it through a period of tremendous growth and NASCAR’s peak year of business, 2007.

Then you throw the stats in there along with that, and there’s really no question that Earnhardt will be in the hall of fame at some point. If your only real argument against him is that it’s too early, then you have no argument.

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About Michael Finley

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Michael has watched NASCAR for 15 years and began covering the sport five years ago. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and a proud member of the National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA).

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11 comments

  1. Avatar

    I have no real interest in the museum as long as Smokey Yunick isn’t in it. I worked for Dan Gurney in the early 1970s. Smokey bought an Indy Eagle in 1972. He came to our Santa Ana shop to fit the small block Chevy and I talked with him every day for over a month. The smartest man in the history of NASCAR

    • Avatar

      I’d say Smokey is probably a better candidate than every current nominee except for Banjo. But he can’t make it out of the nominating committees and probably won’t until two years from now due to Ray Fox probably coming back next year. Which is dumb because Smokey is a way better candidate than Fox but Fox already came close to getting inducted and is probably next in line for pioneers

      • Avatar

        I wish I had a dollar for every time, someone, around racing said to me that Smokey was “just” a cheater and that included most of my workmates at Dan Gurneys. No, Smokey wasn’t “just” a cheater, he was the cheater everyone of them wanted to out cheat and they never figured out how to do it. Cheating was the norm in the 1960s. I know, I was there.

  2. Avatar

    It seems evident that NASCAR doesn’t understand that omitting Smokey – even for consideration – has created a significant credibility gap between the older fan base and what criteria passes for deserving nomination to the HoF, and it needs to be fixed. There are many deserving nominees and selection is never to be assumed or assured….Smokey Yunick, warts and all, was a significant player in NASCAR history. He should be recognized as such.

    • Avatar

      To be fair on this one- he wasn’t eligible for the modern era ballot anymore, where NASCAR has a lot of influence as per my column from last year linked in the opening paragraph. This is on the pioneer ballot committee, which is made up of every living hall of fame member, Landmark Award winner, and Squier-Hall winner. NASCAR itself really doesn’t have as much say for those five nominees.

      • Avatar

        My revised closing comment – “He hopefully will be recognized soon.” As to your comment about NASCAR having much say, it’s pretty clear there has been a shadow over the relationship between the 2 parties for a very long time.

  3. Avatar

    Your questions are not “burning” because they are not being addressed to the voting panel. Is everyone scared to ask Waltrip, Allison, and Yarborough, why they haven’t addressed the Yunick/NA$CAR impediment? We all know it won’t happen because the “good ole boys” are not gong to rock the boat on their heritage.

  4. Avatar

    In fairness, the TV ratings were in free fall for several years before Dale Jr retired.

  5. Avatar

    Funny, if I am not mistaken watching a few years ago on RACE HUB or NASCAR AMERICA(whatever) there was a roundtable discussion with the same men and others who are nominated with these weak numbers. They at the time talked of at least 30 race wins with a “crown jewel” win or two PLUS a championship as realistic look for the HOF inclusion. My, my, my how times of change. The ego’s. LOL. They were actually critical of how many guys each year were getting in. I truly believe at the rate they are going the include the Martinsville Hotdog vendor inducted! NASCAR screwed up the process and now want to lower the standards. Big shocker, NASCAR is it’s own worst enemy! IMO.

  6. Avatar

    Geoff Bodine?