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.
About the author
Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.