The NASCAR Hall of Fame announced its list of nominees on Tuesday (April 7), and as usual, there was quite a list. This year’s group is headlined, perhaps, by Dale Earnhardt Jr., but who’s really most worthy of induction this time around? With new rules for election in place, two people from the modern era ballot and one from the pioneer ballot will be selected, with the Landmark Award also given to an individual whose contributions made an impact on the sport.
Here are my choices to get the nod this year —the top three are listed for the modern ballot, with top picks for the pioneer list and Landmark Award. All of the nominees are deserving, but I’m a numbers girl, so statistics were my main concern, particularly for drivers: NASCAR wins and titles (other racing accomplishments are also a consideration, but the main thing here is performance in NASCAR, as it is the NASCAR Hall of Fame). After that, other contributions do come into play, as an ambassador for the sport, as a fan favorite and other considerations, but the focus should be on-track performance, and I’m very picky — more so than many voters. To me, a driver with fewer than say 30 wins in their top series and a title needs some other reason to convince me.
1. Mike Stefanik (Modern Era Ballot)
Stefanik shouldn’t be on the nominee list in 2020. He should already be a Hall of Fame driver. With 86 combined wins in NASCAR’s Modified and what’s now ARCA East (then the Busch North Series), Stefanik is a household name in the Northeast. And if his win total isn’t impressive enough, how about his nine NASCAR titles? That includes seven Modified championships and a pair in the East Series. The only other driver to boast nine titles is Richie Evans, also a Modified driver, who’s long since been elevated to the Hall.
Stefanik raced the Modified Tour for 29 seasons, finishing in the top 10 in points 16 times. His first top-10 points finish came in 1987 when Stefanik was 29. His last came more than two decades later, in 2015, when Stefanik was 55. He died in a plane crash in 2019.
2. Kirk Shelmerdine (Modern Era Ballot)
Crew chiefs, engine builders and car builders don’t always get the recognition they deserve, especially when it comes to Hall of Fame inductions. This years’ list includes two crew chiefs, Shelmerdine and Harry Hyde. Hyde has the edge with wins (56 to Shelmerdine’s 46) and might have the more well-known name, even having the crew chief in Days of Thunder more than loosely based on his career. But what gives Shelmerdine the nod is his titles — four to Hyde’s one. Shelmerdine wrenched Dale Earnhardt to Cup championships in 1985, 1986, 1990 and 1991. He also had top-10 points finishes with James Hylton (1977), Richard Childress (1980) and Ricky Rudd (1982, 1983) previous to working with Earnhardt from 1984-1992. During that span, Earnhardt finished outside the top 10 only once.
If comparisons mean anything, Shelmerdine matches up with Hall of Famer Ray Evernham all the way: Evernham has one more race win as a crew chief than Shelmerdine; Shelmerdine has one more title than Evernham, who was inducted in 2018. The only real question is how Shelmerdine wasn’t nominated well before this.
3. Larry Phillips (Modern Era Ballot)
If the voters want another driver instead of a crew chief, Phillips should be the second inductee. He could be a tougher sell than some of the other nominees, because he’s not a household name, but it’s past time to recognize drivers who race outside the spotlight of the national touring series. Modifieds are represented, but the weekly racers who run at smaller sanctioned tracks across the country are not yet. Phillips should change that.
How dominant was Phillips? In addition to five NASCAR weekly championships (1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1996), he has an eye-popping winning percentage of over 73%, winning 226 times in 308 NASCAR-sanctioned starts. Those are the numbers that voters should weigh in this instance, but it’s also estimated that Phillips won somewhere north of 1,000 races on local tracks by the time of his death in 2004. It’s time to give Phillips his due as one of NASCAR’s best ever.
4. Banjo Matthews (Pioneer Ballot)
With just one nominee to be ultimately inducted this year, this category and the Landmark Award make for difficult choices. Matthews’ gets top choice here for a couple of reasons. First, his numbers are undeniable: cars he built went to Victory Lane a lot. Matthews built cars for many of the sport’s heavy hitters in the 1970s and 1980s. He has three Cup titles as a car builder, and his chassis went to the winner’s circle with remarkable regularity.
Between 1974 and 1985, Matthews’ cars won 72% of the Cup races run in that span, with 262 wins in 362 races over that span. That includes the entire 1978 season. In 30 races that year, no other car builder won a race. Ouch.
It’s also important for fans to understand the importance of the chassis builders, crew chiefs, engine builders and others whose contributions led directly to the success of the drivers they watched on track over the years. These folks need to be included in the Hall so that fans understand that the drivers’ success didn’t come on its own, and Matthews is an example of the excellence it takes to win at NASCAR’s top level.
5. Ralph Seagraves (Landmark Award)
This one is difficult as well. Perhaps the smart vote would be Janet Guthrie, whose achievements as a driver in an era where women weren’t included in motorsports were groundbreaking and remarkable. But without Seagraves, it’s possible, even probable, that Guthrie’s accomplishments, along with many others, would have gone largely unnoticed.
NASCAR was largely a regional sport from 1948 through the 1960s. While NASCAR had risen above other sanctioning bodies in stock car racing by that time because of the France family’s leadership, the sport was still relegated to an afterthought in sports. Races were limited to segments on Wide World of Sports or sports news reels. Open-wheel racers were more well-known than most of their stock car counterparts.
Seagraves created the perfect marriage in 1971, when he was looking for a platform to market RJ Reynolds, a tobacco company, after advertising laws severely limited cigarette companies’ reach. He spoke with Junior Johnson when Johnson was seeking sponsorship for his race team, and racing seemed like a great match. So Seagraves upped the ante, and instead of Johnson’s cars, RJ Reynolds sponsored NASCAR’s entire top series. That partnership moved NASCAR into its modern era, and allowed the sport to grow. And grow it did, from a regional niche sport into a national phenomenon. When RJ Reynolds departed 30 years later, NASCAR was everywhere, with drivers’ images on everything from cartoons to laundry detergent, and everyone knew what Winston Cup racing was. Would some other company have caught on and moved NASCAR ahead? Eventually, maybe. But Seagraves’ vision is a big reason fans came to the sport, and part of the reason it’s notable enough to have the Hall of Fame it does.