This year’s NASCAR Hall of Fame class might just be the toughest to choose yet. This is the first list of nominees where nobody really jumps out as a slam dunk candidate; compare that to last season which had Mark Martin, Terry Labonte, and especially Benny Parsons, all kind of above the rest of the field.
The Hall of Fame really needs to make some changes to its induction process very soon. It’s not going to be long until the Hall runs out of nominees that probably should be Hall of Famers to nominees that are a lot more questionable. Harry Gant was a great driver in his day, but with five inductees a year, he’ll basically be a lock to go in at some point instead of facing an actual debate. Greg Biffle could be an interesting discussion as he’d be going in due to his Truck and XFINITY Series championships, even though he only had one championship caliber Cup season and was generally good-to-mediocre. But again, any arguments will be irrelevant until the inductee number is lowered.
Personally, I’d prefer rules somewhat similar to the Baseball Hall of Fame rules. Twenty nominees a season with non-nominated voters strictly ranging from veteran National Motorsport Press Association members, living Hall of Fame members, team owners who currently hold at least one Cup Series charter, the defending Cup Series champion, track owners and operators, and the fan vote. Ballots would only be cast with a maximum of five nominees, with any nominee appearing on sixty percent of the ballots being elected.
If no nominees receive sixty percent of the votes, the nominee with the highest number of votes would be the lone inductee. Finally, if a nominee either appears on less than 10 percent of the ballots or has been a nominee for 10 years and the nominee committee rules that there is an eligible nominee more qualified than they are, they would be dropped. There would be some system where members could be reconsidered for entry at some point after being dropped, but that would be the general gist of the system.
As always, NASCAR allows for online voting to help determine the fan vote. It can be found by clicking here. I do not personally have an actual ballot for the Hall, but have instead submitted it to that site.
This selection was basically between Jack Roush, Roger Penske, Gibbs, and Ray Evernham to me. Evernham was a gifted crew chief but never really rose quite to that level as a team owner. In seven seasons, Evernham only won 13 races and had a best finish of eighth in the point standings. Good numbers, but not Hall of Fame worthy numbers. His crew chief career was much better but was also cut short due to starting his own team. I just don’t think Evernham had more of an impact on the sport or the amount of success the other three have had.
Roger Penske makes an interesting case, but he has two major problems going against his nomination. First, he only has one Cup Series championship compared to Roush and Gibbs. He never did win a championship with Rusty Wallace, in spite of a very successful run. Second, there have been very noticeable times where Penske lost focus on NASCAR; he had a part-time team in the 70s that he seemingly used at times only to try and entice top NASCAR drivers to Indy, and in the mid-to-late 2000s where the team was just a step behind for multiple years. The thing that really gets Penske not getting the nod here; his stats just aren’t as good as both Joe Gibbs and Jack Roush.
Finally, Gibbs gets the nod over Roush due to having more championships in the Cup Series. Roush has more XFINITY Series and Truck Series championships, but Gibbs has just been more dominant than Roush for the last several seasons in both Cup and especially XFINITY. When was the last time a Roush driver in the XFINITY Series was the favorite in any race? Every week, everybody has their eyes on the Gibbs cars even without Kyle Busch. With Kyle Busch, it’s more shocking if they don’t win in XFINITY.
Gibbs, if voted in, will become the only person ever voted into both the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Professional Football Hall of Fame. Gibbs’ most remarkable accomplishment in football was winning three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks in an era dominated by Bill Parcell’s Giants and Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys. Gibbs has continued the trend in NASCAR in decades dominated by Hendrick Motorsports; three drivers have won championships in Gibbs cars, tied for the most of any team in history with Hendrick.
Tony Stewart will go down as probably Gibbs’ most iconic driver, but the most impressive driver Gibbs has had may just be Kyle Busch. Before joining Gibbs, Kyle Busch was a good young talent who had been lost in a Hendrick organization dominated by Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Although Busch will never admit it, it had to be a tough day when it was announced Dale Earnhardt Jr. was effectively replacing him. So Busch went to Gibbs, became the de-facto leader of the organization when Stewart left and hasn’t looked back since. Gibbs knew exactly what to do with Busch and how to harness his raw driving ability to numerous wins and the 2015 Cup Series championship. It may just be the single greatest free agent signing in the history of NASCAR.
What people don’t know about Robert Yates is just how long of a career he had in NASCAR. He was the head engine builder at Holman-Moody way back in 1968, one of the men behind David Pearson’s second and third championships. He was basically the person to go to for Ford engines, building them for owners such as Bud Moore and Harry Rainer.
When Rainer sold his team to Yates in the late 80s and Yates added Larry McReynolds as crew chief in 1991, the team had everything to dominate and win championships for years. They had one of the brightest drivers under 30 in the garage, Davey Allison. McReynolds brought to the team a competitive fire that would stay lit after he eventually left. And Yates still knew how to make rockets disguised as engines.
But the team just kept running into problems. In 1992, Allison had just about everything happen to him, between wrecks that injured him greatly to the death of his younger brother Clifford to a miserable fall that allowed Alan Kulwicki to steal the championship from him. Then, in 1993, Allison himself passed away in a helicopter accident.
The next season, Ernie Irvan was well on his way to winning a championship when he had an absolutely devastating wreck at the Michigan International Speedway that gave him a 10 percent chance to live. Although Irvan was able to recover and even won at Michigan a few years later, Yates ran into a Hendrick Motorsports wall of four straight championships until finally winning a championship in 1999 with Dale Jarrett. Jeff Gordon was just head and shoulders ahead of the field at this point, and even Terry Labonte won a championship in this time frame for Hendrick.
After 2002, the team just wasn’t competing for championships anymore. They were usurped completely by Roush when it came to the top Ford team and, save for a fluke win in 2004 by Elliott Sadler, the team never had a car finish in the top 10 in points ever again. In 2003, Mars Chocolate had stepped up to sponsor both Ricky Rudd and David Gilliland for the team, but in October 2007 they left to sponsor Kyle Busch at Joe Gibbs Racing. Robert Yates also retired during the 2007 offseason, leaving the burden of two unsponsored cars to son Doug Yates. In spite of a valiant effort by Gilliland and Travis Kvapil, the team ended up downsizing to one car for 2009, run by Paul Menard. Menard finished 31st in points and the team, in turn, merged with Richard Petty Motorsports, effectively shutting down amid a poor economic climate.
Robert Yates is still involved with making great Ford engines through his company Roush-Yates Engines, but it hasn’t been easy. In 2016, Yates was diagnosed with liver cancer and has been fighting it in the months since. Roush-Yates Engines, even with this situation looming over the company, hasn’t missed a step; Fords powered by RYE have already won five races this season, including the 2017 Daytona 500 with Kurt Busch.