LAS VEGAS -- Mark Martin won't have to wait three years to be eligible for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Thanks to changes in the selection process announced Thursday, the veteran driver will be up for consideration beginning with the class of 2015.
And he's not alone -- Bill Elliott, Terry Labonte, Ken Schrader, Geoffrey Bodine and Ron Hornaday Jr. are also among those drivers who could find themselves up for enshrinement due to eligibility changes that promise to broaden and modernize the pool of available candidates, and especially benefit drivers who competed on the track into their 50s.
NASCAR unveiled six procedural changes to the Hall of Fame selection process in a Champions Week announcement, and the most impactful involves driver eligibility. Currently, drivers who have competed in NASCAR for at least 10 years and been retired for three are eligible for nomination to the Hall of Fame. While that will not change, moving forward, drivers who have competed for a minimum of 10 years and reached their 55th birthday on or before Dec. 31 of the year prior to the nominating year are also immediately eligible for selection.
Also, any competitor who has competed for 30 or more years in NASCAR competition by Dec. 31 of the year prior to the nominating year is automatically eligible, regardless of age. The changes will benefit drivers like Martin, 54, a 40-time race winner who likely competed for the final time in the Sprint Cup Series this past season after 31 years on the circuit. Elliott, 58, is a former champion who competed as recently as 2012 and raced over 37 seasons. Two-time champion Terry Labonte, 57, competed in five events this past season, his 36th in the series.
Drivers may also now continue to compete after reaching any of the aforementioned milestones without compromising eligibility for nomination or induction. The changes to the selection process reflect an era when many drivers are proving competitive well beyond what was once considered retirement age, and will almost certainly add more contemporary names to the pool of drivers eligible for enshrinement.
"It wasn't a goal on specific drivers," said Brett Jewkes, NASCAR's chief communication officer. "? That was not the goal. There wasn't ever really a goal. The discussion came to, our sport is different. We have guys that compete for 20, 30, 35 years. It just makes sense. If they have a Hall of Fame r�sum�, the voters will determine that. To put more emphasis on the drivers, our sport has always been about the driver, and anything we can do to get more drivers in that discussion is where we wanted to go."
NASCAR chairman Brian France added that the changes will result in "stronger nominees" being put up for consideration. Martin, Elliott, Labonte and the other newly-eligible drivers will now be in the mix when the Hall of Fame's nominating committee determines the slate of candidates for the 2015 class, the first stages of which will begin in February of next year.
NASCAR formally announced five other changes, including the addition of the reigning Sprint Cup champion to the following year's voting panel, a move first unveiled in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That means Jimmie Johnson, who captured his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship this season, will be included in the selection meeting and cast a vote for the class of 2015 on voting day, Wednesday, May 21, 2014.
Also, beginning with the 2015 class, a new award called the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR will be initiated to honor significant contributions to the sport's growth. Potential recipients could include competitors or those working in the sport as a member of a racing organization, track facility, race team, sponsor, media partner or being a general ambassador for the sport through a professional or non-professional role. Award winners will remain eligible for Hall enshrinement.
Five nominees for the Landmark Award will be selected by the Hall's nominating committee, and then be voted upon by the voting panel. To win the award, an individual must appear on at least 60 percent of the ballots and no more than one award will be presented annually. Voting for this award will occur immediately following the voting for the Hall of Fame class and be monitored by the same independent accounting firm that oversees voting.
Also, for the first time, the nominating committee will meet in person to create the ballots for both the Hall of Fame and the Landmark Award. Previously, the committee submitted nominees via mail to an independent accounting firm which totaled the nominations in order to create the final Hall ballot. The nominating committee will meet during Speedweeks at Daytona on Friday, Feb. 21, 2014, and the nominees for both ballots will be announced later that day.
Moving forward, the nominating committee will also select five fewer members for enshrinement, with the number dropping from 25 to 20 beginning with selection for the 2015 class. And any member of the nominating or voting panels who appeared on the previous or current year's ballot will now be recused from participation in the nominating or voting process for as long as they are up for consideration. That latter change most directly affects Jerry Cook, the former modified great who has been a voter as well as a nominee.
The number of new Hall of Fame members selected each year, five, remains unchanged. The Hall of Fame's 2014 class, which will be comprised of former drivers Dale Jarrett, Tim Flock, Jack Ingram, and Fireball Roberts as well as former engine builder Maurice Petty, will be enshrined at the downtown Charlotte, N.C., facility on Jan. 29 of next year.
"The Hall of Fame is a treasure. It's a treasure for our sport. It's a treasure for the community of Charlotte," Jewkes said. "These guys that are going to be there are treasures for all of us for a long, long time. Anything we can do to put more focus on the drivers, bring more people into the conversation and then make this process as crisp as possible. My biggest belief out of this whole thing ? is, this makes the responsibility to be a voter much more difficult, in my opinion. It puts a lot of responsibility on them to make some tough calls. That ballot is going to be tighter. "
National series drivers impacted by new NHOF driver eligibility:
? Norm Benning: 61 years old
? Geoff Bodine: 64 years old
? Derrike Cope:55 years old, 31 seasons
? Rick Crawford: 55 years old
? Bill Elliott: 58 years old, 37 seasons
? Bobby Gerhart: 55 years old
? David Green: 56 years old
? Mike Harmon: 55 years old
? Ron Hornaday Jr.: 55 years old
? James Hylton: 79 years old, 30 seasons
? Terry Labonte: 57 years old, 36 seasons
? Mark Martin: 31 seasons
? Butch Miller: 61 years old
? Ken Schrader: 58 years old, 30 seasons
? Mike Skinner: 56 years old
? Morgan Shepherd: 72 years old, 36 seasons