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The vote that determined the 2013 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame was a harbinger of things to come. For the first time there were no locks, no legends like David Pearson or Cale Yarborough who had been omitted the year before, no one who could be sized up for a slate blue blazer even before the tally was complete. In just its fourth year, the shrine in downtown Charlotte was already entering a new era, one in which the final results seemed as unpredictable as the last lap at Talladega.
And to a large degree, it showed. There was Cotton Owens, the beneficiary of a campaign led by friend and fellow Spartanburg, S.C., resident Bud Moore to vote in the famed driver and car owner before illness took its toll. There was Rusty Wallace, smiling and energetic, earning enshrinement in his first year on the ballot. There was Fireball Roberts, among the sport's first true superstars, losing a tiebreaker to two-time champion Buck Baker for the fifth and final spot. There was Jerry Cook, nearly becoming the second modified driver in as many years to get in.
Members of the 54-person panel that determined the class -- which also included innovative car owner Leonard Wood and two-time champion driver Herb Thomas -- called it the most difficult vote they had ever been a part of. They should get used to it, because the decisions only get tougher from here on out.
When the Hall of Fame was founded, the sport featured a backlog of champions and contributors who deserved admission as soon as possible, from driving greats like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt to founders like Big Bill France. While there were some surprises early -- Moore in 2011, modified great Richie Evans in 2012 -- they were mild, since their credentials were so ironclad enshrinement seemed only a matter of time. But to a large degree, those first few classes were anchored by men whose inclusion was something close to unanimous.
One day, we'll get there again. In another decade or so there will be a second pantheon of greats whose enshrinement will be a mere formality, drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart whose accomplishments make them locks to one day have their own displays in the Hall of Honor. In between, though, is where it gets interesting. In between is where the unpredictability lies. In between is where anything can happen, where no one is truly certain of who's going to earn enshrinement until NASCAR chairman Brian France calls out their names in the Great Hall.
That will certainly be the case Wednesday, when the 2014 class of the Hall of Fame is chosen. Who gets in? Certainly Roberts would seem to have an edge given how close he came a year ago, although he never won a championship in a career cut short by the 1964 accident that eventually took his life. Does first-timer Dale Jarrett get in, as Wallace did last year, even though he has 23 fewer career victories? As was the case with Owens, is there a movement afoot to allow Fred Lorenzen -- who is battling his own health issues -- to hear his name called while he still can?
There are so many factors at work here, and career accomplishments are only a small part of the picture. The voting committee is comprised of people from several diverse groups -- media members, manufacturer representatives, retired competitors, industry executives and track operators -- who can all see this process very differently. Backgrounds and personal feelings come into play. Junior Johnson has said he wants to induct the greats who are no longer with us. Petty has said he thinks even car owners should be retired before earning inclusion. Short-trackers have had their say, getting Evans in, getting Cook on the cusp, and getting Larry Phillips on the ballot.
You put all those beliefs in the same room for four hours, and who knows what's coming out. Do multiple-time champions go to the head of the line? Does the Hall need an inductee each year who can help promote the facility? Should contributors like Bruton Smith and T. Wayne Robertson be measured on equal footing with competitors? Should active car owners like Rick Hendrick and Richard Childress still have to wait, despite their outrageous career numbers and the fact that they meet the Hall's current criteria for inclusion?
Rest assured, these matters and more will all be discussed, this year and into the future. In terms of sheer career accomplishments, the most deserving nominees might be two-time premier series champions Joe Weatherly and Tim Flock, but if we've learned anything over the past two years, it's that the voting panel takes much more than just statistics into consideration. It takes a truly special kind of competitor to transcend all that, and we may not see another one of those until Bill Elliott becomes eligible in 2016 -- assuming, that is, he doesn't start another race before then.
At some point the floodgates will open, and modern greats will earn entry one after another, a parade likely beginning with Elliott and ageless wonders Terry Labonte and Mark Martin, followed by Gordon and his host of contemporaries. That will truly be the NASCAR Hall of Fame's golden age, when the facility is filled with inductees whose victories and achievements are as tangible to visitors as the cars and artifacts that will be put on display. For the voters, that will be when the decisions once again make themselves.
But now? Now it's trying work, divining the differences between a Red Byron and a Benny Parsons, between competitors and contributors who have all done so much, and yet can still be so difficult to separate from one another. On this and every other election day in the near future, uncertainty looms as large as the cars lined up along Glory Road. Brian France will step to the podium in the Great Hall and be handed five envelopes one at a time, and until he opens them no one will know which names are written inside.
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WHAT: Hall of Fame Voting Day
WHEN: Wednesday, May 22 (1-4 p.m. ET)
WHERE: Charlotte (N.C.) Convention Center
WHO VOTES: 21 members of Nominating Committee and 33 members of Voting Panel. In addition, one vote is generated by fan input.
HOW MANY ARE CHOSEN: Five
WHEN THE 2014 INDUCTEES WILL BE REVEALED: 6 p.m. ET (Streamed live on NASCAR.com; live television coverage provided by SPEED)
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