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It's been barely a week since the five newest members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame were elected, and it will be several months still until they or their families receive the blue blazers which are symbolic of the sport's highest honor. But the introduction of new eligibility requirements, which in turn have thrust more names into consideration for enshrinement, make it natural to want to look ahead and wonder who might next hear the Hall's call.
The impact of those revised requirements -- which opened the facility's doors to competitors from more contemporary eras -- was felt immediately in the election of Bill Elliott, who under the old rules would have had to wait several more years even though he hadn't raced a full schedule since 2003. Future lists of nominees will almost certainly include more drivers like Elliott, mixing in those modern names with the historical figures who will likely remain mainstays on the ballot. We can probably look forward to more classes like this current one, which mixes both old and new.
For the moment, the attention is rightly placed upon Elliott, Rex White, Fred Lorenzen, Joe Weatherly and Wendell Scott, who will take their rightful places in the Hall of Fame on Jan. 30, 2015. But soon after that, it will be time for the nominating committee to once again convene and determine the 20 names to be placed in consideration for the class of 2016. Only five go in each year, of course, but in one writer's opinion here are the top 10 candidates to next receive a slate blue jacket with that Hall of Fame logo right over the heart.
10. Ray Evernham
Of course, he has to make the nomination list first, something the greatest crew chief of his era has somehow been unable to do. But Evernham certainly has the credentials, having won three titles and 47 races with Jeff Gordon, and then 15 more events as an owner. For nearly a decade, no one was more innovative, no one was more demanding, no one was better. Had he not left Hendrick Motorsports in late 1999 to spearhead Dodge's return to NASCAR, he certainly would have won more. As it is, he's done plenty to at least make the list, if not earn outright induction. Hopefully, those who compile the nomination list aren't holding his current role as a Hendrick consultant against him. Regardless, his absence to this point is inexcusable. They're not going to make Chad Knaus wait this long, are they?
9. Red Byron
It's easy to overlook the first champion of NASCAR's premier series -- Byron recorded only two victories, both of them coming in a 1949 season consisting of just eight events. But the fact that the man made it that far at all is astounding, given that he did it on one leg. On a bombing run over the Pacific in World War II, Byron's B-24 Liberator was hit by anti-aircraft fire that rendered his left leg almost useless. He would suffer through pain for the remainder of his life, yet after a long convalescence he still managed to race and win, essentially bolting his bad leg into the car. In an era of roughnecks and moonshiners, Byron was truly the first professional race driver, with a full understanding of the vehicle and what it took to stay at the front. He might not be NASCAR's most decorated champion, but he may have been its most complete.
8. Bobby Isaac
The North Carolinian might be best known for one moment at Talladega in 1973, when he pulled onto pit road and got out of his car claiming voices had told him to quit racing. But that single instance can't overshadow Isaac's splendid career, which included the 1970 championship and a long, successful stint in Nord Krauskopf's K&K Insurance car. Isaac had monster years in 1969 and '70, taking 28 checkered flags over that span, enjoying his best days right before the schedule was shortened and the sport entered the modern era. On NASCAR's all-time win list, every driver ahead of him has already been elected, or is a shoo-in for eventual enshrinement. He has more wins than Fireball Roberts, Dale Jarrett, Joe Weatherly or Rex White, making it virtually certain that Isaac will one day join them in the Hall.
7. Robert Yates
It's natural to wonder how much more Robert Yates Racing might have achieved had fate not intervened, and Davey Allison not been lost in a helicopter crash and Ernie Irvan's career not been cut short by a head injury. But even as it stands today, Yates built a beast of an organization that won 57 times and claimed the 1999 title with Dale Jarrett. Yates had the benefit of some great drivers -- Allison, Irvan, Jarrett and Ricky Rudd -- and turned out engines that were among the best of their time. For a while on restrictor-plate tracks, no one was better, as Yates' five victories at Daytona -- three of them in the 500 -- will attest. Yates cars won everywhere, from Darlington to Charlotte to Indianapolis to Sonoma, and even though the team became a shadow of its former self in its final years, the legacy always endured.
6. Richard Childress
For all their accomplishments, modern car owners like Childress and Rick Hendrick seem to gaining zero traction toward Hall of Fame election. That's too bad, because any owner with six titles, 105 race wins, and four decades of success behind him should go right toward the head of the line, regardless of what comes next. Drivers may wear the helmets and fire suits, but owners are the sport's ultimate risk-takers, particularly those like Childress for whom racing is their primary business. There seems to be faction among Hall voters which believes candidates should be finished competing before they're elected, a mindset that clashes with other sports like the NFL, which enshrined owners such as Al Davis and Art Rooney while they were still active. NASCAR owners like Childress deserve the same degree of respect.
5. Curtis Turner
Another driver whose statistics don't do justice to his full impact, Turner was a dynamo and a showman who emerged as perhaps the biggest NASCAR star of the 1950s and '60s. He only won 17 races, and he never really came close to winning a title, and he was once banned for trying to form a union. But he also never ran anything close to a full schedule, picking off the big races and the big paychecks, often while dodging both the state police and federal aviation authorities at the same time. When he was truly focused, he could do amazing things like lead every lap from the pole, or win 22 races in the same car across two different divisions, removing the top for convertible events. His death in an airplane crash cut short one of the sport's more varied and colorful careers. NASCAR may not have always loved Turner, but the fans sure did.
4. Benny Parsons
He may have been beloved in later years for his homespun delivery as a television analyst, but don't let that fool you -- the former Detroit taxicab driver could flat-out wheel a race car. Much like his predecessor Ned Jarrett, Parsons parlayed a successful driving career into a stint as a television and radio analyst that only served to burnish what he had done behind the wheel. But driving is what he did best, and it showed in a career where he won 21 races and the 1973 premier-series championship. Parsons could show spectacular consistency, finishing in the top five in points for nine straight seasons between 1973-80. Like the next driver on this list, he sometimes gets knocked for points racing, but he was a product of his era. Parsons has come close to election a few times, and the complete picture will soon earn him enshrinement.
3. Terry Labonte
Like Parsons, maybe Labonte didn't win quite as often as he should have -- he owns 22 victories at NASCAR's top level -- but those two championships are very difficult to overlook. With last week's election of Joe Weatherly, Labonte is now the lone eligible driver with multiple premier series titles still awaiting enshrinement. His 1996 crown was particularly notable, in that it came amid Jeff Gordon's best years and prevented the younger driver from winning four titles in a row. Once again, you have the issue of a nominee still competing -- Labonte qualified for his final Daytona 500 only one day before he was nominated, and also started at this season's Talladega spring race. But he still meets the criteria, and if two driving titles aren't enough to get voters to look beyond that bias, then maybe nothing will.
2. Mark Martin
Like Evernham, Martin should already have made the cut for nomination -- he was eligible beginning this year due to the change in criteria, but somehow left off the list. That's a head-scratcher, given that Martin showed sustained excellence over four decades, winning 40 races -- more than a slew of guys already in the Hall -- and finishing as championship runner-up five times. He didn't win a title. It shouldn't matter, given the rest of his resume. If anything, he's the figure most responsible for the change in eligibility criteria, given that he redefined the idea of retirement age and proved some drivers can win races and contend for titles even at 50. The guy set the standard for athleticism behind the wheel, his first and last race wins coming 20 years apart. Martin is a first-ballot Hall of Famer if there ever was one, so it would be nice to see him make the nomination list first.
1. Rick Hendrick
NFL owners like Lamar Hunt and Wellington Mara were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame while still active in their sport. Coaches like Rick Pitino and Mike Krzyzewski were elected to basketball's Hall with plenty of years still ahead of them. And yet, the most successful team owner in NASCAR history didn't even show up at the announcement this year, because he knew his name wouldn't be called. It's not just that Rick Hendrick hasn't yet been elected -- it's that he doesn't even appear on the list of names barely missing the cut. How is that possible, with 221 race wins and 11 titles to date? Again, there seems to be that bias against nominees still competing, even if they meet all the criteria. What's the concern, that Hendrick's plaque will need to be updated a few times? He could be active for another decade -- will he need to sit and wait that long until he's finally enshrined? The only certainty is that with every title Hendrick wins, the more glaring his omission becomes.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- NASCAR Hall of Fame
- Rick Hendrick
- Bill Elliott
- Ray Evernham
- Joe Weatherly