The NASCAR Hall of Fame has a population problem, and it’s only getting worse.
With the announcement of the five-member Class of 2018 set for Wednesday, the Hall will boast 45 members. The inaugural class featured racing stalwarts such as Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, but more recent classes, logically, haven’t approached that standard.
While the Hall honors both “accomplishments and contributions to the sport,” there are only so many NASCAR pioneers to induct before the resume on the track is the barometer. And based on the standard of the 40 previous inductees, Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway will include a quarter of the field with a legitimate shot to put the Hall of Fame on their resume.
Unless we’ve reached the golden age of the sport, that’s a problem.
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Since its inception in 2010, the Hall has welcomed five new members each year – drivers and owners, founding fathers and engine builders. Through the first four Hall of Fame classes, every inductee who was primarily a driver had a championship and at least 45 wins to their name.
That changed in 2014, when three drivers were inducted with fewer than 40 wins – including Fireball Roberts, the first Hall of Famer without a title.
Honoring title-less drivers soon became an annual tradition, and only Bill Elliott has entered the Hall in the past four years owning more than 40 wins in NASCAR’s top series. This year, three nominees have never won a championship, and two sit at just 19 wins: Buddy Baker and Davey Allison, who raced nine seasons before his death in 1993.
With the prequisite resume for the Hall of Fame so thin, 11 active drivers could eventually punch their ticket without running another race.
Three are locks with at least 35 wins and at least one title: seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch, each with a championship, will likely join them. Brad Keselowski, with 23 wins and a 2014 title, could retire at 33 and still have a spot in the Hall.
Denny Hamlin has never claimed a series title, but his resume is on par with past inductees. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (26 victories), voted the Most Popular Driver for the past 14 seasons, is another likely candidate. Joey Logano’s resume is only 10 seasons strong, but it would take a drastic decline for him to fall below the current Hall of Fame threshold.
Only two other active drivers have double-digit wins: Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne. Hall of Famers? The numbers say so. Both already have comparable resumes to current Hall of Famer Curtis Turner, one of NASCAR’s early stars, and they’ve still got time to build upon it – including Sunday.
Three recent retirees are locks when eligible – four-time champion Jeff Gordon has 93 career wins, three-time champ Tony Stewart has 49, and Carl Edwards has 28 career wins but no titles.
Among the current nominees, Ricky Rudd has 23 career wins, above the previous standard. Jim Pascal, with 25 career wins, and Jeff Burton and NASCAR pioneer Jack Smith, with 21 each, have yet to be nominated.
At this point, one great year or a long, marginally successful career is becoming a strong enough case for enshrinement.
It’s a dangerous precedent for NASCAR to set. And it further demonstrates how continued batches of five-member classes could soon tarnish what it means to be a Hall of Famer.
C Jackson Cowart: 503-964-1999, firstname.lastname@example.org, @CJacksonCowart