Should We Develop a Hard Criteria for the NASCAR Hall of Fame?

“Hall of Fames” are cliques.

And with any clique, it is governed by the select few that hold the vital power of inclusion. For many, it is exclusion. Nominations not based on any set of fixed criteria like championships or individual records, but made with subjectivity and prejudice to particular individuals. Look no farther than Major Leauge Baseball and the way they conduct their Hall of Fame voting.

I bring this topic to the forefront of this blog as I was thinking about NASCAR’s recently voted 2020 Hall of Fame class. The names of Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Buddy Baker, NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, and crew chief/engineer Waddell Wilson will become the eleventh class to be inducted.

With no hard criteria, what makes a driver worthy of a Hall of Fame induction? Or for that matter, a person who is a contributor like a car owner, crew chief/engineer, or broadcaster? If we are to commemorate those that mean something to our sport, then I believe that we need to create specific criteria that Hall of Famers need to satisfy even to be considered for a nomination. It is the Hall of Fame; not the Hall of “ok, good, or possibly great.”

Every time someone questionable gets inducted, the Hall of Fame loses credibility. At this point, NASCAR has not had this problem due to it still being relatively new.

I once heard that if you are going to induct a person into a Hall of Fame, then you need to ask yourself a simple question. Can you tell the history of the league by excluding that individual’s career? If you can’t, then they should be a Hall of Famer.

But does that statement only count for classic stick and ball sports? Where there is only one league, like the MLB or NBA, to measure your dominance? A place where development and previous successes in the minor leagues do not matter when that player arrives in the big leagues?

Take, for example, Greg Biffle or Carl Edwards. Both drivers had fantastic careers in the lower levels of NASCAR. During Biffle’s meteoric rise through the ranks, he claimed a Truck and the now Xfinity Series championship. Edwards dominated the Xfinity Series by collecting 38 wins and a 2007 championship. But when both drivers arrived in the Cup series, championships escaped them.

Should we count their entire NASCAR career as a whole that makes them bid worthy to the NASCAR Hall of Fame? Or does not achieving a championship at the Cup level, the highest series within NASCAR, ultimately blemish their careers despite their previous achievements?

What level of NASCAR should we be emphasizing for those that are lucky enough to make it to the Cup Series full-time? After all, that is the end goal, and I think their Cup career should take the first priority when thinking about nominating someone to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Those two drivers are no doubt fan favorites but should that be enough to get you into the Hall of Fame? Yes, I’m referring to a 15-time fan favorite, Dale Earnhardt Jr. A two-time Xfinity Series champion in ’98 and ’99, he too, never captured a title at the highest level. I do not doubt that he will get into the NASCAR Hall of Fame due to his enormous reputation. I ask, will it be because he was a great driver or a popular one? Without his last name being Earnhart, would we adore him in the manner that we do?

Statistical benchmarks need to be set to achieve a Hall of Fame status. As a sporting community, we tend to view three statistical references as the most important across all various forms of sports: wins, championship(s), and longevity. So for NASCAR and their Hall of Fame, where should these benchmarks be placed?

For wins, thirty should be the minimum. When looking at the all-time NASCAR win list, there is a division at this number that separates the good from the great. Names above that line are Dale Jarrett, Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, and Kevin Harvick. The driver who currently sits at the thirty win-mark is the 2010 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Champion, Brad Keselowski. Those below the mark? Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and the one and only, Dale Jr.

One of the strangest questions to me is, “should championships matter?” I mean, that is the ultimate goal every season when the engines fire up for Daytona, is it not? Can you have a fantastic career but never capture a championship? Yes, Mark Martin is the shining example; that is perhaps the most significant stain on his career.

But when talking about the greats in any sport, their championship count matters. We refer to Jimmie Johnson as “7-time”. Looking outside of NASCAR and into other forms of motorsports, Scott Dixon has 5 IndyCar championships. John Force claimed 16 NHRA titles. Michael Schumacher found himself on top of the Formula One world 7 times.

Now, I understand that I am referencing some of the greatest to ever strap into a race car. The importance of having at least one championship means that you were, at one point, undoubtedly the best in your field.

So, yeah, having a championship(s) should matter.

It isn’t enough to have one or two strong seasons and be mediocre for the rest of your career. Those that we consider greats in our sport dominated an era and continued to win in the subsequent years after their period of dominance. When viewing a driver’s length of dominance, I find that most lasted around five years throughout various disciplines of motorsports.

For instance, Dale Earnhardt’s dominance of the late ’80s and into the early ’90s; Jeff Gordon picked up that torch of dominance into the ’00s. But these drivers continued to win. They continued to be in championship conversations, which help in preserving their longevity in the sport for at least a decade at the highest level.

Again, I have to reiterate the highest level because NASCAR is very open in its interpretation and requirements to get into the Hall of Fame. This isn’t a knock to drivers that found themselves in stable careers at the Truck, Xfinity, or lower levels. In fact, I think much of the same hard criteria should apply to those drivers if we are to recognize them as being outstanding during their tenures at that level for NASCAR.

The requirements for drivers currently are to have at least a ten-year career in NASCAR and be retired for two. For those that aren’t a driver, they need to have worked in the NASCAR industry for at least ten years.

The Hall of Fame is the ultimate achievement an individual can have. And yet, it is ultimately decided on the subjectiveness and prejudice among those we deem worthy to justify their greatness. Instead, I urge that we start to use hard criteria to let drivers fully validate themselves by their on-track performances.

Remember, it is the NASCAR Hall of Fame; not the NASCAR Hall of “ok, good, or possibly great.”

Scott Masom

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