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‘Smoke’ Plays Major Role In 2019 Hall Voting

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 22 2019
Tony Stewart will enter NASCAR’s Hall of Fame. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tony Stewart’s election Wednesday into the NASCAR Hall of Fame was no surprise, but the connection the other four had to the Indiana native during his career created a special class.

Joining Stewart in the 2020 class are team owner Joe Gibbs, championship engine builder Waddell Wilson, two-time title holder Bobby Labonte and the driver nicknamed the “Gentle Giant”, Buddy Baker. The five men will be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Jan. 31.

Ford Motor Company executive Edsel Ford II was named the recipient of the Landmark Award. The great grandson of company founder Henry Ford, Edsel has been president and chief operating officer of the Michigan-based firm.

The other four nominees for the award were Alvin Hawkins, Mike Helton, Dr. Joseph Mattioli and Ralph Seagraves.

“I think it’s a fantastic class,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said Wednesday shortly after the five inductees were announced. “As a fan, I’m thrilled. As a voting member, I think it was a very strong class.

“You’ve got an owner that’s won so many times and multiple championships in both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series as well as the Xfinity Series. You’ve got phenomenal drivers. Buddy, obviously, has passed, but his star still shines brightly.

“For Tony, I don’t think it was a surprise to anyone that he was a first ballot Hall of Famer. Bobby is still a great ambassador for the sport.”    

The five inductees came from a group of 20 nominees. Stewart was the top vote getter with 88 percent. Gibbs and Wilson each received 72 percent, Baker 70 percent and Labonte 67 percent. The next top vote-getters were Modified driver Mike Stefanik, team owner and engine builder Ray Fox and driver Hershel McGriff.

Results for the NASCAR.com fan vote, in alphabetical order, were Baker, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant, Labonte and Stewart.

Stewart said being elected into the NASCAR Hall of Fame was “very humbling”, but he really enjoyed seeing the other four with whom he had personal ties get selected. He noted Labonte was the person responsible for getting him to Joe Gibbs Racing.

“Even before that (joining JGR), Waddell Wilson was with Harry Ranier when I started in (the Busch Series) ’96,” Stewart said. “Even Buddy Baker, when I went through the Buck Baker School, Buddy actually was there one day and watched me run the car. So it’s just really cool how all five of us, the four guys that are going in with me, I have a connection with in the early parts of my career.”

Stewart was selected in his first year of eligibility, making him the second consecutive first-ballot Hall of Fame member. Jeff Gordon was the first.

Known as “The People’s Champion” due to his blue-collar, hard-nosed style on the track, Stewart is a master of every type of race car he drivers. In a 17-year NASCAR career, he recorded three Cup championships, 49 victories, winning on every style of track, and 15 poles. He was victorious twice in the prestigious Brickyard 400.

Stewart, who won three Cup races in his rookie season, became a team owner with Gene Haas in 2009. He won 16 times as a driver/owner, including one of his most memorable title pursuits in history. In 2011, Stewart won five of the 10 playoff races, including the season finale, to claim his third championship by virtue of a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

Stewart-Haas Racing has 51 wins, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Kevin Harvick gave the organization its second championship in 2015.

The 78-year-old Gibbs, who already is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, ranks third in the Cup series owner wins with 157. Those victories include three Daytona 500 wins and five Brickyard 400s.  His team’s four Cup championships have come with three different drivers – Labonte, Stewart and Kyle Busch. Busch’s 2016 championship was the first in the Cup Series for Toyota. Gibbs’ Huntersville, N.C.-based team also has won five Xfinity Series championships, including three straight.

Wilson originally gained acclaim for building the engine that NASCAR Hall of Fame member Fireball Roberts used to win the 1963 Southern 500.  The Bakersville, N.C., native later won three championships as an engine builder, collecting them in 1968, ’69 and ’73.

Later in Wilson’s career he became a crew chief, holding that position from 1979-88, 1990-93 and 1995. During those years he collected 22 victories and 32 poles in 287 starts. Also as a crew chief, Wilson guided three cars to victory lane in the Daytona 500 – Baker (1980) and NASCAR Hall of Fame member Cale Yarborough (1983-84).

At 6-foot-6, Baker was known for his lead foot throughout his 33-year career. The Charlotte, N.C., native won the 1980 Daytona 500 with an average speed of 177.602 mph, a track record that has yet to be broken. That same year Baker became the first driver to eclipse the 200-mph mark on a closed course while testing at Talladega. Baker eventually won four races at the 2.66-mile track.

Baker collected 19 victories during his Cup career, including a win in Darlington’s 1970 Southern 500 where he lapped the field. He also claimed back-to-back victories in Charlotte’s 600-mile race in 1972-73.

After retiring in 1992, Baker transitioned to the television booth, joining The Nashville Network and CBS. Before he lost his battle with cancer in 2015, Baker co-hosted Late Shift and Tradin’ Paint on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Labonte was the first of four drivers to win a championship in the Cup and Xfinity Series. He and his older brother, Terry, also were the first brothers to earn Cup Series titles. The 58-year-old Labonte is one of 27 drivers to win a race in all three national series. During his Cup career, Labonte won 21 races, including the Brickyard 400 and Southern 500, and earned 26 poles.

The Class of 2020 was determined by a voting panel that included representatives from NASCAR, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, track owners from major facilities and historic short tracks, media members, manufacturer representatives, competitors (drivers, owners, crew chiefs), recognized industry leaders, a nationwide fan vote conducted through NASCAR.com and, for the sixth year, the reigning Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion (Joey Logano).

In all, 57 votes were cast, with two additional voting panel members recused from voting as potential nominees for induction (Ricky Rudd and Wilson). The accounting firm of EY presided over the tabulation of the votes.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, May 22 2019
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