As a part of Charlotte race weeks, the NASCAR Hall of Fame voting committee will gather on Wednesday, May 23 to induct five new names into the shrine of the sport’s legends. This year’s class will be the 10th in the history of the Hall of Fame and all 20 of the nominees have one reason or another that they should be inducted.
With 20 nominees, the voting panel has a tough task to condense this year’s class down to five, so like the voting panel will do on Wednesday at the Hall of Fame, the team here at Motorsports Tribune will also take a crack at it and give you our picks for the 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame class.
David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Davey Allison – With Allison tragically being killed in a helicopter crash in the prime of his career, we may never know the full extent of how Allison may have changed the record books, but during the nine years that he was in the sport, the Alabama native certainly left a lasting impact. Allison won 19 races over those nine seasons, including the 1992 Daytona 500 and the 1991 Coca-Cola 600, as well as back-to-back five win seasons in those two years. Though Allison never won a championship, coming closest in 1992, there is no doubt that he would have won at least one title had he lived longer.
Buddy Baker – Baker was known for his prowess behind the wheel of his famed black and silver “Gray Ghost” and also was a fantastic voice on television and radio coverage of the sport after his retirement in 1992. Baker was the first to eclipse the 200 mph mark in a stock car when he did so in 1970, and won 19 races in his career, including a win in the Daytona 500, Southern 500, and back to back wins in the World 600 at Charlotte. Baker’s voice has been missed since his passing in August 2015, but hopefully the Hall of Fame voters will see fit to give him a rightful place in this year’s class.
Alan Kulwicki – It’s always a great story when the underdog prevails and that is exactly what Kulwicki did in his nine year career. The Wisconsin native burst onto the scene scoring the Rookie of the Year title in 1986 and showing that he could run just as well with his own team against the powerhouse teams of the day. At Phoenix in 1988, Kulwicki won his first race, beating the likes of Terry Labonte, Davey Allison, Bill Elliott, and Rusty Wallace. That race also saw the invention of the “Polish Victory Lap,” when Kulwicki drove around the track backwards in celebration. Four wins later, Kulwicki found himself in contention for the 1992 title, where he would overcome a 278 point deficit in the final six races of the season to win the championship by 10 points over Elliott. In 1993, as Kulwicki was set to defend his title, he perished in a plane crash near Bristol, Tennessee. Though he may be gone, Kulwicki’s legacy lives on to this day.
Jeff Gordon – This one is a no brainer. His resume speaks for itself and since the day he retired, Gordon has been a shoe-in to be a first ballot Hall of Famer. Helping to take Hendrick Motorsports to new heights, Gordon won four-championships in the Cup Series and scored 93 wins in NASCAR’s premier division, ranking him third all-time behind Hall of Famers Richard Petty and David Pearson. Among those wins, Gordon has triumphs in all of NASCAR’s crown jewel events, including the Daytona 500, Southern 500, and the Coca-Cola 600. Aside from his driving career, he has also been successful in the broadcast booth in his stint with FOX Sports.
Roger Penske – If there were ever a name synonymous with motorsports, it’s Roger Penske. With his hands in all forms of racing, including NASCAR, IndyCar, and sports car racing, “The Captain” has been successful in all of them, demanding excellence and nothing less from those in his organization. Penske’s NASCAR roots date back to the early 1970’s, but he really began making his mark as an owner in 1991 with the addition of Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace to the team. Since then, Penske drivers have been among the cream of the crop, scoring 105 wins in the Cup Series and the 2012 championship.
Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
Alan Kulwicki – Kulwicki was tragically lost in a plane crash on the way to Bristol Motor Speedway less than six months after winning the 1992 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Championship. He insisted on doing things ‘his way.’ The Greenfield, WI native was truly independent, even rebranding his No. 7 Hooters Ford Thunderbird the ‘Underbird’ to designate his underdog status. It is unknown how much the record books would have changed had Kulwicki’s plane not gone down, but his legacy lives on. Several drivers paid tribute to him in the days, weeks, and months after his death. The shop that housed his race team is now home to Leavine Family Racing, and a driver development program is named in his honor.
Buddy Baker – Baker is a man that was known not only for what he did for the sport on the track, but also off the track. He was the first driver to top 200mph in a NASCAR stockcar at Talladega Superspeedway. The ‘Gentle Giant’ still holds the record of the fastest Daytona 500 average race speed, 177.602mph, a record he set in 1980. After retiring, Baker became a driver analyst and commentator for CBS. He was also a driver coach for drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman. Even after stepping away from these roles, Baker continued offering his insight as the co-host of SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Tradin’ Paint.
Jeff Gordon – Like David said, this one is a no brainer. Gordon’s resume is Hall of Fame worthy. 93 wins, victories in all of NASCAR’s Crown Jewel events and four Championships are just some of the accolades that he has earned throughout his career. Gordon helped make Hendrick Motorsports what it is today and helped bring NASCAR into the mainstream. He co-hosted Saturday Night Live and Live with Regis and Kelly. From the drivers’ seat, Gordon stepped directly into the Fox Sports booth, broadcasting alongside Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, and long-time broadcaster Mike Joy. If Gordon somehow is not a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame, I don’t know how anyone else is.
Larry Phillips – Not many drivers in NASCAR history have an estimated win total of 1,000 victories. Some even say that Phillips’ win total could be closer to 2,000 races. He was a racers’ racer, competing anywhere and everywhere on every type of surface. In an 11-year span, Phillips earned five NASCAR Weekly Series Championships. In 289 NASCAR-sanctioned starts, he earned a staggering 220 victories, making his NASCAR winning percentage 76.1. Phillips’ No. 75 was always one to watch as even the best drivers would express frustration after getting a glimpse of it rolling into the garage.
Mike Stefanik – Only two drivers in NASCAR history have more championships than Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, and Jimmie Johnson. Both Hall of Famer Richie Evans and Stefanik have a staggering nine NASCAR Championships on their resume. Although his resume is primarily in the NASCAR Modified Division where he won seven Championships, Stefanik also won two Championships in what is now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. With 74 victories in the Modified Division alone, he had more visits to victory lane than some drivers already in the NASCAR Hall of Fame. In addition to his prowess in NASCAR’s weekly and Regional Divisions, Stefanik earned Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 1999, finishing 13th in the Championship Standings.
Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Davey Allison – What was supposed to be the future of the great “Alabama Gang” came to an abrupt end in 1993, but his short career was compelling. Allison’s 19 wins and 92 top-10s in 191 starts undersells how tough, fierce and admirable he was. Davey was beloved by fans and respected in the garage, even Dale Earnhardt once said if Davey was still around, he wouldn’t have captured seven championships. Davey’s biggest accomplishments were winning Rookie of the Year honors in 1987, winning The Winston in back-to-back years (1991 and 1992) and holding off Morgan Shepherd by inches to win the 1992 Daytona 500. It seems right to welcome the man, who put Robert Yates Racing on the map, into NASCAR’s highest honor.
Buddy Baker – Often overlooked in NASCAR’s history books, but he was great behind the wheel, on the mic, and having an eye for talent. Like David said, Baker was the first driver to hit 200 mph on a stock car, and it was before an IndyCar accomplished this feat. He’s also the first guy to win three straight races at Talladega, the first man to win the Busch Clash in 1979. Above everything else as a driver, he still holds the Daytona 500 average speed record of 177.602 mph. His witty and excellent mindset made him stand out, making him a fan favorite throughout his involvement in the sport. Once he became a color commentator on CBS and TNN, he brought light to an already tremendous telecast that’s lacking in today’s broadcast. Let’s not forget, he contributed a lot for Team Penske’s NASCAR program and kept Ryan Newman under his wing that lead to Newman’s peak as a driver. Versatility sums up the sport’s “Gentle Giant.”
Jeff Gordon – I can write all day about Gordon’s legacy, but he was the face of the 1990s. He’s NASCAR’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in terms of making the sport mainstream. No guy has since attracted new fans, great crossover appeal and opened the floodgates for many Californians to give stock car racing a go. This guy has been referenced in top hits, hosted Saturday Night Live and always active in philanthropy, it’s hard to not like this guy. Of course, he was the villain in many people’s eyes, notably Earnhardt fans, because of his four championships, 93 wins, and 81 poles. Gordon broke the mold of that Southern sport and made it transcending, for better or worse. Even to this day, he’s last driver to score more than 10 wins, with 13 in 1998 and holds the Modern Era record of 30 top-10s in a single season set in 2007. It’s obvious that Gordon is a first ballot Hall of Famer, even if he thinks he’s too young.
Alan Kulwicki – This individual I hold in high regard because of his never-die attitude to make his own operation one of NASCAR’s elite teams. The college graduate came to Charlotte in 1985 with a dream and that’s to become a champion. Sure, his ethical approach of running a team has rubbed people the wrong way, but Kulwicki didn’t listen because he was confident that his equipment will prevail. In 1992, that dream became a reality when he beat Ford’s goliaths of Junior Johnson & Associates’ Bill Elliott and Robert Yates Racing’s Davey Allison to win the Winston Cup championship. Tragically, he couldn’t defend the title for all 30 races after losing his life in a helicopter crash near Bristol, TN on April 1, 1993. 25 years have gone by and his legacy has never been forgotten such as Kulwicki DDP (Driver Development Program), which gives seven up-and-coming drivers across the country an opportunity to compete for an excellent prize, but also learn about Kulwicki’s impact in racing. Now more than ever, it’s time to induct the journeyman champion, who did it his way.
Kirk Shelmerdine – A long shot, but who can the man who was the track general of the 1980s not go in? Shelmerdine was the crew chief for the late James Hylton, Richard Childress and Ricky Rudd before finding the perfect driver that made Shelmerdine one of the greatest crew chiefs of all-time. From 1984 to 1992, Shelmerdine led Dale Earnhardt to an incredible 44 wins and four Winston Cup titles (1986-87 and 1990-91). Not only he got Earnhardt’s iconic career going, he and his “Flying Aces” were innovators. The crew won the Unocal 76 Pit Stop Competition for four straight seasons (1985-88) and etched their legacy as being one of the greatest pit crews in the sport’s 70-year history. I can’t imagine Earnhardt and Richard Childress Racing being the same without Shelmerdine on top of the pit box. We have the general of the 70s (Dale Inman) and 90s (Ray Evernham) already in, it’s time to induct the man who ruled the 80s with 46 wins under his name and led his drivers to 246 top-10s in 460 starts.