Three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart will join the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2020, arguably the most interconnected group of five inductees yet to be voted into the sport’s most prestigious fraternity, as announced Wednesday at the Hall of Fame.
Joining Stewart are car owner Joe Gibbs, for who Stewart won two of his three Cup titles; fellow series driver Bobby Labonte, who won his 2000 championship with Gibbs; crew chief and engine builder Waddell Wilson, who worked with Stewart at Ranier Racing during a limited run in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 1996; and hard-charging Buddy Baker, who got his first look at Stewart when the 49-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner was testing his mettle at the Buck Baker Driving School.
“Tony was a lock,” said four-time Monster Energy Series champion Jeff Gordon, who preceded Stewart into the NASCAR Hall of Fame earlier this year. “So, I’m not really surprised about that.”
The relationships between this class and others already in the Hall also are inexorably intertwined. Baker’s father, the aforementioned Buck Baker was inducted as a member of the Class of 2013. Labonte joins his brother, Terry Labonte, a member of the Class of 2016.
In 1972, Wilson built the engines for the Wood Brothers—NASCAR Hall of Famers Glen and Leonard—including the power plant that propelled A.J. Foyt to his Daytona 500 victory.
Edsel Ford II, who on Wednesday was named the recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR, has enjoyed a relationship with the Wood Brothers that spans generations. Edsel Ford is a member of the board of directors of Ford Motor Company. The Wood Brothers have fielded Ford products exclusively during their long tenure in the sport.
Following Gordon from the open-wheel ranks, Stewart won his first Cup championship with Gibbs in 2002, added another in 2005 and claimed his final title as an owner/driver in 2011 after joining with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing.
“To me, it’s even way bigger than us getting in—the fact that the guy that really was responsible for getting me to Joe Gibbs Racing was Bobby Labonte,” said Stewart, whose 49 series victories rank 14th on the all-time list. “And getting Coach (Gibbs) in as well. And even before that, there was Waddell Wilson, who was with Harry Rainier in 1996 when I started with Ranier-Walsh Racing.
The four of us going in at the same time… there’s personal ties to all three of those guys, and even Buddy Baker. When I went through the Buck Baker School, Buddy actually was there one day and watched me run the car. It’s just really cool how the four guys that are going in with me, I have a connection with at early parts of my career.”
Stewart led the Hall of Fame voting, which was conducted in a closed session on Wednesday at the Charlotte Convention Center. He was named on 88% of the 57 ballots cast, followed by Gibbs (72%), Wilson (72%), Baker (70%) and Labonte (67%).
A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a three-time Super Bowl-winning coach of the Washington Redskins, Gibbs has four championships to his credit in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series—two with Stewart and one each with Labonte and Kyle Busch (2015).
“This couldn’t be any better for me, to get a chance to go in with those two guys,” Gibbs said of Stewart and Labonte. “So I think we’ll have fun. I think it’ll be a great time for us, and I’m thrilled that I can ride their coattails here.”
Gibbs’ 164 Cup wins as an owner ranks third all-time and includes three Daytona 500 victories and five Brickyard 400 triumphs.
A champion in both the Monster Energy and Xfinity Series Labonte was selected in his third year on the NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot. In 729 career Cup starts, he accumulated 21 victories to go with 26 poles. He and Terry Labonte were the first brothers each to win a Cup title, later to be joined by Kurt and Kyle Busch.
“I didn’t want to watch the broadcast (of the announcement), because I didn’t know if it was going to happen—a lot of emotions, I guess you’d say,” Labonte said in a conference call with reporters after the announcement of the Class of 2020.
“After a couple years it was like, ‘Maybe I won’t get in.’ So you think about it, and then you don’t want to think about it. Whenever it comes down to today, and you see who is inducted into it, you think, ‘Man, what an awesome day and feeling for everybody that got voted in.
“As far as Joe and Tony and myself, I’m just so thankful to be in with them. It just really is an honor.”
Known as the Gentle Giant, Baker always showed up in the important races. In 1980, driving the legendary Gray Ghost (the No. 28 Oldsmobile owned by Ranier), he won the Daytona 500 with an average speed of 177.602 mph, a track record that still stands.
Baker won the big races on the big tracks. Of his 19 career victories, four came at Talladega, four at Charlotte and two each at Daytona and Darlington. After retiring from racing in 1992, Baker embarked on a second career as a broadcaster on both television and radio, earning a large following with his and storytelling.
Wilson built engines for the stars of the sport, powering David Pearson (1968-1969) and Benny Parsons (1973) to Cup series championships. Cars with his engines under the hood won 109 times and earned 123 pole positions.
As a crew chief, Wilson won 22 races, including the 1980 Daytona 500 with Baker. He also triumphed in the Great American race with NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough in 1983 and 1984. It was his engine in Benny Parsons’ car when Parsons became the first driver to top the 200 mph mark with a lap at 200.176 mph in Talladega qualifying in 1982.
Landmark Award winner Edsel Ford’s tenure at Ford Motor Company includes a stint as president and chief operating officer from 1991 to 1998. He was also a director of International Speedway Corporation from 2007 through 2015.
“It means a great deal to me,” Ford said of the award. “I’m honored to be given this award and I feel I have an ambassadorial role within Ford Motor Company and NASCAR, so it’s wonderful. I’m truly honored.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!