The 2020 Class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame will have an overwhelming Joe Gibbs Racing theme when the inductees are feted next January.
Three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart topped the list of soon-to-be Hall of Famers, along with his former team owner, Joe Gibbs, and former teammate Bobby Labonte.
Three-time Daytona 500 winning crew chief Waddell Wilson and one of his former drivers-turned-broadcaster,
Buddy Baker, rounded out the top-five selectees.
NASCAR President Steve Phelps announced Edsel B. Ford II as the recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR.
Stewart described the experience as “surreal” since he’s still racing on a weekly basis in open-wheel cars.
“I’m not retired,” Stewart said. “I still race. I’m not done racing yet so I’m not worried about Hall of Fames at the moment.
“But it’s such an honor. It’s really cool to be inducted with Bobby and Joe. The only thing that would have made it better would be if my buddy Red Farmer would have got in this year, too. But to have Joe and Bobby and the three of us go in together like this is just awesome.”
In 18 Cup seasons, Stewart accumulated 49 wins, 15 poles, 187 top fives and 308 top 10s. He also scored 11 wins and six poles in 94 Xfinity Series starts and two wins in six truck starts. As a team owner, Stewart’s numbers are equally impressive. In 2011, he rallied with five wins in the final 10 races to win his third title and the first Stewart-Haas Racing in the organization’s third season in Cup. Now, in its’ 11th season, the organization has accumulated two titles, 51 victories and 48 poles.
Not surprisingly, 88-percent of the voting committee had the first-time nominee on their ballot.
With the 2020 class, there are almost seven degrees of separation between the inductees and Stewart. Stewart first met Baker and the Buck Baker Driving School as he made the transition from IndyCar to stock cars. In 1996, when Stewart made his Xfinity Series debut, Waddell worked for Harry Ranier. He credits Labonte's recommendation for opening the door at JGR And of course, Smoke won his first two championships with Coach.
“Bobby is the reason that I got to Joe Gibbs Racing,” Stewart said. "Obviously, Coach, if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have done what I’ve done in NASCAR. I wouldn’t be a team owner with the sprint car teams I have, with owning Eldora—those are things I learned from Joe Gibbs. If it wasn’t for Joe and Bobby, none of this would have happened.”
Jeff Gordon, who was inducted in the Hall of Fame last year, was not surprised about Stewart’s induction. The four-time champion and current FOX Sports analyst has watched his fellow racer follow his path since their earliest days battling on dirt.
“When I was getting out of the USAC ranks, that’s really when his career was taking off,” Gordon said. “I had heard about Tony prior to that and it wasn't long after that he was coming to NASCAR and we were competing against each other. Then I retired and he retired. It’s only fitting that he goes into the Hall of Fame also.
“The numbers speak for themselves but Tony, and what he continues to do, I knew that was a lock. But the link between Tony and Gibbs and Bobby—I wasn’t really sure how the voters were going to look at it but I look at it as, obviously, one would not have happened without the other. Even though Tony won a championship at Stewart-Haas, to get his break at the highest level with Joe Gibbs and for Bobby to get his championship there says a lot about Joe and probably Joe would say the same about those guys.””
Before announcing the first name on the list of inductees, NASCAR Vice Chairman Mike Helton described Stewart as “one of the most interesting characters in our sport—not just currently, but in all time.” Helton would know with the multiple times he had to deal with the quintessential bad boy of racing in the NASCAR hauler. Stewart said there was “a sense of pride” when Helton called his name.
“But it wasn’t about me, it was about all of us—this whole group that’s going in,” Stewart said. “It was fun to sit there and share the moment and know how much it’s going to mean Joe and Bobby and Waddell. To be able to share that moment with these guys is something I’m more excited and proud about than what it means to me.”
Although Stewart appeared grateful for the accolade, the driver known as “the People’s Champion" seemed perplexed about the timing. Despite turning 48 on Monday, Stewart feels too young to be in the Hall of Fame. While he's retired from NASCAR competition, he continues to run sprint cars as well as manage Eldora Speedway and the All Star Circuit of Champions racing series.
“Things are out of order for me,” Stewart said. “I’m still racing, so this chapter hasn’t ended for this chapter to start. It’s like they’re overlapping. It’s hard to feel like it makes sense. It does make sense when you step away from it and look back. But this is still going on. It hasn’t stopped yet for this to take over the rest of my life.
“It’s just weird. But it’s kind of cool at the same time. There’s not a lot of people that are still doing what they love to do and getting inducted into hall of fames at the same time…To have that going on and to still be wide open, going up and down the road in a sprint car hauler, running dirt tracks across the country is pretty damn cool.”