CHARLOTTE, N.C.—NASCAR celebrated the 2020 Hall of Fame class on Friday.
Veteran crew chief and championship engine builder Waddell Wilson, racer and broadcaster Buddy Baker, five-time championship car owner Joe Gibbs, Xfinity and Cup champion Bobby Labonte and three-time champion driver and title-winning owner Tony Stewart were feted at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Edsel Ford II received the NASCAR Landmark Award. Dick Berggren was honored with the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.
Wilson, 84, competed as a crew chief in NASCAR from 1979 to 1995. The Bakersfield, N.C. native built engines that powered David Pearson and Benny Parsons to Cup titles in 1968-1969 and 1973, respectively.
With Wilson’s power plants under the hood, Pearson, Fireball Roberts, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip amassed 109 victories and 123 poles. Wilson’s resume also includes Daytona 500 and Southern 500 wins.
“I’d like to share one thing John Holman told me when I started working at Holman-Moody,” Waddell said. He said, “Waddell, if you ever get caught cheating, I will fire you.” And if you knew John Holman, you knew he meant it. He taught me that working hard and smart would always be enough.
“So, I’m proud to say NASCAR never found anything illegal in the engines I built or the cars our teams put on the track. I love racing and I appreciate the fans and all their support throughout these years. It’s an unbelievable honor to go into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. It’s a humbling night for me and my family.”
Buddy Baker, affectionately known as the Gentle Giant, competed from 1959 until1992. The Charlottean and second-generation racer won 19 races including the 1970 Southern 500, back-to-back Coca-Cola 600s (1972-73) and the 1980 Daytona 500, where he set the top average race speed record of 177.602mph—which still stands today.
Baker’s fan base grew after he transitioned from the race car to the TV booth for TNN and CBS and later as a co-host on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
Ryan Newman, who was mentored by Baker when he arrived at Team Penske, fondly remembered his friend who passed away on August 10, 2015.
“You can tell you’re in trouble when you feel the air on the back of your neck instead of in your face,” Newman quoted the late Baker in his introduction. “It’s a motto I live by every time I take the track.
“The only thing faster than his wit was his speed in a race car. Once he got out front, no one was getting by him.”
Joe Gibbs now holds the distinction of the only coach inducted in two major league Hall of Fames—the NFL and NASCAR. In addition to Gibbs’ three Super Bowl championships with the Washington Redskins, his race teams have earned five titles in both the Cup and Xfinity Series.
The Mocksville, N.C. native opened the doors of JGR in 1992.
“I was so nervous coming from football over to racing, how we would be accepted, the family and everybody,” Gibbs said. “I just want to say a big thanks to everyone here. The NASCAR family is just unreal. I wanted to say to the France family, thank you for your guidance, leadership and the way you accepted us.
“The fans and the fellow competitors—just meant so much to us as we took off in racing.”
With 176 Cup victories, JGR ranks third in all-time wins by an owner behind Hendrick Motorsports and Petty Enterprises.
“I figured out in life early that I was a horrible athlete,” Gibbs said. “I needed to be in team sports where I could kind of hide. If we won something I could take some of the credit.”
Gibbs can certainly take credit in the final two inductees—Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart. Although Labonte didn’t start his Cup career until he was 28, the Corpus Christi, Texan quickly made up for loss time winning 21 races and 26 poles over the next 13 seasons.
Labonte, 55, was the first driver to win NASCAR titles in both Cup (2000) and Xfinity (1991)—a list that now includes Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. He won the IROC championship in 2001 and continues to compete in the Whelen Euro Elite 1 Series.
“I’m here tonight with a collection of life experiences and people who have influenced who I am,” Labonte said. “Thank you to the many car owners I had the privilege to drive for. And the awesome, awesome NASCAR fans. Your support is amazing.
“And I must thank the France family and NASCAR because as far back as I can remember, I wanted to race in NASCAR. I didn’t race to be in the Hall of Fame. I just wanted to race. My racing journey isn’t over yet. It’s in my blood.”
The evening closed with the induction of Stewart, a three-time Cup champion who transitioned from driver to race team, race track and racing series owner. After winning the 1997 IndyCar title, Stewart transitioned to stock cars. He won three races and the Rookie-of-the-Year title in 1999 after joining Joe Gibbs Racing. With 49 victories, “Smoke” ranks 15th on the All-time win list.
Stewart remarked on his six-degrees of separation between himself and each of the four other inductees.
“To be a part of this particular class means so much,” Stewart said. “I have a connection to every single person in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2020. Twelve of my 21 years in NASCAR came driving for Joe Gibbs. “You win with people,” is what Joe always said. Joe surrounded me with some of the best people in racing, and it’s why we were able to win two championships and a lot of races together.
“One of those people Joe paired me with was Bobby Labonte. When I joined Joe Gibbs Racing back in 1997, Bobby spent the most time with me because that’s when I needed the most help. The transition from sprint cars, midgets and Indy cars was not easy, and the time Bobby invested in me made the learning curve a little less steep.
“But before I got to Gibbs, I started my NASCAR career with Harry Ranier, and the team manager was Waddell Wilson. And with the help of Waddell and Harry’s son, Lorin Ranier, I went to the Buck Baker Driving School down in Rockingham, and on the day I was there, Buddy Baker was also there to watch me turn some laps. I remember it well and, especially, the sense of pride I had that someone of Buddy’s stature was paying attention to some open-wheel kid from Indiana.
“To have a connection to every member of this NASCAR Hall of Fame class is very, very special, as all of them had an influence early in my NASCAR career that allows me to stand in this spot right now.”