Pearson, Yarborough top list for NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2011
David Pearson deserves to highlight a Hall of Fame class on his own
Lee Petty kickstarted many careers, including that of his son, Richard
Darrell Waltrip edges Bobby Allison for the last spot on the 2011 ballot
Sometimes, the first class can be the easiest to pick. By and large, the NASCAR Hall of Fame's list of its inaugural five comes devoid of any big surprises, names with an A+ grade attached to their careers inside the sport. Legends known on a national scale, both Frances, Junior Johnson, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt are the Babe Ruths of their sport, directly responsible for its growth from its regional roots to a national craze.
But now that the obvious picks are out of the way, the task gets much harder for next year, as about 15-20 men hold similar credentials. With a limit of five selections again in 2011, who will stand out to make up the next round of the sport's Hall of Fame class? Here's my selections, in order, to separate themselves from the pack:
David Pearson: If there was anyone snubbed by the inaugural list, it was Pearson, whose winning percentage (18.2) is the best in Cup history for anyone with over 250 starts. After yesterday's announcement, the 74-year-old tried not to show it, but disappointment was plastered across his face. Claiming he had to drive back and get fellow legend Cotton Owens back to his ailing wife, he left the premises less than ten minutes after the first five names were called.
Pearson seemed to lean towards support for certain drivers as his downfall, and it's true most of the voting bloc had ties towards both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. But it's likely a push to include Bill France, Jr. and Junior Johnson was what doomed the man second on the all-time win list with 105, with three championships and 113 poles to his credit.
Personally, I had Pearson over Johnson on my list, but that's OK because this guy deserves to headline a class of his own. At his peak, there was no one better, a man who in 1973 won 11 of 18 races he entered as the Wood Brothers made their mark as the king of Superspeedways. His 1976 Daytona 500 win also ranks second wildest behind the 1979 finish, with he and Petty crashing off Turn 4 before Pearson was able to drive his wounded Mercury across the line first. It was the highlight of dozens of Pearson-Petty duels throughout the 1970s, their popular rivalry helping turn a nation towards the beauty of the sport.
Cale Yarborough: The only man to win three straight titles before Jimmie Johnson matched the feat last year, Yarborough's a shoo-in for the second ballot. During a seven-year stretch with Junior Johnson from 1974-80, Yarborough finished in the top-five in points six times, winning 51 times in 209 starts for a winning percentage just shy of 25 percent. If he didn't cut back to a limited schedule in '81, Yarborough could have easily joined Earnhardt and Petty as the only men to win seven Cup championships.
Yet even running half the races, Yarborough was just as dangerous, winning the Daytona 500 back-to-back in 1983-84 en route to a total of 83 victories for his career. While a stab at ownership proved unsuccessful (just one win in nearly two decades), he also employed future stars like Dale Jarrett, Jeremy Mayfield (yes, that Jeremy Mayfield), and John Andretti.
Glen Wood: Some may think Glen's a little too high on the list, as the founder of the famed No. 21 Ford won just four races as a driver. But it's as an owner where his team, known as the Wood Brothers, has made its mark as one of the most accomplished in NASCAR history. The list of drivers reads like a "Who's Who" of future Hall of Famers: Speedy Thompson, Marvin Panch, Cale Yarborough, Curtis Turner, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Buddy Baker, and even current driver Bill Elliott. Enjoying their most success with Pearson in the 1970s, the team ran a limited schedule but was a threat to win virtually every race they entered.
At their peak, there was no one better, with the team remaining one of the few to stand the test of longevity: In their 59th year of business, the No. 21 car will likely make their 100th career start at Charlotte alone with Elliott on Saturday night.
Lee Petty: "The King" may be the sport's best driver, but he wouldn't be here if not for his dad. The patriarch of the Petty clan, the elder Petty won three championships as a driver in the sport's first 11 years of existence, and his 54 victories still rank him ninth on the all-time list. But his greatest moment came in the sport's biggest race, surviving a photo finish with Johnny Beauchamp to win the first ever Daytona 500 in 1959.
The mammoth new speedway would cut his career short in a violent crash two years later, but not before the pieces were in place for his son to take over the family legacy. The race team he founded, Petty Enterprises, went on to win 268 Cup races over 60 years before merging with Gillett-Evernham Motorsports at the start of this season.
Darrell Waltrip: It's a tough call, but Waltrip edges Bobby Allison (number one in the Hall of Fame fan vote this year) for a spot on the 2011 list. The two share the same number of wins (84) but Waltrip has the edge in poles (59 to 58) and championships (three to one). Waltrip's accomplishments were also in the modern era, with fewer races and more competition than when Allison's career began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Back then, sometimes just a handful of stars would show up to race at a local dirt track, the competition tough but not as overwhelming as, say, a 43-car field at a superspeedway.
Retiring in 2000, Waltrip has gone on to a successful career in broadcasting, contributing in other ways as an analyst for FOX and SPEED since 2001. While Allison may be the sentimental pick (he lost both racing sons, Clifford and Davey, in separate incidents in the early '90s after suffering a career-ending head injury in 1988) you make the Hall based on triumph, not tragedy. Allison would be a solid headliner for the third class in 2012, though, just like Pearson will be next year.