THEY WERE HANGING OUT BEHIND THE MOBILE STAGE ON THE FRONTSTRETCH AT Talladega, laughing and telling tales from lives spent at 190 mph. The start of the Amp Energy Juice 500 was minutes away this past Halloween, but Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were acting like the upcoming 500 miles on NASCAR's biggest, baddest track would be nothing more serious than a trick-or-treat outing. Close friends off the track, intense rivals on it, Johnson, Gordon and Stewart share a distinction: They're the three active drivers who are ironclad locks to be elected to NASCAR's Hall of Fame once they walk away from the driver's seat. Even if they parked it today. Who else in the current Sprint Cup series has a shot at enshrinement in Charlotte someday? Here are the five drivers with the best chance.
HE HAS ALL the ingredients of a future multitime champion: He drives for a powerhouse team (Joe Gibbs Racing); he possesses freakish car control; and, at 30, he's entering his prime. Hamlin won a series-high eight races in 2010, and he contends on all types of tracks: short, intermediate, superspeedways and road courses. "I've got a lot of goals I want to accomplish," he says. "I plan on being around a long time. I feel the best is yet to come for me." Agreed.
He'll get in.
ONLY ONE PERSON, IT SEEMS, CAN keep Kyle Busch from one day entering the Hall: Kyle Busch. At 25 he has an astounding 86 combined wins in the Truck, Nationwide and Cup series. His goal is to reach 200 combined wins (the number of Cup wins that Richard Petty, NASCAR's winningest driver, had), and it looks likely he'll surpass that magical number. Yet even if he does, Busch won't be a no-brainer choice for the Hall if he fails to win at least one Cup championship. While Busch has won 19 Cup races, he has never finished higher than fifth in the standings. A win-or-wreck driver, Busch needs more patience behind the wheel to contend for titles in the Chase format, which rewards consistency more than raw speed.
He'll mature and get in.
HE IS THE NEAR-MISS KING OF NASCAR. The 51-year-old has finished runner-up in the Cup standings four times. He'll have at least one more chance to win that elusive first title when he pilots the number 5 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports in 2011, which will be his final season with the sport's elite team. He failed to make the Chase this year—has age finally robbed Martin of some of his hand-eye-foot coordination? He remains immensely popular in the garage because of his career of clean racing, but not having a title on his résumé could be his undoing.
He doesn't make it.