Predicting Which Current Drivers Will Make the NASCAR Hall of Fame

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 2, 2013

Predicting Which Current Drivers Will Make the NASCAR Hall of Fame

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    Making the Hall of Fame in any sport is the culmination of an athlete's career and the ultimate honor to recognize that lengthy and successful career.

    After more than 60 years of doing without, NASCAR finally established its own Hall of Fame and Museum nearly four years ago. And the drivers, team owners, pioneers and officials who have since been inducted into the Hall have truly been the creme de la creme of NASCAR's all-time royalty.

    While we'll see the induction fields in upcoming classes start to whittle down from five inductees per year to maybe two or three in some years, it's become quite an enjoyable exercise when NASCAR fans get together to see who they feel will eventually make or not make the Hall.

    With that in mind, here are my picks for the top five drivers still competing in NASCAR today that are but locks to make it into the Hall of Fame in the next decade or two.

    In almost every case, I expect that once one of the following five drivers on my list becomes eligible for the Hall, he'll likely be a first-time selection. Meaning, after sitting out the mandatory five-year waiting period before being eligible for induction, it's highly likely, most if not all, of the following quintet of drivers will make it in the first year they're up for eligibility, nomination and induction.

    Granted, there are always disagreements among fans when it comes to some other drivers. For example, I can already envision the criticism coming, but one of NASCAR's current superstars today will have a hard time making the Hall.

    If voting is based upon overall career performance, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will likely only make the Hall if he wins at least a couple of Sprint Cup championships before he ultimately retires.

    If Earnhardt makes the Hall primarily because of his surname or because he's been voted NASCAR's Most Popular Driver the last 10 years running, it would be unfair to other drivers who have achieved more performance-related accomplishments in their respective careers (i.e. more wins, Cup championships, made the Chase for the Sprint Cup more times, etc.).

    A good example of a similar circumstance would be electing Kyle Petty to the Hall, not because of his eight career Cup wins, but because he's a Petty—Lee's grandson and Richard's son, both of whom are already in the Hall because of their on-track achievements.

    Of course, if Kyle were elected for his humanitarian efforts—such as the formation of Victory Junction Gang Camp—there probably isn't anybody more deserving for induction.

    So, without further ado, here are the five drivers (in no particular order) in today's Sprint Cup that I believe are locks to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Jeff Gordon

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    Jeff Gordon making the NASCAR Hall of Fame is a no-brainer.

    Four Sprint Cup championships, closing in on 90 Cup wins (including three Daytona 500s and four Brickyard 400s), a great ambassador for the sport, philanthropist and humanitarian—and if you ever get to know him, he's really a pretty nice guy too.

    Once Gordon retires and the five-year waiting period for induction passes, not only is he a first-ballot choice, it would be a crime if he wasn't a unanimous selection for the Hall.

    I'm willing to bet that most of the fans of Dale Earnhardt who used to boo Gordon during the pair's legendary rivalry would even concede that NASCAR's so-called Wonder Boy belongs with The Intimidator in the Hall. He's got my vote.

Tony Stewart

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    Three-time Cup champion, two-time Brickyard 400 winner, closing in on 50 Sprint Cup wins, a championship-winning driver and team owner, one of the most versatile drivers in all forms of motorsports.

    And much like Jeff Gordon, Stewart, in my opinion, is a first-time choice for induction once he sits out the mandatory five-year waiting period after retiring from Cup racing.

    Granted, Stewart's early days in NASCAR were admittedly a bit shaky, what with some of the confrontations he had with other drivers and the media, but he's truly mellowed into one of the nicest guys in the sport today.

Jimmie Johnson

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    Whether you're a fan of his or not, Jimmie Johnson deserves induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in the first year he becomes eligible.

    He's won five Cup championships in a row—a NASCAR record that may never be broken—over 60 Sprint Cup wins (his Daytona 500 win last Sunday was his 61st career victory), is one of the sport's great ambassadors and is part of NASCAR's all-time most successful one-two teammate punch (Johnson's 61 wins and five Cup titles and Jeff Gordon's 87 wins and four titles).

    Sure, there are still some people who feel that Johnson or crew chief Chad Knaus have a tainted overall record because of Knaus having been fined or suspended (or both) for several violations of NASCAR rules—working in the proverbial grey area that the sanctioning body doesn't like to see.

    But regardless of how many times Knaus has been penalized, there's no disputing that it takes a great driver to win 61 races and five championships. And he is likely good for at least another 15-20 more wins and maybe another one or two championships before he calls it a career.

Mark Martin

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    Mark Martin has never won a Sprint Cup championship (although he's come close with five career runner-up finishes).

    He's also never won the Daytona 500, barely missing yet again this past Sunday in his 29th career inclusion in the Great American Race.

    At the age of 54, Martin—who, by the way, won the pole on Friday for Sunday's Cup race at Phoenix—continues to race at a higher level than probably at least half of the Sprint Cup regulars today.

    Because he's content running about two-thirds of the Cup schedule, it's likely Martin may never realize his goal of winning a Cup championship.

    But if by some fluke he winds up winning at least a couple of races this year and becomes eligible to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, my money is on Mark to take the championship—and then win Daytona next year in his 30th career start in the 500. You couldn't write a better storyline.

    Or a better way to retire by going out on top. 

Kyle Busch

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    I admit I'm questioning myself somewhat with this choice.

    On the one hand, how can you not induct someone who already has 105 wins over three different pro series—and he's not even 30 years old yet?

    But on the flip side, the younger Busch brother has yet to win a Sprint Cup championship—in fact, he's never really come close to one yet. And if he continues to have seasons like 2012, he may never get inducted.

    Still, as Busch continues to mature as a race car driver, I think it's inevitable that he wins at least two or three Cup championships in the future.

    Part of my logic is that he's going to win a lot more races still to come. But more importantly, with guys like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin all fairly older than KyBusch, he'll be ready to win some Cup titles once those guys finally retire.

    In other words, they'll be out of the way, and it will finally be his turn to win a few Cup crowns.

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