By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On the 2023 NASCAR Hall of Fame ballot, Matt Kenseth was the only former Cup driver who won a Cup title.
That made him a relatively easy pick, and the 2003 Cup champion, who won the Daytona 500 twice, will enter the Hall of Fame in January having gotten in the first year he was eligible.
The 2023 class, announced Wednesday, will consist of Kenseth, four-time Cup champion crew chief Kirk Shelmerdine and West Coast-based racer Hershel McGriff.
They will join the 58 members already in the Hall of Fame. NASCAR enshrined five people annually for the first 11 years of the Hall and then switched, starting with the 2021 class, to honoring two people from a “modern era” ballot and one from a “pioneer era” ballot.
That can make for a tougher decision than when a class was five members. I was on the panel from 2013 to ’14 and was invited back this year as part of the 61-member panel (two of the 63 panelists were excused because they were nominees), which includes one combined online fan vote.
My ballot had Kenseth, Shelmerdine and A.J. Foyt.
NASCAR doesn’t give voters a definition of a Hall of Famer. When I vote, I look at performance (which includes statistics but considers other factors such as equipment and extenuating circumstances), and then I ask, “Where would the sport be without the nominee?” In other words, who helped advance or popularize the sport? Who helped the sport gain fame?
Kenseth checked all the boxes. He is the driver with the most wins (39) who was eligible for the Hall but not yet enshrined. He was the only Cup champion driver on the list. He won two Daytona 500s. He was one of the drivers who helped grow the sport throughout the 2000s, a natural rival to Dale Earnhardt Jr. as they battled in the Xfinity Series and then moved to Cup at the same time. For fans of the Midwest and the stock-car hotbed of Wisconsin, Kenseth provided a reason to cheer.
The other choice among the 10 modern era drivers was a little more difficult. But Kirk Shelmerdine, who was crew chief for four of Dale Earnhardt’s seven championships (and 44 of Earnhardt’s 76 victories), has a résumé impossible to ignore. Every other crew chief with more than three Cup titles who is eligible for the Hall of Fame is in the Hall of Fame.
The “first one off” my modern era ballot was Carl Edwards. He abruptly retired after the 2016 season without a title, but his 28 Cup wins, 38 Xfinity wins (including the 2007 Xfinity title) and six truck wins made for a dazzling, 13-year career. He also was a fan favorite, an incredibly talented driver and someone who went toe-to-toe with Kenseth and others.
The top vote-getters — two from the modern era ballot and one from the pioneer ballot — make up the induction class. On the modern era ballot, Kenseth received 69% of the vote and Shelmerdine 52%. Harry Hyde finished third, followed by Neil Bonnett and Harry Gant.
On the pioneer ballot, Hershel McGriff received 31% of the vote. Foyt was second.
My pioneer vote went to Foyt, whose motorsports stardom was in open-wheel cars and the Indianapolis 500. He is the only driver to win the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, the Rolex 24 Hours At Daytona and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The 1972 Daytona 500 winner, Foyt won 5.4% of his periodic Cup starts (for comparison, Kenseth won 5.5% and Edwards 6.3%). Foyt entered NASCAR races from 1963 to 1994, and his presence elevated the sport and increased the number of people who paid attention, according to many I talked to when considering how to vote. I was at the 1994 Brickyard 400 — the first Brickyard 400 — and for Foyt to make that inaugural race at age 59 was a huge deal, as he was the last car to get in on speed (he finished 30th).
The “first one off” my pioneer ballot was Ralph Moody of the famous Holman-Moody race car company. His mechanical mind helped create race-winning cars — 96 of them over more than 20 years in the sport.
The 94-year-old McGriff, who got the nod instead, has been on the ballot for seven years and was championed by many in NASCAR for his longevity. His first Cup race came at the 1950 Southern 500, when he was 23, and his last came in NASCAR’s West Series four years ago at Tucson (Speedway, when he was 90. McGriff, as well as Foyt, was named to NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers list during the 50th anniversary season in 1998.
My vote for the Landmark Award was Janet Guthrie. She was the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500 (1977) and the first woman to lead a lap in the Cup Series, and she finished sixth at Bristol in 1977. Guthrie’s first NASCAR start came in 1976 at Charlotte, when she competed in the 600-mile race after failing to qualify at Indianapolis.
The panel opted for Mike Helton, a longtime NASCAR executive who guided the sport through massive growth and the turbulent time following the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500. Helton no doubt will be in the NASCAR Hall of Fame one day, as he was the first person to lead the day-to-day operations of NASCAR who was not a member of the founding France family.
The 2023 induction ceremony is set for Jan. 20 in the ballroom adjacent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!
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