Column: Labonte, Stewart, Gibbs, Baker & Wilson; A Star-Studded NASCAR Hall Of Fame Class

Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – In an emotional ceremony Friday night at the Charlotte Convention Center, two champion drivers at NASCAR’s highest level; the owner who fielded cars for both of them; one of the hardest chargers in the history of the sport; and the crew chief/engine builder who guided that driver to victory in the 1980 Daytona 500 all took their places in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Ushered into the Hall were three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart, 2000 champion Bobby Labonte, five-time champion car owner Joe Gibbs, 19-time Cup winner and beloved broadcaster Buddy Baker and 19-time race-winning crew chief Waddell Wilson.

Introduced by driver Corey LaJoie, Wilson was the first member of the class of 2020 to be inducted.

The fourth crew chief ushered into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Wilson turned wrenches for a wide array of NASCAR stars, including Baker and fellow NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Benny Parsons.

In his second start with Baker, and his second start as a crew chief at NASCAR’s highest level in 1980, Wilson guided Baker first to the Daytona 500 pole and then to the race win. Baker led 143 of the 200 laps and took the checkered flag under caution ahead of Allison, the only other driver on the lead lap.

Eleven years later, Wilson got his final victory as a crew chief in the spring race at Darlington with driver Ricky Rudd.

“Well, I have plenty of stories about races and individuals that I could share with you all, but I don’t want to tell my stories,” said Wilson, who was inducted by daughter Lisa Hawkins and sons Gregg and Freddie Wilson. “What I want to do is to thank all of the people that helped me throughout the years.

“I have been blessed to work with some of the best and most talented people in NASCAR, and I will always be grateful.”

Known as NASCAR’s “Gentle Giant,” Baker was the second member of the class of 2020 to be enshrined, with sister Susie Baker accepting the induction for her brother, who passed away in 2015. With a heart and passion for the sport commensurate with his 6-foot-6 frame, Baker ran his first race at Columbia (S.C.) Speedway in 1959 and his last at Talladega in 1992.

In between, he won 19 times in NASCAR’s premier series, the first victory coming in the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1967. Baker had a predilection for the big races on the larger tracks, and numbers among his wins the 1970 Southern 500 at Darlington, the 1972 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the 1980 Daytona 500.

Baker went to Victory Lane four times at Talladega, NASCAR’s largest oval, and swept both races there in 1975. The Gentle Giant was especially adept at qualifying, as his 38 poles attest. He is credited with mentoring Ryan Newman, currently foremost among active Cup drivers with 51 poles.

Appropriately, it was Newman who introduced the late driver, who was also known as “Leadfoot.”

“The only thing faster than his wit was his speed in a race car,” Newman said of the man whose 177.602 mph speed record for the Daytona 500 still stands. “…Once he got out front, no one was getting by him.”

Joe Gibbs, the third member of the Class of 2020 to enter the Hall, capped more than two decades of excellence with his fifth Cup championship in 2019, courtesy of driver Kyle Busch. The victory of the No. 18 Toyota in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was the second for the elite driver, and it completed a season in which Joe Gibbs Racing drivers won a record 19 of 36 points races.

Gibbs’ induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame also had a bittersweet aspect, since it came barely more than a year after the death of his son, J.D. Gibbs, who was integral in building JGR’s success as president of the organization. J.D. Gibbs passed away on Jan. 11, 2019.

J.D.’s brother, Coy Gibbs, performed the induction honors, after an introduction by JGR drivers Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin—and a video appearance by former President George W. Busch. Gibbs, who coached the NFL Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl wins, is the first person to be inducted into both the NFL Hall of Fame (1996) and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

“Whatever he puts his mind to, he achieves it, whether it’s winning the Super Bowl, Daytona 500, NASCAR Championship or just being a great family member,” Hamlin said of the man known simply as “Coach.” “I’m proud to have raced my entire career for a man I’ve looked up to my entire life.”

All told, Gibbs has accumulated 176 Cup victories as a car owner—third behind the 268 of Petty Enterprises and the 256 of NASCAR Hall of Fame owner Rick Hendrick—and fielded the cars for Labonte’s championship in 2000 and for two of Stewart’s three titles, in 2002 and 2005.

Gibbs also has been a prolific winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, with his drivers having won 165 races and two championships, with Kyle Busch in 2009 and Daniel Suarez 2016.

“We had 17 people our first year,” Gibbs recalled of his initial—and successful—plea for sponsorship to Norm Miller of Interstate Batteries. “At that point, JGR was born. I was so nervous coming from football over to racing. How were we going to be accepted, the family, everybody?

“I just want to say big thanks to everybody here. The NASCAR family—just unreal. I want to say to the France family: thanks for your guidance, leadership and the way you accepted us. The fans, the fellow competitors, all you guys… that meant so much to us as we took off in racing.

“The problem was, you’ve got to win.”

That’s exactly what Gibbs did. After a barren inaugural season in 1992, he fielded the race-winning car for Dale Jarrett in the 1993 season-opening Daytona 500.

Current Roush Fenway Racing driver Chris Buescher introduced Labonte, a fellow Texan.

Labonte, the fourth member of the 2020 class inducted Friday night, follows his brother, Terry Labonte, into the NASCAR Hall of Fame—becoming part of the second “brother act” to earn that distinction, the first being Glen and Leonard Wood. Years earlier, with his Cup championship in 2000, Labonte became the first driver to win titles in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series (1991, with his family team) and in NASCAR’s premier division.

Labonte won 21 Cup races and 26 poles during a career that spanned 26 years. His most prolific period came in the 1999 and 2000 seasons, when he collected nine of his 21 victories. During his championship season, Labonte took the checkered flag in the vaunted Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Labonte developed an obvious fondness for Atlanta Motor Speedway, where the claimed six of his 21 wins.

Terry Labonte, a member of the class of 2016, inducted his brother.

“To be inducted along with legends, to be added to the Hall with the previous inductees and to be a part of NASCAR, I’m very, very grateful,” Bobby Labonte said. “From as early as I can remember, there were two things I did as a kid. I raced quarter midgets in South Texas, and I watched my brother race.

“I idolized him. So, after all these years, I stand before you, following in my brother’s footsteps. I’m even wearing the same tie he wore on his induction night.”

Stewart’s long-time hero, A.J. Foyt, provided an introductory video, citing Stewart’s accomplishments in a wide variety of racing disciplines, but concluding with the statement, “But you know, Tony, you could never beat me.”

Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick followed with an introduction from the stage.

Stewart, Friday night’s final inductee, earned two of his three NASCAR Cup titles with Gibbs before embarking on a partnership with Gene Haas to form Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009. In 2011, Stewart won five of 10 Playoff races, including the season finale at Homestead, to claim his final championship in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

The quick-witted Stewart retired from full-time Cup racing in 2016 after winning his 49th and final event at Sonoma Raceway that same year. As a co-owner with Haas, he fielded Harvick’s championship-winning car in 2014. Since its inception, Stewart-Haas has accumulated 55 Cup wins and 53 poles.

Stewart said he felt honored to be one of such a small number to become a NASCAR Hall of Fame member.

“I’m not old … or, at least, I don’t feel like I’m old,” said Stewart, who was inducted by Haas. “I’m still racing. In fact, I’m racing now more than I ever have in the past. And in my mind, the NASCAR Hall of Fame is there to honor the completion of one’s career…

“But in the eight months since being nominated to this year’s class, I’ve come to appreciate what an honor it is. I’m one of just 55 people to be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And, considering that NASCAR has been around for more than 70 years, I think that’s pretty much nuts for me to be here. It truly is an elite group, and it’s incredibly humbling to be a part of it.”

Edsel Ford II, great-grandson of Henry Ford and current board member of the Ford Motor Company, received the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR from NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France and Vice Chairperson of the Board of Directors of NASCAR Lesa France Kennedy.

At the NASCAR Hall of Fame dinner that preceded the induction ceremony, long-time broadcaster Dick Berggren was honored with the Squier-Hall Award for NASCAR Media Excellence.

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