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Elliott, Labonte top NASCAR Hall of Fame nominees

February 21, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Elliott, Labonte top NASCAR Hall of Fame nominees
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Thursday night, Terry Labonte qualified for what will be his final Daytona 500. Friday afternoon, he qualified for inclusion into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The two-time champion of NASCAR's premier series was among the most prominent names on the list of 20 nominees for the 2015 class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which was announced Friday at Daytona International Speedway. Labonte joins fellow premier-series champion Bill Elliott in the pool of nominees, which was determined this year by revamped eligibility criteria. The five new Hall of Fame members will be chosen in May of this year.

Joining Labonte and Elliott as first-time nominees were 19-time race winner Buddy Baker, seven-time NASCAR Modified champion Mike Stefanik and former championship team owner Robert Yates. One notable absence was Mark Martin, who was eligible under the new criteria but not selected by the 21-member nominating committee, which met in person for the first time to determine the list of finalists.

Brett Jewkes, NASCAR's chief communication officer, said the nominating committee met for two hours Friday morning at NASCAR headquarters, located across the street from the speedway. The committee is comprised of historians, track operators and NASCAR executives, among them President Mike Helton and CEO and Chairman Brian France.

"It bred greater discussion on competitors, and put more focus on competitors," Jewkes said. "We feel that an already strong process has gotten stronger because of this in-person meeting."

NASCAR revamped Hall of Fame nomination eligibility procedures last year, opening the door for more contemporary drivers to be added closer to the ends of their careers. Eligible now are drivers who have raced a minimum of 10 years and reached their 55th birthday on or before Dec. 31 of the year prior to the nominating year. Also, any driver who has competed for 30 or more years in NASCAR competition by Dec. 31 of the year prior to the nominating year is automatically eligible, regardless of age.

The new criteria is in addition to existing standards that made drivers eligible after they've competed in NASCAR for a minimum of 10 years and been retired for at least three. Drivers may also now continue to compete after reaching any of the aforementioned milestones without compromising eligibility for nomination or induction -- a caveat that allowed the nomination of Labonte, who at 57 continues to compete a handful times each season, and raced his way into the Daytona 500 on Thursday night.

"You just think about how outstanding he was from the very beginning when he came into what is now the Sprint Cup Series," Dale Jarrett, a former champion and 2014 Hall of Fame class member, said of Labonte.

"He was a factor on every type of race track. When you look at a complete type of race driver and getting it done, winning the two championships -- Terry Labonte could win and did win everywhere and anywhere we raced."

Labonte won 22 races in addition to his premier series championships in 1984 and 1996, and will start Sunday's race 24th in a car fielded by Go Fas Racing. Elliott hasn't competed at the premier level since 2012, but won 44 races and the 1988 title over the course of his 37-year career. These days the elder Elliott, 58, is helping to further the career of his son Chase, who is a NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie with JR Motorsports.

"Just a tremendous career," Jarrett said of Elliott. "He won big races, he won the championship, but how many times did he win most popular driver? He was a fan's choice. And when you're doing that, it means you're doing a lot of things to enhance the sport. He'll go straight in, I would think."

The list of nominees was reduced to 20 from 25 beginning this year. Some of those who had been up for Hall of Fame consideration are now candidates for the new Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR, honoring significant contributions to the sport's growth. Nominees for the first award are pioneering car owner Raymond Parks, broadcaster Ken Squier, Martinsville Speedway founder H. Clay Earles, former R.J. Reynolds executive Ralph Seagraves and former NASCAR secretary and treasurer Anne B. France -- the last four of which had been on the 2013 list of Hall of Fame nominees, but were not included this year.

Also absent from the list of Hall of Fame nominees was Martin, 55, a five-time premier series runner-up who won 40 races in a competitive career that concluded at the end of last season. Jarrett, who is not part of the nominating committee, doesn’t think the lack of a title worked against Martin.

"I don't know how you make a case for Mark Martin not being a part of this, honestly," said Jarrett. "... When you talk about making a total contribution to the sport, basically giving your life and doing the things that Mark Martin did, and winning the races and just being fast -- you think about all that he accomplished, I don't see how at some point and time that doesn't happen for him. (A title) is not a requirement. We look at accomplishments, and he accomplished a lot. You take the whole work, he certainly deserved it."

Baker, son of Hall of Fame member Buck Baker, won the Daytona 500 with a record average speed in 1980, and later that same year became the first driver to eclipse the 200 mph mark on a closed course while testing at Talladega. Yates started as a championship engine builder, and then started his own team and won the title with Jarrett in 1999. Stefanik, who won two races last season on the Whelen Modified Tour, also benefitted from the new eligibility criteria. He owns seven modified titles as well as two in what is now K&N Pro Series East.

The five members of the 2015 Hall of Fame class will be determined May 21, by a voting panel which consists of the members of the nominating committee in addition to several media members, manufacturer representatives, industry leaders and former competitors. This year for the first time, that panel will also include the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, in this case, Jimmie Johnson.

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