The ballot for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2021 contains five new faces, three of whom should ring quite familiar for recent viewers. Two are fixtures on stock-car racing broadcasts; the third has largely disappeared from the public eye.
Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Carl Edwards were announced Tuesday as first-year nominees for Hall of Fame induction, joining seven other returning names on the Modern Era portion of the 2021 ballot. Their debuts as Hall candidates coincide with the first-time nominations of mechanical geniuses Jake Elder and Banjo Matthews on the Pioneer Ballot.
This year’s vote is the first under new procedures that will tap three legends for induction — two from a 10-person Modern Era Ballot for careers that began within the last 60 years and one from a Pioneer Ballot of five earlier standouts. The previous 11 NASCAR Hall of Fame classes enshrined five members each.
The returning nominees on the Modern Era side are Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant, Harry Hyde, Larry Phillips, Ricky Rudd, Kirk Shelmerdine and Mike Stefanik. Shelmerdine’s nominations are nonconsecutive (2019, 2021).
The careers of the three new Modern Era nominees overlapped through years of competition in the 2000s and 2010s. Burton and Earnhardt are competitors turned colleagues as analysts in the NBC Sports booth. Edwards competed against both before his sudden retirement before the 2017 season, and it was Edwards who replaced Burton in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 99 when the latter departed for Richard Childress Racing in 2004.
Edwards holds the most NASCAR Cup Series victories of the three newcomers to the Modern Era ballot — 28 to Earnhardt’s 26 and Burton’s 21 — but Earnhardt’s resume stacks up as potentially the strongest of the trio.
Earnhardt Jr. claimed two titles (1998-99) in what is now the NASCAR Xfinity Series, while Edwards has just one (2007) and Burton none. Earnhardt also possesses two Daytona 500 wins and was named NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 15 times.
Burton’s crown-jewel wins include a pair of wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and one in the Southern 500. Edwards won those prestigious races one time each.
Earnhardt has remained a popular figure in retirement, joining the NBC Sports booth after his full-time driving days ended in 2017. He’s also remained involved as a thriving team owner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, a podcast host in his company’s media productions arm and a celebrant of stock-car nostalgia on social media.
Burton has kept a similar ambassador’s role since joining NBC Sports for the 2014 season. His voice resonated as an unofficial mayor of the NASCAR garage throughout his career, and his family has maintained a racing presence with his 19-year-old son Harrison now a regular in the Xfinity Series.
Edwards drew fans with his trademark backflip celebration after victories, but also with his winsome personality and a tenacious demeanor behind the wheel. The Missouri native had multiple close brushes with the Cup Series championship, most notably in 2011 when he lost on a tiebreaker in a slugfest with Tony Stewart and in his lone Championship 4 appearance under the current playoff format in 2016.
Less than two months after his final title bid, Edwards announced his stunning departure from full-time driving while in his prime at age 37. Since that emotional news conference, Edwards has made few public appearances.
The inclusion of Elder and Matthews on the Class of 2021 ballot recognizes two figures behind the successes of star drivers with NASCAR Hall of Fame credentials. They join returning nominees Red Farmer, Hershel McGriff and Ralph Moody on the Pioneer Ballot.
Elder won championships as a crew chief with both David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt, but his transient nature when it came to employment gave him his nickname — “Suitcase Jake.” Matthews enjoyed a brief career as a driver in NASCAR’s infancy before moving to a successful career as a crew chief and team owner, but his stature only grew as the pre-eminent car builder of the 1970s and ’80s.