A question to ponder, perhaps prematurely, but still:
Does Joey Logano’s Cup championship this season mean he’s a NASCAR Hall of Famer?
Just come with me here. It might sound ludicrous at first, but if you take a closer look at NASCAR’s Hall of Fame — that means all the inductees, finalists, and how they’re determined — there’s a darn good chance Logano’s already Charlotte-bound (not quite the same ring as Canton-bound for NFL players, but close enough).
Logano, 28, has 21 Cup victories across his 11-year career at racing’s highest level, including three victories during the 2018 season. In the entire history of NASCAR, only 39 drivers have as many or more victories as he does.
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Now here’s the telling part, which really only goes to highlight the broken method with which NASCAR picks its honorees: Of those 39 drivers, 24 are already in the Hall. Another six are still racing, such Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, and four more recently retired and aren’t yet eligible, including Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart.
That’s 34 of 39 drivers accounted for as Hall-bound.
Now sure, you could perhaps argue against someone Denny Hamlin getting in, with 31 career wins but no championships to show for it ... but is what he’s accomplished any less significant than, say, Fred Lorenzen, who won 26 races without a title? Lorenzen was best-known for the high caliber of drivers he beat on a regular basis, but hasn’t Hamlin done the same?
The point is, given the Hall of Fame inducts five new members a year, we’re very quickly running out of candidates who truly deserve to be enshrined. The Hall of Fame lists the qualifications for admittance as, “NASCAR accomplishments and contributions to the sport.” That’s ... really vague, especially for a body that is supposed to recognize the truly elite and legendary figures in stock car racing history.
Frankly, it’s a pretty weak definition.
What the Hall of Fame really is — or at least, what it should be — is the absolute most exclusive club in racing, a who’s who of the names that generations far after ours will still be talking about. There should be firm guidelines, maybe not about victories or titles, but some way to quantify a person’s magnitude and value as a member of the Hall.
But instead, that flimsy set of admittance standards, plus a quota of five new names a year, means sooner rather than later we’re going to hit a wall:
Either we run out of good candidates and start lowering the bar for admission, or we refine the induction process altogether.
This year, Stewart will certainly be admitted, both for his three championships as a driver and current influence as an owner for Stewart-Haas Racing. And as four owners have been inducted in the past three classes, it’s likely at least one other is included in this year’s crop.
But there will not be a surefire first-ballot inductee every year like there was this year with Jeff Gordon, or like Stewart surely will be next spring. There, eventually, won’t be any other owners with the merits of Roger Penske or Jack Roush from the most recent class. And after the last few remaining legacy drivers are admitted, as well as notable crew chiefs and other historic contributors, who else is left?
People like Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and other one-time champions. It’s likely that’s the new bar for Hall of Fame admittance. It’s not like you’re dealing with a stick-and-ball sport, where each of 30-some odd teams has anywhere from 13 to 53 players on the roster. NASCAR doesn’t work that way. The pool isn’t that deep, not because there aren’t deserving bodies, but there just aren’t as many bodies period.
And so the end result, without reform to the Hall of Fame’s guidelines or five-person classes, is that eventually a single championship will become the determining factor.
That means Truex, who has 19 career wins, is gonna get in. What about Bobby Labonte, who has already been a finalist with his 21 wins and one Cup title?
The real problem with this whole Hall of Fame situation is that if a single championship becomes the price of admission, you’re very quickly going to have a recency bias on your hands.
With Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and Gordon dominating the “golden years of NASCAR,” there wasn’t nearly as much parity as there is now. There hasn’t been a repeat Cup champion the past eight seasons running — will each of the past eight winners really deserve to get in, just for having taken advantage of a constantly shifting playoff system and peaking at the right time?
Not hardly, and especially not compared to some of the giants of the sport who are already in.
It probably makes the most sense here to circle back to the man who started this whole discussion: Joey Logano.
He realistically has another decade of racing at the Cup level before he retires, and maybe even more if he can rack up some substantial win totals. He was close to a Cup championship in 2016 before finally breaking through this year, and it stands to reckon that he’ll be in the mix for the next several years, at least.
Even if Logano doesn’t win another title, he’s bound to rack up enough wins in his future to be more than deserving of induction.
And if Logano retired today, it’s still tough seeing a situation where he doesn’t make the cut. And therein lies the problem.
Not every driver is as lucky as Logano, to win a championship before age 30 and be able to build from there. And with Logano and even Truex as test cases, it’s easy to see the direction — one title for admittance, please — that NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is headed.
And without some serious recalibration, it’s headed the totally wrong direction.