By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service
The NASCAR Hall of Fame ceremony Friday carried a distinctive vibe – of mutual respect, and a real professional connection among the esteemed honorees. And it made for an especially warm air of success on a chilly Charlotte night.
The 2020 Class of Buddy Baker, Joe Gibbs, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart and Waddell Wilson were formally inducted and duly celebrated. All five of these gentlemen shared important times in their career with one another – to an extent not always seen in recent Hall of Fame classes.
Baker, who passed away in 2015, earned his 1980 Daytona 500 victory with Wilson as his crew chief. Baker’s Hall of Fame father Buck Baker ran a stock car driving school that Stewart attended as he transitioned from a championship IndyCar career into NASCAR.
Wilson worked on the Busch Grand National car Stewart drove in his earliest stock car starts. Stewart made his Cup Series debut with the Gibbs team, where Labonte was already racing and winning. Only a short time later the teammates would earn the famed Super Bowl-winning coach Gibbs his first three Cup championships – Labonte in 2000 and Stewart in 2002 and 2005.
“Well, Bobby and I are going to tell you that he’s been riding our coattails, that’s how he got here is off of us,” Stewart joked in an interview just before the ceremony. “But if it weren’t for Joe; Bobby and I wouldn’t be here, by far. I think that’s probably in all reality the most special part of this deal for us, the fact that we’re all three doing it together.”
It was the unmistakable shared sentiment of the evening.
All the Hall of Famers acknowledged their connections and in listening to them speak about their careers, the interconnections were evident and multiple. And well-appreciated. This week – and induction night in particular – featured a steady stream of back slaps and favored old stories. The grins never left their faces. And it was a contagious joy.
“I’ve got probably 50 stories about Tony, but I couldn’t tell half of them because I wouldn’t want him mad at me,” Gibbs said grinning. “But he and Bobby and the emotion of them racing, I think that’s sometimes what people miss. The emotion it brings out and hard it is in all pro sports. I think that’s why the fans like it because it’s a test. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. It’s all there.
Stewart, who has always revered the great history of his sport, seemed especially affected by the closeness of his class. He spoke frequently about the ways he’d come to know each and how such a special honor was even more impactful because of it.
“I remember the day we all were announced and two of us were announced and I thought, ‘that’s cool,’ then the third one was announced and I was like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’
“I don’t know how it could be better at least for me to have the three of us go in together like this. I came in with them. To get into the Hall of Fame with these guys is more than anyone could ever ask for.”
“Last night’s dinner with the guys already in the hall, to have that intimate dinner with them, I felt like a little kid tagging along,” Stewart said. ‘I never said a word, I listened.”
Stewart said it was a great reminder of how so many of the sport’s greats – such as his fellow 2020 Hall of Famers Baker and Waddell – succeeded by the seat of their pants. It was less computer and engineering degree and more “feel,” talent and determination. Stewart was always one of those racers.
And this class was a good representation of back-in-the-day meets new era in NASCAR.
“Bobby [Labonte] and I were talking about this after the ceremony was over, how we really were a part of this at the best time of the sport,” Stewart said. “To be able to race with guys like Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and these guys then get to race with Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin and the younger guys that came up.
“I had a cool period of time I got to race with them and a mixture of generations. There was everything intimidating when I came into the sport with the group of guys I looked up to.
Wilson also, was a part of two generations of competition in NASCAR – leading greats such as Baker, and Hall of Famers Benny Parsons and Cale Yarborough to victory and then helping get a young Stewart settled into what became a championship career as well.
“What an incredible journey this has been,” Wilson said.
The feeling shared by all.