NASCAR Hall of Fame gets it right

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One by one, the 53 voters left the conference room in the building adjacent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One by one, they said selecting the 2013 class was the toughest decision in the short history of the shrine, as a tie for the fifth and final spot supported.

It also may have been the most important one.

Most of the first three classes were slam dunks, regardless of whether a couple of names went in a year earlier or later than expected. This class was about maintaining a sense of history, a sense of respect for the pioneers who paved the way.

This class was about maintaining a sense of credibility.

And validation.

Mission accomplished.

It's hard to argue the selections of Herb Thomas, Leonard Wood, Rusty Wallace, Cotton Owens and Buck Baker. Each is worthy based on his body of work, and combined they represent a solid mixture of past and present.

It's too bad Fireball Roberts lost the tiebreaker to Baker, but that he was close means he'll probably get in next year, as he deserves. It's too bad Wendell Scott's widow and other family members drove all the way from Virginia not to see NASCAR's first black driver get in, but he will one day soon.

In many ways this is the best class ever. There were no huge mistakes, such as David Pearson being left out of the initial class or Cale Yarborough being left out of the second. There were no hurt feelings, as Darrell Waltrip had two years ago.

Politics didn't play a major factor as they have in the past, unless you count Richard "The King" Petty's lobbying for Baker over Roberts. But that's a good thing since the driver with more wins than anybody in NASCAR history competed against both.

"Probably about as good as we could have done with what we had," Petty said of the class.

It is.

Some will argue Wallace, the first first-ballot selection if you don't count the initial class in which all five were first-ballot selections, could have waited a year or two. Maybe, but Wallace gives this class personality on top of having the credentials with 55 wins and a championship in 1989.

As Petty so bluntly put it, "We've got to be careful 'cause we can't put all five dead people in at one time."

Listening to Wallace tell stories about racing against Dale Earnhardt alone will be worth the price of admission to the official ceremony in January.

"Earnhardt would have said, 'You are a lucky son of a bitch. Meet me over at the bar and we'll have a beer,'" he said.

Wallace already was taking cracks at Waltrip, joking about how the three-time champion "pleaded to get in [the Hall] and I didn't say a word."

Wallace truly was surprised. He figured Benny Parsons and Fred Lorenzen would get in before him, which also made this class feel more genuine than any other. He was so nervous prior to the announcement that he went to a nearby hotel and had a glass of wine to think about what he might say if selected.

"I almost feel like Jesse James," Wallace said. "I feel I've grabbed something and run off, and there are so many good guys that need to be in there before me, really."

Petty felt the same way after making the first class. He said there were pioneers such as Tim Flock and Baker who deserved to go in before he did.

That would have been a hard sell. Impossible.

This class is an easy sell. Baker was the first driver to win consecutive championships, in 1956 and '57, and was close to four straight with runner-up finishes in '55 and '58.

Thomas was the sport's first true superstar, winning titles in 1951 and '53 and finishing second in '52 and '54.

Wood deserved to be in there with brother Glen, a member of the 2012 class, because ... well, they're the Wood Brothers, arguably in the top three of NASCAR families behind the Frances and Pettys.

Owens, the "King of Modifieds," once again reminded us of just how strong Spartanburg, S.C., once was to the sport. He joined hometown HOF selections Pearson and Bud Moore, giving Sparkle City the early edge on Hall bragging rights.

And as voter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler reminded us, NASCAR almost built Talladega Superspeedway between Spartanburg and Greenville, S.C., before tough blue laws forced it to Alabama.

Otherwise, the center of the sport could have been in Spartanburg and not Charlotte today.

"He won a lot of races, and big races," Wheeler said of Owens, adding that the modified series once attracted the best in the sport.

All five selections once were among the best of the sport, which makes this class easy to defend. As NASCAR president Mike Helton said, it gives fans a look at the complete heritage of the sport.

He also admitted this class validates the Hall as much as any.

"There's still some that need to be in there to continue to validate it," Helton said. "There are a lot of individuals that played a key role. We'll be busy for a lot of years."

And the decisions only will get tougher.