Hall of Fame: Locks and long shots

The First Five.

On Wednesday, we'll learn who ranks as the favored quintet of racing legends to make up the inaugural induction class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Who will they be? More importantly, who should they be?

Before we go any further, I'll give you my five now:

• Bill France Sr.
Richard Petty
Dale Earnhardt
Cale Yarborough
David Pearson

If I'm not right on the first three names of that list, there should be an investigation. The process would be horribly flawed from the get-go.

But this is no easy task for the prestigious list of 50 voters, a group that must whittle the 25 nominees to the five winners fans always will remember as the special First Five.

Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion who will make the Hall after he retires, is glad he's not one of the voters.

"I think it's a hard choice to narrow it down," Gordon said Friday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. "It's tough, but I think there are a couple that are clear like Bill France [Sr.]. I'm as anxious as everybody else to see who those five are, and who the next five are and the next five. It's very exciting for the sport."

It's also a little controversial, as is the case with anything involving a voting process, especially a new procedure for which so many people have an opinion on how it should work.

Even the list of 25 nominees had a few surprises. For example, Dale Inman isn't on the list.

How do you leave off the only man in NASCAR history to win eight championships? Inman won seven Cup titles as Richard Petty's crew chief and one on top of Terry Labonte's pit box.

Many people also feel five just isn't enough for the first class. Why not 10? Maybe even 20?

All 25 nominees deserve it. All of them will get in at some point.

But keeping the inaugural class a short list helps make the guessing more interesting and the anticipation more fun. It also makes this group more memorable. The first class of the Baseball Hall of Fame had only five inductees in 1936.

So who will make it? That's up to the 50 voters, plus one combined vote for fans.
These voters are a prestigious group, some of whom will become Hall of Famers themselves.

I won't list all 50 voters here, but some names you may recognize include Brian France, Mike Helton, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Harry Gant, Bruton Smith, Tony George, Jerry Punch and Humpy Wheeler.

The voters include two executives of the Hall, eight NASCAR executives, 11 speedway operators, 14 media members, one official from each of the four auto manufacturers, three retired drivers, three former car owners, three retired crew chiefs and two industry leaders (Wheeler and retired journalist Tom Higgins).

It's a good mix between the old-school folks who saw some of the sport's pioneers and younger voters who have seen NASCAR in the modern era.

Regardless of their personal perspective, three names should be a lock. France Sr. is NASCAR's founding father. Petty and Earnhardt are the only seven-time driving champions.

If either Petty or Earnhardt fails to make the first class, they'd better make sure that spectacular new facility in Charlotte is fireproof from the riot that would ensue.

But the other two spots for the First Five are harder to predict.

Bill France Jr., who guided the sport into the modern era and national mainstream, certainly deserves it. I initially had France Jr. in my top five, but I tend to doubt the voters will place both Frances in the same class.

Yarborough was the first man to win three consecutive championships, a mark that went unequaled for 30 years until Jimmie Johnson did it last season.

"Yarborough has to be on the list," driver Jeff Burton said earlier this year at Daytona. "Earnhardt's got to be on the list, and Bill France Sr. and Jr. have to be on the list. There are a lot of people to consider."

That's the problem.

Pearson is No. 2 on the all-time wins list behind Petty and the only driver besides Petty to earn more than 100 victories.

But others could crack the First Five. Junior Johnson has a good shot at it. He won 50 races as a driver and six championships as a team owner.

More importantly, Johnson was responsible for bringing R.J. Reynolds Tobacco to the sport with the Winston sponsorship, an instrumental move in NASCAR's growth.

Some of the voters I've talked to have strong feelings about placing a NASCAR pioneer on the inaugural list.

Red Byron, who won the first NASCAR championship in 1949, is one example. Or possibly Raymond Parks, who was Byron's car owner and is still around today at age 95.

Petty has said he would rather see his father, Lee Petty, the first three-time Cup champion, go in ahead of him.

That tells you a lot about the kind of man Richard is, but I think he'll beat his dad to the big honor.

The speculation will end Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET when the inaugural NASCAR Hall of Fame list becomes official.

The First Five.

For NASCAR fans, whether you agree or disagree with the men chosen, it'll be a moment to remember.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.