Tony Stewart a near-lock for 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame class

Tony Stewart, the three-time Cup champion who retired after the 2016 season, is a near-lock for selection to the NASCAR Hall of Fame next year. Todd Warshaw/NASCAR/ Getty Images

There will be lots of talk about smoke in the voting room a year from now when the 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame voting class is determined.

The question is, will there be people flipping out?

The 2020 NASCAR Hall of Fame class will be a tough one for voters, except for likely one exception: Tony Stewart.

The three-time Cup champion, who retired after the 2016 season with 49 career Cup victories, is a near-lock for selection. Not only will "Smoke" be an easy pick for his accomplishments as a driver, but he will have been a co-owner of a team for more than 10 years with at least two championships by the time the vote takes place in 2019.

Stewart won't be the only driver who is eligible for the first time to be on the nominee list. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, assuming they don't return to the driver's seat, could be on the ballot.

Drivers are eligible in the third year after their retirement, at age 55 (contingent on 10 years of NASCAR racing) or after 30 seasons of NASCAR competition.

Edwards ranks 27th with 28 career Cup victories. But none of those came in the Daytona 500. And he never won a title.

Still, Edwards' 28 victories is more than these current drivers who are on the nominee list: Ricky Rudd (23), Bobby Labonte (21), Buddy Baker (19), Harry Gant (18) and Hershel McGriff (four).

Edwards also won an Xfinity title and has 72 combined national series wins, which ranks him 13th overall. Biffle had 19 career Cup wins to go along with championships in both Xfinity and trucks. He is tied for 16th on the combined-series wins list with 55.

Baker and McGriff, along with engine builder/crew chief Waddell Wilson, were the three nominees with the most votes who did not make the 2019 class.

That doesn't always guarantee entry. Alan Kulwicki received 38 percent of the vote in 2018 -- he was the first nominee to miss in the 2017 vote after voters had to re-vote to break a tie between Ron Hornaday Jr. and Kulwicki -- and earned only 46 percent as the last entry for the 2019 class. It was a sign that many of the voters felt he either was deserving or not.

That could be the case for McGriff and Wilson. While McGriff just raced at age 90 earlier this month and competed in the first Southern 500, some view him and his four Cup victories as not impressive enough among the current slate of candidates. And yet others say his 37 wins in the NASCAR West Series show enough talent that make him induction-worthy.

Wilson fights what all engine builders and crew chiefs fight -- many want the more noticeable, front-facing people of the sport to be honored first.

There likely will be a push for Rudd and Labonte in the next class. They both are familiar names who could draw people to come visit their displays.

So here's an early prediction at the five for next year: Stewart, Baker, McGriff, Labonte ... and Joe Gibbs. After all, some will believe that if it hadn't been for Gibbs, Edwards wouldn't have won as many races.

Plus, all of Gibbs' owner buddies (Hendrick, Childress, Roush, Penske) are in there, and Gibbs' ability to command a diverse audience outside the racing community -- his induction would put him in both the pro football and NASCAR halls of fame -- make him an attractive choice.