Opinion: Tony Stewart’s first ballot selection to NASCAR Hall of Fame a no-brainer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tony Stewart didn’t need to earn a NASCAR Hall of Fame spot his first time on the ballot to validate his place in the sport’s history. Stewart didn’t need this honor as he would continue to live life as a racer whether or not he was a member of the five-member 2020 class inducted next January.

The fact Stewart will headline the show serves as a sign of ultimate respect to his incredible ability and his deep passion that has driven his highest of highs and lowest of lows. Joining him in the Class of 2020 are drivers Buddy Baker and Bobby Labonte, crew chief and engine builder Waddell Wilson, and team owner Joe Gibbs (also a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame).

Voters couldn’t ignore Stewart's numbers: 49 victories (14th all-time) over an 18-year NASCAR Cup Series career that included top-10s in nearly half (308) of his 618 starts. He won three Cup titles, two driving for Joe Gibbs Racing and one for driving for the team he co-owns, Stewart-Haas Racing.

Tony Stewart (14) is introduced before before his final NASCAR Cup Series race — the 2016 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. (Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports)

Yes, plenty of situations could have given voters second thoughts on Stewart. Some viewed his periodic outbursts and his public tongue-lashings as a refreshing no-holds-barred middle finger to the establishment that makes race-car drivers the grass roots heroes they are. Others would view the sparring with media and series officials as sideshows reeking of unprofessionalism and immaturity.

Those emotional overflows often came when he felt the situation challenged his love of racing, either hindering his ability for a good outcome or amid frustrations that the series created rules that didn’t do racing justice.

“Three championships, almost 50 wins, and it wasn’t just that that — it was the way he did it, the way he was with the fans and the media and what he’s still doing today, still driving dirt tracks,” said 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Jeff Gordon. “If there is ever a modern day A.J. Foyt, that to me is Tony."

But the numbers go beyond the wins and championships.

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