Rusty Wallace heads NASCAR Hall of Fame group
CHARLOTTE — Sprint Cup champion Rusty Wallace hated running second to anyone and doesn't plan to start now that he's part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Wallace, the 1989 series champion who won 55 races, headed the group of five picked Wednesday as NASCAR's newest Hall of Famers. The others selected were Leonard Wood, Herb Thomas, Cotton Owens and Buck Baker.
Wood was a famed member of the Wood Brothers teams whose brother, Glen, was picked for the hall last year. Thomas was one of NASCAR's first superstar drivers, Owens a success as driver and owner, and Baker is 14th on the victory list with 46.
But it was Wallace, the sharp-tongue, quick-witted driver turned TV analyst, who promised to keep promoting the sport and the hall to anyone who'll listen.
"I can tell you what, I'm not going to run second to Darrell Waltrip. I can tell you that," Wallace said.
NASCAR chairman Brian France said the fourth class was the hardest so far to select. Voters said there was a divide between those panelists eager to honor the sports' pioneers and those understanding what a personality like Wallace could do for the Hall and NASCAR's continued growth.
"We need people who can represent the Hall of Fame now," said Hall of Fame member and voter Ned Jarrett.
Still, Wallace was third among inductees at 52 percent of the vote behind Thomas and Wood, who received 57 percent. Owens was next at 50 percent with Baker and Fireball Roberts tying at 39 percent. A re-vote was done — the first time that's happened in four Hall of Fame classes — and Baker took the final spot.
Wallace said he was honored to be nominated and was comfortable waiting his turn behind others.
"I'm total surprised. I really am," he said. "My numbers are one thing and the wins, that's there. But the names, you think of Benny Parsons, you think of Freddy Lorenzen, Fireball Roberts and Wendell Scott, these are guys I grew up listening to."
Wallace thought those were the people who would get in.
"And I was like, I made it? I don't know if I'm going to sleep tonight," he said.
Wallace is ninth on the career victory list. He was a master of the short tracks with 25 of his victories coming at Bristol, Martinsville, North Wilkesboro and Richmond.
"I'm just humbled, I really am," he said.
Wallace's former crew chief, Robin Pemberton, works as NASCAR's vice president for competition and is a Hall of Fame voter who considered his former driver a strong candidate.
"There were a lot more people that had good things to say about Rusty and what he had done after he hung up the helmet. I felt pretty good that he would have enough votes to get in," Pemberton said.
The Wood Brothers team was credited as pioneers of the modern pit stop. Leonard, alongside Glen and Delano Wood, was the team's chief mechanic. Leonard Wood won 96 races and 117 poles in 900 races as a crew chief
Wood compared this moment to February 2011 when the Wood Brothers and driver Trevor Bayne stunned the NASCAR world with a victory at the Daytona 500.
"We won the Daytona 500 the year before last and it was one of the most excited and celebrated winning circles ever — and I think this fits right in with that," he said.
Wood remembered in the early 1960s when he watched drivers like Roberts and Smokey Yunick take 45 seconds in the pits. His mechanical mind got going on how to cut that down and the modern pit stop was taking shape. "We figured we could save a lot of time," Wood said.
Owens had success as a driver and owner in NASCAR. He won nine races in NASCAR's premier series and finished second for the 1959 championship to Hall of Famer Lee Petty. Owens later hired Hall of Fame drivers in Junior Johnson and David Pearson, winning 38 times as an owner.
Thomas, who died in 2000, is considered one of NASCAR's first superstars by winning championships in 1951 and 1953 and finishing second in 1952 and 1954.
Baker became the first NASCAR driver to win consecutive championships in 1956 and 1957. He died in 2002.
Wallace was honored to be among so many historic names.
"To go in with some of those pioneers is just amazing," he said. "They showed every one of the inductees in the ceremony in black and white and show me in color. I went, 'This is kind of crazy.' I had a blue uniform and everyone else is black and white pictures."