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Wallace joins 4 NASCAR pioneers

Buck Baker wins Hall of Fame tie with Fireball Roberts for final spot

Thursday, May. 24, 2012

Rusty Wallace didn’t know what to expect before the results of voting for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013 were announced Wednesday.

That’s why Wallace might have been the most surprised person in the room when NASCAR chairman Brian France called his name – along with Buck Baker, Cotton Owens, Herb Thomas and Leonard Wood – as the Hall’s newest inductees.

“I’m humbled,” said Wallace, whose 55 Cup victories during a career that lasted 1980-2005 are tied for eighth. “I feel like Jesse James. Like I’ve grabbed something and run off with it.”

Wallace, 55, is the most contemporary member of the Hall’s fourth class. Baker, Owens and Thomas all were pioneers of the sport. Wood, who still is involved with the legendary Wood Brothers team, has been around the sport for more than 60 years.

They will be inducted into the Hall in uptown Charlotte on Feb. 8, 2013.

“This is a good mix,” NASCAR President Mike Helton said of the Class of ’13. “It speaks to the beginning years, with pioneers like Buck, Herb and Cotton who played such a role early. Leonard Wood? I don’t know what to say about Leonard Wood. And Rusty is more recent, and not just what he’s done on the track, but for other things as well.”

Wallace, who has had his hand in several racing-related ventures since he retired, had to have a glass of wine after the announcement to steady himself.

“I know what my numbers are, I’ve got them memorized,” he said. “But are they really what the Hall is all about? I still stay confused about what it’s about. Do we honor people for being just owners, drivers, crew chiefs and sponsors? To me, it’s what you have given back to the sport and how much you have helped build NASCAR.

“That’s the reason I’ve been a car owner, built a speedway and been in television to tell people about our sport. I love it.”

Wednesday’s vote among a 54-person panel was the closest in the Hall’s four-year history. There was a tie for the fifth and final spot, with Baker being chosen in a re-vote over driver Fireball Roberts.

Thomas and Wood led the voting with 57 percent, followed by Wallace (52 percent), Owens (50 percent) and Baker (39 percent).

After Roberts, the next top vote-getters were Jerry Cook and Tim Flock. The top five vote-getters in a fans vote on were: Benny Parsons, Roberts, Wendell Scott, Wallace and Wood.

Charlotte’s Baker, who died in 2002, was the first driver to win consecutive championships in NASCAR’s top division in 1956-57. He was versatile, also winning NASCAR Modified, Speedway and Grand American series races.

Owens, of Union, S.C., was successful as a driver and owner. He won nine races as a driver. As an owner, he won the 1966 championship with David Pearson behind the wheel. Pearson would win 27 races for Owens.

Thomas won 48 races in 1949-62, including the second Southern 500 at Darlington, S.C. He was the first driver to win two titles in 1951 and ’53.

Wood’s contributions continue to this day. Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers. A year later, Leonard Wood’s brother Glen was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“I think it’s a plus to get recognized any time,” said Leonard Wood, 77. “Your stock goes up a little bit. I’m all for the team; all for the company. Whatever’s best for Wood Brothers Racing. It’s not easy to keep it going these days.”

Like Wallace implied, his numbers – he also won the 1989 Cup championship and won 36 poles in 706 starts – were only part of his story. Robin Pemberton, who now is NASCAR’s vice president of competition, is a former crew chief of Wallace’s. He said he could think of only two other drivers – Richard Petty and Bobby Allison – who had as good a feel for a car’s capability as Wallace had.

“Rusty was very detailed-oriented,” said Pemberton. “He never quit working on the car. Many times we thought we had the most perfect car and Rusty would make it one notch better. More times than not he was right.”

Scott: 704-358-5889; Twitter: @davidscott14

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