Politics plays part in Hall voting

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Darrell Waltrip was in the middle of the SPEED stage in the heart of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, arguably the best seat in the house for Wednesday's announcement of the sport's second class.

It also had to be the most uncomfortable.

With each name called, the three-time champion realized the dream he talked about with such passion a year ago would have to wait at least another year. When three-time champion Lee Petty was the third person named behind David Pearson and Bobby Allison, Waltrip's facial expression sank.

"I knew right then I was probably not going to make it," Waltrip said.

Yes, politics are just as alive and well in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as they are in NASCAR itself.

How else do you explain Waltrip and Cale Yarborough not making the second class?

They each won three championships -- second only to Richard Petty among drivers eligible -- and rank third and fifth in career victories. They each also made their share of enemies along the way, which one has to believe played a role in Bud Moore and Ned Jarrett being selected ahead of them.

Nothing against Moore or Jarrett. They each deserve a place in this shrine at some point. Their overall body of work -- Jarrett won two titles and 50 races; Moore won championships as an owner in 1962-63, was the crew chief for Buck Baker and a decorated World War II infantryman -- is hard to argue against.

But when you look at their numbers against those of Waltrip and Yarborough, you have to believe personalities played a role.

Just ask Pearson -- who was left out of the inaugural class despite winning three championships and more races (105) than anybody but Richard Petty -- if politics play a role.

"Scared to say," said the man known as the "Silver Fox," wearing a plaid shirt, blue jeans and a big smile that was missing a year ago.

He paused and then added, "It's quite a bit. Politics are in about everything nowadays."

Pearson was the victim a year ago. If he had signed more autographs, been more visible with the fans and done more for NASCAR after retiring he would have been a shoo-in in a class that included Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Junior Johnson, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr.

Waltrip and Yarborough were the victims on this day, particularly Yarborough. There was as much or more discussion among the voters for what he didn't do for the sport after he retired as there was his unbelievable accomplishments.

If you heard it once you heard it a dozen times how Yarborough demanded to be paid to attend events such as NASCAR's season-ending banquet after Johnson tied his record for consecutive titles two years ago.

"Cale didn't go anywhere he didn't get paid for," Pearson said, matter of factly.

Waltrip has angered more than a few in NASCAR over the years, particularly as an announcer, where the arrogant demeanor he carried over from the track rubbed people in power the wrong way.

It's not fair.

This shouldn't be a popularity contest. If it is, then Dale Earnhardt Jr. will get in on his first vote regardless of his numbers and Kyle Busch will have to wait a while.

NASCAR president Brian France and others on the 52-member voting panel will tell you the criteria for making the Hall goes beyond numbers, that contributions off the track were counted heavily as well.

What other sport does that? If you're a pitcher and win 300 games in Major League Baseball, you're pretty much a lock for Cooperstown your first two go-arounds. If you're among the top five in touchdown passes in the NFL, you're pretty much a lock for Canton on the first or second ballot.

Apparently, top three in championships and top five in wins in NASCAR guarantees you nothing.

And consider, Moore didn't even get 50 percent of the votes. Should 45 percent really get you in?

Yes, politics are alive and well.

"Human feelings are [alive and well]," said former Charlotte Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, one of the voters. "It should be on pure what you accomplished, about how many championships you won."

For the record, Wheeler was "stunned" Yarborough didn't make it.

"It was mind-blowing," he said.

But as Wheeler and other panel members confirmed, this wasn't all about accomplishments.

"That was very strong," Wheeler said. "This thing is not to be toyed with."

At least the fans got it right. They voted for Allison, Pearson, Lee Petty, Waltrip and Yarborough. Maybe their vote should have counted for 50 percent.

Waltrip said the process reminded him of the morning after a poker night with the boys when you ask everybody how they did "and you say, 'Oh, I broke even.' "

"Well, I haven't met anybody yet that didn't vote for me," Waltrip continued. "Somebody needs to do the math, cause everybody I've seen so far says, 'Well, I voted for you. You're in.'"

Pearson was told the same thing a year ago by everybody except an unidentified television reporter who told him three weeks before the vote was taken he was out. He reminded that Earnhardt's "old lady" was so sure Earnhardt was in that she had a hotel suite rented for an after party.

Maybe the vote is like a mystery debris caution. You just have to accept the politics of it.

Allison understands politics. NASCAR lists him with 84 wins, not counting his 1971 victory at Bowman Gray Stadium because he was driving a car from a smaller series. He'll argue to his grave that should be on his record.

He came to Wednesday's event braced to not make it.

"I wondered if maybe something I said one day when I was trying to educate somebody might have backfired on me," Allison said of the politics. "You wonder about all those things. … It's something else to think about."

Wednesday's vote gave us a lot to think about. Should NASCAR have a standard criteria like other sports? Should drivers be penalized because they chose not to promote the sport beyond their driving career, or because they were critical of it on the air?

Should you get at least 50 percent of the vote to get in?

"I couldn't do any more," said Waltrip, who sincerely believes his age (63) kept him out more than his personality. "I did everything. In this sport I did everything they ever asked me to do. I've won races, championships, I've done everything I can do. You know, it just wasn't my time."

Maybe next year.

"At this point I wouldn't make a prediction," Waltrip said.

You'd be crazy to.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.