Smith, Labonte head up NASCAR Hall of Fame class

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Speedway Motorsports Executive Chairman Bruton Smith and two-time Sprint Cup champion Terry Labonte topped the newest group of five headed to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

NASCAR drivers Curtis Turner and Bobby Isaac and modified series champion Jerry Cook completed the hall's seventh class Wednesday.

Smith's company owns eight tracks that host NASCAR events, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of this weekend's Coca-Cola 600. The fiery Smith forged his company in competition with International Speedway Corporation, owners of 12 tracks that host the majority of Sprint Cup races.

Labonte, known as "Texas Terry," won 22 races and NASCAR titles in 1984 and 1996.

Turner ran in NASCAR's first strictly stock race in 1949 and had 17 wins. He was 46 when he died in a plane crash in 1970.

Isaac competed from 1961-76 with 37 victories. His 19 poles in 1969 stands as a season record. Isaac died in 1977 at 45.

Cook won six NASCAR modified championships including four straight from 1974-77. He remains with NASCAR as competition administrator.

The Hall's biggest surprise had to be Smith, often a thorn in side of the NASCAR's ruling France family. But NASCAR Chairman Brian France opened voting discussions by asking the panel to consider Smith's inclusion. And Smith led the five new members, getting 68 percent of the vote.

Smith, who was not at the announcement, said in a statement he found out when he was nominated how much it meant to his 15,000 SMI employees. When he learned he got in, "I realize how much it means to me," he said.

"I'm a frustrated builder who had a knack for promoting races and it's been fun to always try and push the sport to greater heights for the fans," Smith said.

Although, Smith probably wasn't always fun for the Frances. Smith continually pushed for more race dates for his tracks and when those were slow to come, he made it happen himself like when he purchased a half interest in iconic North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1996 and moved one of its dates to newly built Texas Motor Speedway. North Wilkesboro's other race date went to New Hampshire International Speedway, another SMI owned circuit.

Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett said the Smith-France rivalry was good for the sport. "I think they were good for each other," he said.

Labonte said by teleconference he was watching TV at a hotel in Dallas with his son when his phone started "blowing up," he said.

"'Oh, wow,'" he said to son Justin. "'I made the NASCAR Hall of Fame.'"

He thought the selection came earlier in the day so when he didn't hear anything, Labonte figured he missed out again. "This was a complete surprise," he said.

Labonte became one of Sprint Cup's most durable drivers, making 655 straight starts at one point in his career that began in 1978.

Terry and his younger brother, Bobby, are the only brothers with premier series titles.

Bobby Labonte recalled wanting to follow Terry's path every step of the way. "I never would've thought way back then that we'd both grow up to be Sprint Cup champions and now one of us is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame," Bobby said. "It's a pretty special day."

Terry Labonte bookended his career with wins at one of his favorite tracks, taking the 1980 Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway for his inaugural win and then winning the 2003 Southern 500 for his final checkered flag.

Isaac's son, Randy, said his family had crossed its fingers the past few years and came to voting day thinking Isaac had chance. "I thought we might be disappointed today," Isaac's son said. "But we can go home happy."

After the five selected, the next three leading vote-getters were pioneering driver Red Byron, the late driver and broadcaster Benny Parsons and car own Rick Hendrick.

The voting included a ballot from longtime Steve Byrnes, a longtime popular NASCAR broadcaster who died last month.

The group will be inducted into the hall on Jan. 22, 2016.

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