When NASCAR opted to keep its inaugural hall of fame class to five people, it put voters in a difficult position -- vote for pioneers of the sport, organisers of the sport or the best performers in the sport.

The 51-member voting panel consisting of NASCAR executives, journalists and former participants (as well as one ballot featuring a combined fan vote) opted Wednesday for the two men who led the sport for more than 50 years (Bill France and Bill France Jr.), the two men who won the most championships (Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and a legendary moonshiner who won races as an owner and driver (Junior Johnson).

"We wanted to make it a small enough group where it was special," said NASCAR chairman Brian France, son of Bill Jr. "There were 25 that were nominated. The fans got a vote in this. It is a great day for the sport."

Just missing the cut were some of NASCAR's greatest drives, including David Pearson, who had 105 wins in 574 starts and who many consider the sport's greatest driver. Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison were the top three vote getters who weren't in the top five.

"You had eight or ten people that very much should have been in the first go-around," Petty said. "I just looked at some of us later stars, if it hadn't been for the Frances and a bunch of people that helped them, there wouldn't have been a hall of fame, a Richard Petty, a Dale Earnhardt. As far as I was concerned, when I saw the list of the deal, I sat down and made a list of my own.

"Pearson would have been my #1 pick. Look at all he accomplished."

When asked if he was disappointed, Pearson said, "Not really."

"I told them before that I always heard that they wanted Junior in there, of course you know that Earnhardt and Petty are going to be in there, no doubt about it," Pearson said. "When I seen the two Frances went in, I knew I didn't have a chance."

The induction ceremony is scheduled to be May 23, 2010, the Sunday after the Sprint All-Star Race and about two weeks after the hall opens in Charlotte.

Petty won seven Cup championships but is perhaps best known as an ambassador for the sport. He was and is a fan favourite, both during his winning days and now as a team co-owner.

"It feels good," Petty said. "I felt like this was a race, then you feel good finishing ... in the front five."

Earnhardt also won seven Cup championships, the first in only his second full season of NASCAR competition. His passionate driving style made him a polarizing figure for fans. Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

"For what my dad achieved in this sport -- both on and off the track -- he certainly earned his place in history and deserves to be distinguished in this inaugural class of NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees," said his son Dale Earnhardt Jr. "It means a lot to the Earnhardt family, and it means a lot to my dad's fans, which I am one. He was the man, plain and simple."

Johnson was successful as a driver and an owner. Although he didn't win a championship as a driver, he won six titles as an owner, three by Cale Yarborough and three by Darrell Waltrip.

"This is a big, big deal to me," Johnson said. "It's the greatest thing that's happened to me in this sport. I'm almost speechless to say that I am going into the hall of fame. You just don't know how it feels to be one of the five people selected to go into this first class. It's so big; it's so honourable."

In addition to Pearson, Yarborough and Allison, the other 17 nominees not selected were Buck Baker, Red Byron, Richard Childress, Richie Evans, Tim Flock, Rick Hendrick, Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore, Raymond Parks, Benny Parsons, Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Herb Thomas, Curtis Turner, Darrell Waltrip, Joe Weatherly and Glen Wood.

NASCAR Hall of Fame entrants:
Dale Earnhardt was known as the Intimidator because of his aggressive, take-no-prisoners driving style. He won seven championships, and his 76 Cup wins are seventh all-time.
Bill France, who began racing stock cars in the 1930s, founded NASCAR and was its president from 1948 to 1972. He built Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
Bill France Jr. replaced his father as NASCAR president and held the position until November 2000. He guided NASCAR from its regional roots to a national sport. NASCAR's greatest growth came under his leadership.
Junior Johnson won 50 Cup races as a driver and 132 races and six championships as a car owner. The movie "The Last American Hero" is based on Johnson.
Richard Petty, The King, holds countless records in the Cup series. Many are considered untouchable, among them: 200 wins, 123 poles, 10 consecutive wins and 27 wins in a season. Petty and Earnhardt are the only drivers with seven championships.
by Reid Spencer and Bill Marx/Sporting News