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NASCAR changes HOF eligibility process

LAS VEGAS (AP) - NASCAR announced sweeping changes to the Hall of Fame election process Thursday, including tweaks that make Bill Elliott and Mark Martin immediately eligible for enshrinement.

Among the six changes: Drivers are now eligible if they have competed for 30 or more years in NASCAR or turned 55 in the calendar year before nominating day. Previously, drivers were not eligible until they had been retired for three years, so drivers can continue to compete and still reach the hall.

Martin, winner of 96 races across NASCAR's three national divisions, has no plans at this time to race next year after 31 seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.

Elliott, winner of the 1988 Cup title, is 58 but raced as recently as 2012. Two-time NASCAR champion Terry Labonte ran in five races in 2013, but is 57 and has competed in Cup for 36 years.

Other drivers immediately eligible for Hall of Fame consideration include four-time Truck Series champion Ron Hornaday Jr., who still competes at age 55, and Ken Schrader, who said last month's season finale at Homestead was his final race after 30 seasons.

The ballot will also include only 20 nominees, down five from the first five classes.

Also, any member of the nominating committee or voting panel who appeared on the previous year's ballot or current year's ballot will now be recused from participation in the nominating or voting process while they are on the ballot. Ned Jarrett, Bud Moore, Junior Johnson are active Hall of Fame voters and were on the panel when they were elected.

Jerry Cook is a present voter and has consistently been on the Hall of Fame ballot.

Those were the only direct changes to enshrinement as NASCAR passed on forming a veterans' committee or if fewer than five should be inducted each year.

''We have decided that that time has not yet arrived, but we will give strong consideration to revisiting both of those propositions after the 10th class is seated,'' said chief communications officer Brett Jewkes. ''This year we'll be seating the fifth class. Long story short, those are viable things. There was a lot of debate, a lot of discussion, but we've made the decision that we won't revisit those until the 10th class is seated.''

NASCAR has also established the ''Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions'' that will begin with the 2015 class. Potential recipients could include competitors or those working in the sport as a member of a racing organization, track facility, race team, sponsor, media partner or being a general ambassador.

Landmark Award winners will remain eligible for Hall of Fame induction. Five nominees for the Landmark Award will be selected by the hall's nominating committee. The winner must appear on at least 60 percent of the ballots.

Beginning next year, the nominating committee will meet in person to create its ballots for both the Hall of Fame and the Landmark Award. The committee previously submitted nominees via mail to an independent accounting firm.

The nominating committee will meet Feb. 21 in Daytona.

NASCAR previously announced that the reigning Sprint Cup champion will be an eligible Hall of Fame voter starting with the 2015 class. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson will be the first active driver to cast a ballot in voting next year.

All of the changes were made after NASCAR examined the election process via discussions with current panelists.

''A couple things we learned through this process is that our process right now is incredibly strong and comparable to other sports' halls of fame,'' Jewkes said. ''We feel very strongly about the strength of our process, and that's been borne out in the fact that we have five classes that we think are an exceptional reflection of the history of the sport. What came out of this process, it really magnified the caution we should take in comparing ourselves to other sports' halls of fame.

''Bottom line is our sport is very unique, the industry is very unique, the structure of our ownership and competition and the feeder series and everything in our sport is very, very unique, and therefore our process will always be a little bit unique.''

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