Amanda Vincent, NASCAR Correspondent
NASCAR hands out end of season awards
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ finest gathered at the Wynn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Friday to honor the 2011 series champion, Tony Stewart, along with the other nine drivers who finished out the season in the top-10.
I get to compete with the best drivers in the world, and I’m grateful for that.
“I get to compete with the best drivers in the world, and I’m grateful for that,” Stewart said.
Series title sponsor, Sprint, presented Stewart with a $5.8 million check for claiming the 2011 Sprint Cup.
Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, is the first owner/driver to claim the Cup title since Alan Kulwicki did so in 1992 and the first driver other than Jimmie Johnson to claim a Sprint Cup champion’s trophy in six years.
“You put yourself at the beginning of Jimmie Johnson and at the end of Jimmie Johnson,” Stewart’s employee and teammate at SHR Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet, told the champion during his speech when recognized for finishing 10th.
Newman reflected on a conversation he had with Stewart, during which Stewart told him that “people don’t remember the bookends; they remember the books.”
Stewart was also the most recent Sprint Cup title holder prior to Johnson’s five-year reign, bookending Johnson’s championships.
The 2011 season also marked the first year in NASCAR history that the Sprint Cup Series champion had to be decided by tie breaker – race wins.
“You brought out the best in both of us,” Stewart said to second-place finisher, Carl Edwards.
Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, stressed during his speech that he hadn’t shed a tear over finishing second to Stewart after tying the champion in points at season’s end.
“It means a lot to finish second to a guy who’s a champion,” Edwards.
The runner-up did say, though, that he and crew chief Bob Osborne were frustrated and motivated for 2012.
“As frustrating as it is to finish second, we’re motivated,” Edwards said.
Other drivers who were recognized for finishing in the top-10 included third-place driver Kevin Harvick in the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, fourth-place driver Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, and fifth-place Brad Keselowski in the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge.
The three Hendrick Motorsports drivers to make the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup finished together, with Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48 Chevrolet in sixth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet in seventh, and Jeff Gordon in the No. 24 Chevrolet in eighth.
Earnhardt’s seventh-place finish was his highest since 2006 and 2011 was a return to the Chase for the driver after a two-year absence.
“It’s good to be back at the big dinner again,” Earnhardt said.
Denny Hamlin finished ninth in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and Newman was 10th.
Chevrolet was also recognized as the championship manufacturer.
One special honor was bestowed on an individual outside the sport. Eighty-three-year-old Robert Weaver of Talladega, Ala., received the first-ever Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award for his work with the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind.
Several awards were presented the previous day during the National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers Luncheon at the Bellagio on Thursday.
Earnhardt received his ninth-consecutive Most Popular Driver award.
Drs. Joe and Rose Mattioli of Pocono Raceway received the NMPA Myers Brothers Award that is prevented to individuals who have made contributions to stock car racing.
“Dr. Joe and Dr. Rose Mattioli represent the true heart and spirit of NASCAR,” NMPA President Rea White said. “They always recognized that NASCAR was more about people than anything else. Their legacy in the sport goes far beyond the Pocono track they labored to build.”
Car owner Richard Childress was also recognized for his contribution to the sport by being awarded the Buddy Shuman Award.
Michigan International Speedway was named the NASCAR Foundation track of the Year, and Toyota was honored with the NASCAR Marketing Achievement Award.
Andy Lally was named Sunoco Rookie of the Year.
Kenseth received the Growth Energy American Ethanol Green Flag Restart Award.
Stewart received several honors including Mobil 1 Driver of the Year, O’Reilly Auto Parts Position Improvement Award, Sunoco Diamond Performance Award and Goodyear Tires Award.
Stewart’s primary sponsors, Office Depot and Mobil 1, were honored as the championship sponsors and crew chief Darian Grubb was honored for being the championship crew chief.
If I had known that there were so many drivers competing for this when I ran my lap at Homestead, I’m not sure I would have pulled it off
Edwards received the Coors Light Pole Award by winning three poles in 2011. Kenseth, Newman, Kurt Busch (No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge) and Greg Biffle (No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford) also each claimed three poles, but Edwards received the honor by finishing highest in points among the three.
“If I had known that there were so many drivers competing for this when I ran my lap at Homestead, I’m not sure I would have pulled it off,” Edwards said.
Osborne was named DirecTV Crew Chief of the year. The No. 99 team also claimed the Mechanix Wear Most Valuable Pit Crew Award. Roush Yates Engines, engine builder for the No. 99 car, took the Mahle Engine Builder of the Year Award.
Alan Gustafson, crew chief for the No. 24 team and driver Jeff Gordon, was named the MOOG Chassis Part Problem Silver of the Year.
Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was named Goodyear Gatorback Belts and Hoses Fastest Lap Award.