BUSCH: Banquet Review

Everyone celebrating on Little E's night By Matthew Leach BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Jan. 7, 2000) The NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division closed out an incredibly successful and exciting era with its annual awards banquet on Friday...

Everyone celebrating on Little E's night By Matthew Leach

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (Jan. 7, 2000) The NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Division closed out an incredibly successful and exciting era with its annual awards banquet on Friday night at the Regent Beverly Wilshire hotel. All indications are that the series is in fine hands as it moves into the future.

The era in question, of course, is the Dale Earnhardt Jr. era. "Little E" finished his series career with his second straight championship in 1999, and the banquet was his show. As Mike Helton, NASCAR's chief operating officer and senior vice president put it, not all of the trophies and checks went to Earnhardt and his team -- it just seemed that way.

Although Earnhardt moves on to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 2000 -- where he'll be joined by rivals Matt Kenseth, Dave Blaney and Jeff Fuller -- there's plenty of talent left in the NASCAR Busch Series, and the spirit and cameraderie in the circuit seem to be at an all-time high.

The tone for the evening was set early, when the first competitor award -- the AE Clevite Engine Builder of the Year -- was presented to Ron Hutter, whose powerplants played a central role in the success of Dale and Teresa Earnhardt's No. 3 ACDelco Chevrolets.

As Helton emphasized, though, it wasn't all Earnhardt all the time. The No. 3 team's first award was immediately followed by the presentation of the symbol of the series' future: the Raybestos Rookie of the Year award, won by Tony Raines.

Raines, often somewhat stoic, seemed genuinely delighted to be recognized in front of his peers -- and to receive a check for $10,000. He cracked jokes and offered sincere thanks to those who helped him get where he is.

"As for my fellow rookie drivers," Raines said, "I think I was the only one who had to shave every day. But really, Hank Parker Jr. and Adam Petty had some good strong runs this year and I had a lot of fun racing with them."

Randy LaJoie -- himself a part of the series' recent past, with championships in 1996 and '97, as well as its immediate future -- continued the festive tone with a typically entertaining speech. LaJoie finished 10th in points, his worst full-season showing since 1994, but that didn't interfere with his enjoyment of the series' biggest party.

"If racing was anything like golf," said LaJoie, "we'd need a mulligan. And anybody that has played golf with me knows I carry plenty of mulligans."

LaJoie is always a hard act to follow, whether it be on the track or on stage, and most of those who came after him didn't really try. Most of the top-10 finishers in points used the occasion to thank their teams and sponsors, of course, but an underlying theme in nearly every speech was true gratitude toward those who make the NASCAR Busch Series possible.

Sixth-place finisher Jeff Purvis, who this year at age 40 had a full-season ride in the series for only the third time, was just one of many to express that sentiment strongly.

"What can you say about NASCAR? The growth of the sport and support by its loyal fans is awesome," Purvis said. "It would not be possible without the vision of the France family. Anheuser-Busch, our series sponsor, also deserves special recognition. Thank you for all that you do."

In the end, though, it was almost as though everything before the championship team took the stage was just a warm-up. Because once the 3 team started accepting awards, it seemed they would never stop. Earnhardt Jr. himself even picked up one piece of hardware he didn't know about beforehand.

In addition to the MCI WorldCom Fast Pace Award, the Gatorade Front Runner Award, the 76 Gasoline contingency award, the Goodyear award and of course that lovely championship ring, Earnhardt was named NASCAR Winston Cup Scene's Most Popular Driver in the NASCAR Busch Series. The checks totaled nearly $700,000, bringing the champion's season prize money total to $1.7 million. The season total breaks Earnhardt's own record, set last year, and puts him over the $3 million mark in career money.

It was quite a haul for the young man, and he recognized how far he's come in a relatively short time.

"It was just a couple of years ago when they were talking to me about driving the No. 3 car and I just couldn't wait to get the opportunity," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I knew if I got the opportunity, I could make everybody real proud of me.

"Once I got there, though, I found out it was a little tougher than it looked. I learned about all of the practice and testing. I learned about communication with the team and the public and the sponsors.

"There were times when I was in trouble and really didn't understand why, but eventually I figured that out, too.

"It's reflecting back on the last couple of seasons that makes standing here tonight such a momentous occasion for me. It also makes me realize how special this honor really is."

Now he moves on to the next level, and it would seem that both he and the series he's leaving are ready for whatever may come in 2000.

nascar.com

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Series NASCAR XFINITY
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Matt Kenseth , Adam Petty , Jeff Fuller , Hank Parker Jr. , Tony Raines , Jeff Purvis , Mike Helton , Dave Blaney