As NASCAR motors into the 2016 racing season, there is still time to quickly glance in the rearview mirror and recall those who were honored during the 2015 Champion’s Week awards banquet.
In what has become an annual tradition, Dale Earnhardt Jr. collected his 13th Most Popular Driver Award. More than 400,000 fans voted during an 11-week span leading up to the season-finale at Homestead. When Earnhardt was asked later on Twitter if he would trade all 13 of the awards for just one Sprint Cup Series title, he replied, “Not mine to trade really. The fans earned ‘em. But if we do it right next year we won’t have to trade.”
On this night, the driver who seemed to be the most popular was Jeff Gordon. The four-time Cup champion retired after last season, and the Champion’s Week banquet was his official goodbye. Speaker after speaker praised Gordon for his illustrious 23-year, 93-victory career. Even actor Tom Cruise, who starred in the 1990 racing film “Days of Thunder,” showed up to say farewell, introducing Gordon as “my friend” and “the legend.”
“I was just trying to hold back my emotions because I knew it would be tough,” Gordon said later. “Then when Tom walked out there, I was done. I know how passionate he is about NASCAR. … That messed me up. That got me good.”
In addition, Gordon was presented the Bill France Award of Excellence, which is given out only on special occasions. The last recipient was Gordon’s car owner, Rick Hendrick, who received the honor in 2009 in recognition of his 25th anniversary in NASCAR.
Historic Darlington Raceway received the Myers Brothers Award, which goes to individuals or groups that have provided outstanding contributions to the sport. The track was recognized for its “throwback” paint-scheme campaign during last year’s Southern 500. In that race, Earnhardt’s machine sported the look of the Valvoline-sponsored cars from the early 1980s that were driven by such racing legends as Cale Yarborough, Neil Bonnett and Buddy Baker.
The top honor went to 2015 Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch, who won five times last year despite missing 11 races with a broken leg and foot following a wreck in the season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.
“We’ve all heard that old saying, ‘Break a leg,’ which means good luck in show biz,” Busch said during the ceremony. “Well, I can say without a doubt that breaking a leg – and a foot – works just as good in racing.”
Even though 2014 Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick was unable to keep his title last season, he still walked away with quite a bit of hardware. Harvick won five awards, including Driver of the Year honors.
Also honored were Chris Buescher for winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series title, 19-year-old Erik Jones for becoming the youngest champion in the history of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and Brett Moffitt as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
Now it’s time for the drivers to gear up for a new season, and attempt to earn one of the awards that will be handed out during the 2016 NASCAR Champion’s Week.