Stenhouse Jr., Patrick among Nationwide Series' young -- and popular -- drivers
MIAMI BEACH, Fla. -- In a night that showcased NASCAR's youth and diversity, a pair of young 20-somethings hoisted their championship trophies, and two stock-car newcomers graciously accepted Most Popular Driver honors Monday at the annual Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series year-end awards banquet.
Nationwide champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is the sixth driver to win back-to-back titles in the series. The 25-year-old thanked those who launched his career and believed in him, even during a trying rookie year. His perseverance has landed him titles during two of the most competitive seasons in series history.
He jokingly thanked longtime Roush Fenway driver Matt Kenseth, who is leaving the team for Joe Gibbs Racing next year, for the vacant seat he'll fill as a Sprint Cup Series rookie in 2013.
Stenhouse wished Kenseth "the best," then laughed "well, not really the best," implying he hopes to beat him on-track next season.
"There are a lot of people in NASCAR that have fan favorites, and I'm new so this was not a given."
-- Danica Patrick
Newly crowned Truck Series champion James Buescher delivered a heartfelt acceptance speech to a packed ballroom at the Loews Miami Beach Hotel. He dedicated his first major title to his new wife while promising big things to come with his Turner Motorsports team, owned by father-in-law Steve Turner.
The 22-year old talked about getting married "twice" this year after finding out his first wedding in Costa Rica wasn't legal in the United States. "But she agreed to marry me again," he said, glancing at his father-in-law on the ballroom stage.
The first major recognition of the evening went to Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr. (Camping World Truck Series) and former IndyCar star Danica Patrick (Nationwide Series), who won Most Popular Driver awards.
"I don't think these things are a given. There are a lot of people in NASCAR that have fan favorites, and I'm new so this was not a given,'' said Patrick, who moves into a full-time Cup schedule next year. "I think if it had gone to someone else, it would have said to me I need to work harder, I need to prove to [fans] that this is what I care about. I care about it tremendously.
"I think with Nelson [Piquet] and I winning these, it means the series is reaching new people, new fans, new TV markets, and all it takes is that driver to cheer for. Sometimes, it takes someone to change everything, and if it takes Nelson or myself to bring in new demographic, that's exciting and good."
Some of the biggest applause of the evening came for the Dillon brothers, Austin, 22, and Ty, 20, who won Rookie of the Year honors in the Nationwide and Truck Series, respectively. The grandsons of team owner Richard Childress had poked fun at each other during a dual interview session on stage with hosts Rick Allen and Krista Voda.
Wearing cowboy boots under their tuxedo pants, they recognized the opportunity given to them by their grandfather and spoke about their great support for each other.
Austin Dillon, 2011's Truck Series champion, is the third driver to win rookie honors in both truck and Nationwide. The Dillons are the first siblings to win Truck Series Rookie of the Year.
Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs accepted the Nationwide owner's championship trophy for the fourth time, tying the organization with Richard Childress Racing for most in the series.
Six drivers drove JGR's No. 18 Toyota in 2012. The most successful of them, nine-time winner Joey Logano, showed up at the banquet in a driver's suit that looked like a tuxedo and was emblazoned with the eight sponsors who had appeared on the car during the year.
With few exceptions, the stage was a showcase of young, up-and-coming talent that NASCAR fans will see in all three national series.
"We need to develop drivers and crewmen for the Cup series, and in the last couple of years, we've really seen it all line up,'' said Joe Balash, Nationwide Series director.
"We really have a pool of talented drivers in K&N Series, too, that will migrate to Nationwide Series, and it sets us up next year to really have a solid field of some drivers with Sprint Cup experience racing in Nationwide, some that have been in the championship hunt in last couple of years, and some new stars that we may not even know their name now, but by next year, we're going to say, 'Wow.' "