Top 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards moments
December 03, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
There hasn't always been a Champions Week in NASCAR, or even an awards banquet for that matter. Long before the celebration of that year's winner evolved into a major event, the champion was awarded a leather jacket and recognized at a dinner prior to Speedweeks in Daytona Beach.
The leather jackets may remain, but everything else has changed about how NASCAR honors the champion of its premier division. Those "victory dinners" at various Daytona Beach hotels gave way to formal events first in New York and now in Las Vegas, each of them grander than the next. Indeed, Champions Week has come a long way from places such as Daytona's Princess Issena Hotel, not to mention much earlier days when it could be a handful of races into the next season before the winner of the previous year was honored.
No more. Now, Champions Week brings with it a degree of glitz and glamor befitting its Las Vegas location, long with a parade of cars down the Strip and a jackpot's worth of contingency awards checks. Going back to its earliest days in New York, the intention has always been the same -- to honor those in the industry who deserve special recognition, concluding with the champion himself.
Along the way, the banquet has inspired some moments that have become indelible. Friday night's Sprint Cup Series Awards ceremony at Wynn Las Vegas, where Jimmie Johnson will be honored for his sixth championship, may well present another instance that will live on in the history of an event that dates back to 1981. Until then, here are the top 10.
10. Bright lights, big city: 1981
That first awards ceremony in New York, to honor 1981 champion Darrell Waltrip, was met with some circumspection. "I remember everyone saying, 'What in the world are we going up there for?' " late NASCAR Vice President Jim Hunter recalled in 2007. But to former NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr., the move was about prospective sponsorship, and securing a foothold in the commercial capital of America. There may have been only about 100 invited guests at that first banquet at the Starlight Roof in the Waldorf Astoria, but this was also before the sport had established itself as a true national presence. France aimed to change that, and honoring his champion amid the bright lights of the big city was his first major step forward.
9. A call for unity: 2012
It would prove a problematic title defense for Brad Keselowski, a year defined by penalties and mechanical issues that would prevent him from making a run at a repeat. But the night his 2012 championship was celebrated, anything seemed possible. Keselowski delivered an off-the-cuff speech at the Wynn Las Vegas ballroom that remains remarkable, from the humility he showed in marveling at his face on a banner near Dale Earnhardt's, to a call for cooperation that in the moment was nothing short of stirring. "I hope that as a sport we can continue to find common ground," he said. "As a champion, I want to be your leader, and I want to make it happen." It hasn't quite unfolded that way yet, but that didn't make his speech any less memorable.
8. Musical chairs: 2011
For five consecutive years, in Sprint Cup Awards ceremonies that spanned New York to Las Vegas, everyone had become accustomed to seeing Jimmie Johnson stroll out onto the stage as the champion was introduced. So it seemed completely natural for Johnson to walk toward the head table as the 2011 ceremony opened -- except for the fact that he wasn't the champion. In a comedic bit that was a nod to both Johnson's record-breaking run and his sense of humor, Johnson's trip back to the head table was playfully interrupted by Tony Stewart, who had earned that reserved seat by winning his third career title that season. Laughter filled the ballroom as Johnson headed down to his table, which was among the crowd. He wouldn't stay down there for very long.
7. Jimmie and Cale: 2008
Each year the champion receives a ring at the awards ceremony, typically presented by the series chairman. In 2008, though, that plan was altered. As Jimmie Johnson was set to receive his ring for winning a third consecutive title, out walked none other than Cale Yarborough, whose three-decades-old record the younger driver had matched that season. Yarborough, who these days rarely attends such events, was greeted by a standing ovation. "Somebody finally did it," he said. "I set a pretty good record, didn't I? It took them 30 years to tie it. … You know, all he did was tie the record -- he still has to break it." Johnson took care of that the next season, and then added one more consecutive title for good measure.
6. Viva Las Vegas: 2009
It was hard to beat the setting, with New York festooned in holiday lights. But over time the arrangement between the Big Apple and NASCAR became a somewhat awkward one, with even the "Victory Lap" show car parade getting scrapped one year because of traffic concerns. So in 2009, after 28 years in Manhattan, the Sprint Cup awards ceremony found a more welcoming home -- Las Vegas, which willingly shut down part of the Strip for the Victory Lap, and offered banquet spaces large enough that even some fans could attend the event itself. Drivers seemed to embrace the change, often crowding around the craps tables until deep into the night. The move west made everything seem bigger and brighter, and made Champions Week seem better than ever.
5. Humbled Hendrick: 2009
The highlight of that first Champions Week in Las Vegas wasn't made by Jimmie Johnson, who was being honored for his record-breaking fourth consecutive title. No, that belonged to his team and car owner, Rick Hendrick, who was simply overcome when presented with the Bill France Award of Excellence. "My speech, I don't think I'll be able to do it," he said, composing himself as the Wynn ballroom fell silent. Among NASCAR's highest honors, the award was presented to Hendrick by Betty Jane France, widow of former chairman Bill France Jr., and on the heels of a season where Hendrick Motorsports drivers had swept the top three positions in points -- the first and still only time a single team has managed that feat.
4. Dale takes the seventh: 1994
No one was more awed by Dale Earnhardt's seventh championship than the man himself. "That was a feat I thought would never be tied," he said in New York in 1994, after matching a record that had been solely owned by Richard Petty. "… I figured something would happen and six would be all we could win." That humility was evident in a video Earnhardt co-produced and narrated which aired during the ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria, a seven-minute film in which he thanked all those who had helped him during his early struggles, and disclosed the fact that his first race car had been pink. "I'm just a fortunate young man from Kannapolis," he said, never forgetting where he came from.
3. Hello, Mr. President: 1983
After more than two decades of racing and five runner-up finishes, 46-year-old Bobby Allison became the oldest driver ever to win his first crown when he finally broke through in 1983. The celebration that followed was worth the wait, with luminaries of every stripe honoring the popular new champion. Vice President George Bush and his wife Barbara made an appearance to honor Allison, who had been a guest at the White House for dinner the previous evening. But the grandest congratulation came via telephone, in the form of a call from President Ronald Reagan. "You've given a lot to those people who've watched you race for 22 years," he told Allison. "We all look forward to continuing to watch you."
2. My way: 1992
Alan Kulwicki had done it his way, and his speech at the Waldorf Astoria after winning the 1992 championship would be no different. Kulwicki had earned the crown as a driver/owner with less sponsorship and personnel than most of his competitors, but still prevailed in the tightest title battle to date. Hours before the banquet, he huddled with a few close friends and sketched out a speech on note cards. "I hope that in the years to come, I will be a good representative," he said. "I hope that when 1993 is over … (people) all look back and say, 'We were proud to have him represent us as our champion.' " It was followed by a tribute video set to Frank Sinatra's "My Way" -- which would be played again five months later, after Kulwicki lost his life in an airplane crash.
1. A toast of milk: 1995
All throughout the 1995 season, Jeff Gordon had put up with playful jabs from Dale Earnhardt over the age difference between the two. The Intimidator had even taken to calling Gordon "Wonderboy," given that this was a time long before drivers regularly blossomed into championship contenders so early in the their careers. One Earnhardt stinger in particular would prove prophetic: "If he wins it," the grizzled seven-time champion said of his opponent, then just 23 years old, "he'll have to toast everyone with milk."
So when Gordon became the youngest driver ever to win the championship at NASCAR's highest level, he couldn't resist doing just that. "Great season, man," he said to Earnhardt from the stage of the Waldorf Astoria's Grand Ballroom, saluting his rival by holding aloft a champagne glass full of milk. Earnhardt stood, smiled broadly, and returned the gesture. They would remain rivals, but from that point onward on much friendlier terms, the years between the two champions melting away on one winter night in New York.