RELATED: See photos from the red carpet
LAS VEGAS — The 2017 version of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards included a night of tributes, honors and plenty of good cheer celebrating the 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing team and giving a fond and heartfelt farewell to the now 15th consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver in the sport, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The ceremony — shortened to 90 minutes this year — at the gorgeous Wynn Las Vegas included time spent speaking with the 16 playoff drivers, handing out awards and recognizing Truex for his maiden and emotional Cup victory.
Drivers, their wives and the sport’s VIPs walked the sport’s version of the “red carpet” to come into the banquet looking fabulous in tuxes and formal gowns and giving off good vibes and fond farewells.
All 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs took turns on stage with the final four making speeches culminating with Truex’s earnest words of gratitude for his team, team owner Barney Visser – who is in Denver, recovering from a heart attack – and his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex, who is battling a recurrence of ovarian cancer.
Earnhardt Jr. introduced Truex and offered sincere words of congratulations and praise for his longtime friend and onetime employee.
“His life partner battles the most evil of diseases and he stands with her,” Earnhardt said, bringing Truex on stage to receive his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup.
“He is a champion friend. And there is no one more deserving.
“It’s my privilege to introduce the 2017 Monster Energy Cup champion … my good buddy, Martin Truex Jr.”
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The introduction culminated a night of handshakes and back pats. The ballroom gave a standing ovation to special guests — Las Vegas area emergency responders, who assisted during the recent mass shooting in the city.
And there were multiple good wishes made from drivers and NASCAR executives throughout the evening to 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, who is retiring at the end of the season.
The prestigious Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award was presented by the namesake’s grandson, Ben Kennedy, to Julian Maha for his work developing KultureCity. The Alabama doctor founded the KultureCity organization to help children with autism navigate busy locations such as “arenas, stadiums and other public settings as well as developing the “lifeBOKS” program which helps the families “monitor the movements of their children though GPS and Bluetooth tracking devices.”
One of the evening’s most anticipated moments was time on stage with Earnhardt Jr., who retired from full-time competition following the season finale at Miami two weeks ago.
In addition to accepting his NMPA Most Popular Driver award, Earnhardt was also presented the prestigious “Bill France Award of Excellence” by NASCAR Chairman Brian France. The award is not given on an annual basis but instead only for extreme merit and extraordinary work.
“I had no idea,” Earnhardt said of receiving the recognition. “The Myers Brothers award and the Bill France Award, those are so personal and they really get your feelings. It’s an incredible feeling for someone to feel like you’re worth that acknowledgement. I’m grateful and it makes you inspired to continue to be an asset and help the sport grow.”
While making his speech for finishing runner-up in the championship, Kyle Busch joked that he appreciated the retired Earnhardt giving all his “Junior Nation” fans to his “Rowdy Nation.”
“It’s all going to be very different getting all those cheers at driver intros,” Busch said smiling.
In the end, Truex was feted by sponsors, Toyota, fellow drivers and cheers from the rear of the grand room – his Furniture Row Racing team.
“The 78 team has a motto: ‘Never give up,’ ” a smiling Truex said. “It’s just unbelievable to be here. It’s a childhood dream for me.”
He thanked his parents and Pollex’s parents for being there and reminded that team owner “Barney Visser is the heart of this team, People thought he was crazy to start a NASCAR team in Denver.”
“Well, who’s crazy now?” Truex asked, breaking into a grin.
Truex thanked his crew chief Cole Pearn who led the team to a series-best eight wins this season.
RELATED: All of Truex Jr.’s wins
“He never sleeps and is more competitive than anyone I’ve met in my life,” Truex said. “Buddy, thank you for making me a champion.”
And Truex finished the night in the ultimate feel good — a reminder that life and love go beyond the race trophies and championships.
“You are the love of my life,” Truex said, turning toward Pollex. “Thank you for the change you caused in my life. Winning is a great feeling but spending my life with you is the real victory.”
It sure felt like a win all around.