Tom Bowles
Saturday December 19th, 2009

In their fourth year of existence, the Bowlesy Awards celebrate the best and worst of NASCAR Racing in 2009, taking one last look before we prepare for the next year of Danica ... er, Cup Series competition in 2010. As long as you pass your drug test (and NASCAR Santa checks it twice!), we've got a front row seat reserved for you -- because unlike the banquet in Vegas, everyone's guaranteed to leave this column a winner.

So, without further ado, here are this year's Bowlesys:

The David Pearson Award (hardest charger): Juan Pablo Montoya. (Midseason award winner: Kyle Busch)

He may not have won a race this year, but Montoya established himself among the sport's elite with a near-flawless start to the playoffs. The only man to score four top-fives in the first four Chase races, Montoya appeared to be a formidable challenger to Jimmie Johnson until a handful of wrecks ruined his chances to compete. But the driver's aggressive style still turned heads, as evidenced by an on-track feud with Tony Stewart that left both drivers spinning each other out at Homestead. Watching the Colombian let loose -- he even criticized the untouchable veteran Mark Martin for cutting him off -- was a boost of fresh energy for the sport as it looks to freshen up its image for 2010 and beyond.

The Tim Richmond Award (Comeback Driver Of The Year): Mark Martin. (Midseason award winner: Mark Martin)

With five victories, seven poles, and a second place finish in the Chase, Martin had his best statistical season since 1998. The fact he's doing it at 50 and is routinely beating drivers half his age is the best chapter in a career long ago stamped for the Hall of Fame. In the Cup Series today, nine out of every 10 drivers credit Martin with some of the best career advice they've ever been given. It's hard to find an athlete with that type of respect in any other sport, and his decision to continue racing full-time through 2011 (new sponsor comes on board at Daytona) will help keep Hendrick Motorsports the team to beat.

The Carl Edwards Award (pleasant surprise): Brian Vickers. (Midseason award winner: Marcos Ambrose / David Reutimann)

While he may have been an outside contender for the Chase midseason, Vickers and his No. 83 team stepped it up to make the playoffs for the first time in Team Red Bull's three-year existence. In the process, the team won for the first time together at Michigan in August, and had nine straight finishes in the top 12 to close the regular season. The capper was a gritty performance at Richmond in September, in which the team posted its best-ever short track finish by holding off the ace of the bullrings, Kyle Busch, for the final spot in the playoffs. While Vickers' wheels fell off in the Chase itself, six poles and 13 top 10s suggest brighter days are ahead for the organization.

The Buckshot Jones Award (biggest disappointment): Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Midseason award winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.)

Others may have tried to wrest this award away, but when the smoke cleared, Earnhardt's No. 88 remained the biggest pile of wreckage. With just two top fives, five top 10s, and 146 laps led, NASCAR's Most Popular Driver set career lows in virtually every category en route to his 25th place finish in the season standings. While his Hendrick teammates finished 1-2-3, Earnhardt stuck out like a sore thumb, which neither a crew chief change (Tony Eury Jr. for Lance McGrew) nor the team's best engineers could stop. Bad luck played a role -- Junior had more mechanical failures than the rest of the Hendrick stable combined -- but as the year came to a close, his confidence proved to be the biggest part that's broken. By October, Earnhardt was throwing up the white flag of surrender in a tone that made Eeyore look cheery.

The Richard Petty Award (best points racer): Jimmie Johnson. (Midseason award winner: Jimmie Johnson)

Johnson's pure domination of the Chase doesn't leave any other nominees for this category. In winning a record fourth straight championship, the No. 48 team was in a class of its own in the playoffs, with four wins and seven top five finishes. Johnson led over 950 laps in the Chase, which averages out to nearly 100 per race. If not for a Texas wreck, Johnson would have clinched the title a week earlier. Here's the scary thing for the competition: with crew chief Chad Knaus, sponsor Lowe's and the entire team virtually intact for 2010, Johnson might just make it five straight.

The Davey Allison Award (top rookie): Joey Logano. (Midseason award winner: Brad Keselowski)

After being outshined by his one-time Nationwide rival, Brad Keselowski, "Sliced Bread" cut up his freshman competition in the second half. His greatest accomplishment was arguably a rebound from a two-week stretch in which the worst wreck of his career (Dover) was followed up by some parental meddling, when his dad gave Greg Biffle the finger at Fontana. Although visibly shaken, the 19-year-old grew up before our eyes and had two top-five finishes in the final six events. He also won the rookie race in a landslide over Scott Speed while Keselowski struggled down the stretch in his new Cup ride with Roger Penske.

The Jayski Award (best move): Brad Keselowski to Roger Penske. (Midseason award winner: Tony Stewart to Stewart-Haas Racing)

As mentioned above, Kes had a rough start driving the No. 12 car and finished no better than 25th in three starts. But it won't take long for the Hendrick protégé to use what he has learned to make the Penske program one to watch in 2010. The young driver has already convinced the owner to add dozens of personnel, and his enthusiasm, combined with secrets from his former employer, could prove key to success in 2010.

The Breaking News Award (biggest story to watch): Brian France. (Midseason award winner: NASCAR's Drug Policy)

Between falling attendance, the sport's drug policy and, now, a court case involving his ex-wife, France has been in the line of fire like no other NASCAR commissioner before. Let's put it this way: family-owned sport or no, France has been traveling a rough road the last two years, which would make it difficult for anyone to receive a continued vote of confidence going forward. With Tony George recently deposed as president of IMS, it's not unprecedented to see this type of racing business change hands, and with France's continued desire to be part of the NFL, one wonders how much longer he'll man the ship.

The Dale Earnhardt Sr. Award (best on-track altercation): Denny Hamlin vs. Brad Keselowski at Homestead. (Midseason award winner: David Ragan vs. the field at Talladega)

After getting spun out by Keselowski at Phoenix, Hamlin "called his shot," so to speak, by publicly announcing he'd go after his rival at Homestead. That's exactly what he did -- spinning out Keselowski within the first 30 laps and drawing a one-lap penalty for his actions. Afterwards, both drivers made it clear that they're not sending Christmas Cards, leading to a much-needed rivalry on the Cup circuit in 2010.

The Tony Stewart Award (best off-track altercation): Denny Hamlin vs. Brad Keselowski at Dover. (midseason award winner: Kyle Busch vs. Dale Earnhardt Jr.)

The latest round of Keselowski-Hamlin feuds started at Dover, when the former dumped the latter in the Nationwide race with 12 laps to go. Hamlin's car was totaled, and once the race was over, he confronted the young driver in what grew into a scuffle between crews. Both drivers refused to apologize in a press conference afterwards, admitting they disliked each other in a rare but valuable display of emotion that the sport needs more of in 2010.

The Darrell Waltrip Award (Quotes of the Year):

"It's not like we haven't been through harder situations than what we're going through right now. Sure, we're running bad ... but nobody's dead." -- Kevin Harvick, on his struggles at RCR when compared to tougher times -- including the 2001 death of Dale Earnhardt Sr.

"It's just a product of this racing and what NASCAR has put us into with this box and these restrictor plates with these types of cars. Drivers used to be able to respect each other and race around each other. Richard Petty, David Pearson and Bobby Allison and all those guys have always done that. I guess they don't think much of us anymore." -- Ryan Newman, after a restrictor plate wreck at Talladega left his No. 39 car on its roof, where he was lucky to escape serious injury

"The sport is not so vanilla. A lot of people hated it, and I guess those are the ones with 88s tattooed on their arm. Or maybe still 8s. I don't know which." -- Kyle Busch, taking a shot at Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans while defending his decision to break Nashville's special guitar trophy in Victory Lane

"[If] every driver in the garage comes up to me and says, 'That guy is a complete whack job,' [it's] not 'everyone is wrong and he's right.'" -- Denny Hamlin on Brad Keselowski

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