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The Bowlesy Awards: Saluting NASCAR's best and brightest

With the end of another season comes a fun-filled NASCAR banquet in Vegas, but the meat and potatoes of that awards ceremony is a virtual repeat from last year. The luncheon for the Most Popular Driver Award? How about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for the eighth consecutive time. Those Chase drivers standing up on stage? All of them have been there within the last two years. The drum-roll, championship presentation? Been there, done that. Jimmie Johnson gets his fifth straight.

Sigh. No wonder people don't watch the ceremony.

But while Sin City has an air of familiarity to it this year, I can promise a different, slightly less publicized event that has a different ring to it: The Bowlesys. Sure, we have to give Johnson his due, but what about others who've triumphed through adversity in the second half of 2010? Find out the hidden gems before viewing the same old, same old tonight:

This one could honestly be split three ways between McMurray, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. The others have compelling cases: Hamlin returned from ACL surgery to post a career-high eight wins, while Harvick went from 19th in points and certain divorce from his race team to regular season points champion. They came within 39 and 41 points of a title, respectively.

But in sorting through the evidence, both men possessed something McMurray didn't: a virtual lifetime ticket to a ride in this sport. The Joplin, Mo. native was hanging by a thread in comparison, released by powerhouse Roush-Fenway Racing last fall only to receive lukewarm interest after two wins in four seasons with the program. At the last minute, former car owner Chip Ganassi came calling, having partial sponsorship with Bass Pro Shops and a lifeline most expected to be a one-year deal at best. McMurray, it appeared, was on his downhill slide out of the sport.

Oh, how we were all sadly mistaken. A shocking Daytona 500 victory was followed up by a win at Indianapolis, making McMurray one of three men in NASCAR history to pull that off. Owner Ganassi turned a last-ditch hire into a phenomenal effort, becoming the lone man in the process to sweep three crown jewels in a single season: Daytona, the Brickyard 400 and open-wheel's Indianapolis 500. By adding a victory at Charlotte, McMurray notched a career high in that category, along with career highs in poles (four), top 5s (nine), and laps led (346). The Chase proved elusive, inconsistency a nagging problem for the No. 1 Chevy, but who cares when the sport's biggest trophies sit on your mantle for the rest of time?

At one point down the stretch, I wanted Logano to pick my lottery ticket based on a 7-6-5-4-3 finishing streak through five races. The sophomore lived a charmed life indeed in the season's second half, scoring eight top-11 finishes in the last 11 races while charging to 16th in the final standings. Most importantly, the once shy, politically-correct teenager developed what's a must for every superstar: personality. From the infamous "who wears the firesuit in the family" comment to Kevin Harvick in June to the season finale, where he wrecked Juan Pablo Montoya in retaliation, the 20-year-old showed a fire that had been lacking. I'm not saying wrecking people under yellow is good, just that it's good to see someone have a pulse after being taught to say all the right things for so long.

This burst of momentum happens to be perfect timing, as looking ahead to 2011, stars like Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Greg Biffle all had breakout seasons in year three. Expect this youngster to do the same.

It's too easy to give it to Earnhardt, so how about his Hendrick Motorsports teammate? The 51-year-old went winless after five victories in 2010, missing the Chase before a late rally left him "Best of the Rest" in 13th.

Leading just 148 laps, Martin faced his lowest total over a full-time season since 1988 as crew chief Alan Gustafson and company struggled mightily with the transition from wing to spoiler. Now, any gains those two have made down the stretch are moot, Martin moving to one-year temp crew chief Lance McGrew before the Kasey Kahne/Kenny Francis combo moves in to replace them both in 2012.

Owner Rick Hendrick says Martin's not getting the short end of the stick, but every move since the man announced his definitive retirement has been made with long-term implications in mind ... and those plans don't include the man with an AARP card. Maybe next time, when announcing his 15th retirement tour, NASCAR's Charlie Brown will keep his plans closer to the vest.

Honorable Mention: Danica Patrick. Nineteenth as your best finish in the Nationwide Series just doesn't cut it. Sorry!

It's a name people might not recognize, as Dillon toiled in NASCAR's "AA"-level Truck Series instead of the big leagues (Kevin Conway won the rookie award despite no top-10 finishes in Cup). The grandson of top car owner Richard Childress, Dillon raised eyebrows all season, recovering from a wreck in his first ever competitive lap at Daytona to score two wins, seven poles and finish fifth in the championship standings. With Jeff Burton driving just a few more years, there's a spot earmarked for Dillon's arrival someday at stock car's top level.

Honorable Mention: Trevor Bayne. Scoring a top-20 finish in his only Cup start with the Wood Brothers, Bayne's a darkhorse to replace David Ragan in the No. 6 UPS Ford for 2012. That is, if UPS returns...

OK, you knew we had to get there at some point. But Johnson's historic feat is notable this year in the way he remained unfazed by a pit crew swap, several bad adjustments by head wrench Chad Knaus, and even a Charlotte spin in October that threatened to hand Denny Hamlin the title on a silver platter. During an off year, where most reigning champions would sit back and accept a 10th-place finish, Johnson fought from start to finish, squeezing every possible point out of the playoffs with lackluster cars and getting rewarded with the most unlikely of his five titles. Sure, Hamlin spun out at Homestead, but, as Jeff Burton says, "you have to put yourself in position to win." Johnson did just that.

With 24 wins inside NASCAR's top three series -- Cup, Nationwide and Trucks -- Busch had a dream season, including taking the Truck Series owner's championship in his first year owning a team. On the Cup side, he led 1,271 laps, second to Johnson, and scored three victories. So why is he never in title contention? The "boom or bust" mentality seems to hurt him in the Chase, a format in which mechanical failures and personality conflicts just cannot surface. This year, they both did: an engine failure at Fontana combined with David Reutimann taking him out in a "revenge" move at Kansas a week earlier.

This one's going to shock some people, but there weren't a lot to choose from. And while Menard may ride on his daddy's coattails financially, that man earned a ride with Richard Childress Racing after some strong performances on intermediates all season long. Scoring a career high six top-10 finishes, he was also quietly credited with helping share notes that helped turn Ford's season around late last year. And looking ahead, where does RCR need help the most? You guessed it: intermediates. If it can shore up Menard's short track weaknesses while learning from his strengths, it's not out of the question to see him 15th in points come 2011.

Keeping Richard Petty Motorsports at two cars did wonders to help reduce this worry. But upwards of half-a-dozen full-time cars may drop off the grid by Daytona, with few additions making many concerned the sport may struggle to draw a full field without seven, eight, even more start-and-parkers per race. How long will officials be willing to keep things "status quo" when a quarter of the field pulls in by lap 100? I guess we'd have to look at the fine print of the financials in that TV contract to find out...

Sure, Busch vs. Kevin Harvick in the season finale was riveting to watch. But this one strikes me because of the combatants: Dudley Do-Right vs. NASCAR's Bad Boy, perhaps the most extreme good vs. evil pairing out there in the minds of fans. After years of Busch tormenting others, it was surprising to see him get the short end of the stick so abruptly from a man who seemingly wouldn't hurt a fly in real life. The best part is Busch wasn't even the one who wound up spinning out, which is usually what happens when a good guy's sent to do a bad guy's job.

I don't like to keep the same trophies twice, but this one deserves a second mention. Logano claims Mark Martin as his mentor, but his post-race tirade against Harvick was more like teammate Kyle Busch. Calling out Kevin Harvick's wife DeLana for wearing a firesuit was great theater. But perhaps the best part of all was how she chose to spin it. Taking it like a good sport, the Harvicks produced "I Wear The Firesuit In My Family!" T-shirts that have raised thousands for charity.

"It's probably not his fault. His wife wears the firesuit in the family and tells him what to do." -- Joey Logano to Kevin Harvick after Pocono

"A case of dynamite -- blow that place up." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s response to what he would be bringing to Infineon Raceway

"I think it was kind of a desperation move." -- Denny Hamlin's crew chief, Mike Ford, on Chad Knaus switching pit crews late in the race at Texas

"We work for the organization. We work for the team because there's 520-something people that work at Hendrick Motorsports, and we have a responsibility to them to do what's right; if he can't see that or if they can't see that, then they aren't a team." -- Chad Knaus, in a rare bit of crew chief sniping amongst them

"As far as the 18 incident, he raced me like a clown all day: Three-wide, on the back bumper, running into me, and I just had enough." -- Kevin Harvick, on wrecking Kyle Busch

"We have got a very strong fan base, and my sense of it is, people's attention span, it is shorter; we know that. And this sport will definitely, if we keep the racing as good as it's been the last half of the season and beyond, and we do our jobs right, I'm not worried about a thing on the popularity of this sport." -- Brian France

"I feel blessed to have a backup driver like Kyle Busch. You know, when I decided not to do the full season, I was worried who was going to pick up the slack. This man stepped up and made it happen." -- Brad Coleman, Nationwide Series part-timer on winning the owner's title with Joe Gibbs Racing

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