Without further ado ... let's get started:
The Richard Petty Award (best points racer): Jimmie Johnson.
Yes, Tony Stewart leads the standings, but Johnson, a three-time champ, looks hungriest at this point in the season. He has quietly racked up the most laps led (887), winning twice and scoring 12 top 10s to place third in the championship standings. Most importantly, he's all but locked up his sixth straight Chase bid, giving him a likely top-3 seed while taking the summer to fine-tune his setups and prepare for the playoffs.
At the moment, only Stewart looks to be in position to challenge the No. 48 for the title. But his team gets engines and chassis from Hendrick Motorsports, a partnership that could turn into a problem once Johnson and Stewart are in direct competition for the trophy this Fall.
The David Pearson Award (hardest charger): Kyle Busch.
In a season in which Busch has struggled with consistency on the Sprint Cup side, we'll give this one to Busch -- albeit barely. The driver of the No. 18 is still the one you don't want to see hanging off your back bumper late in the race. But after scoring three Cup victories in the first three and-a-half months of this season, Busch has struggled. He has just one top-10 finish since May.
His win-turned-wreck at Daytona is symptomatic of some self-induced problems, the biggest of which is spreading himself too thin. With 10 wins overall in NASCAR's top three series, Busch is in control of the Nationwide Series championship while running a limited Truck schedule. They're outstanding achievements and have him on pace for another record season overall, but the time taken to focus on them is proving a distraction from the trophy he really wants.
The Tim Richmond Award (comeback driver of the year): Mark Martin.
After two years of part-time driving with middle-of-the-pack equipment, Martin has made the most of his full-time return with Hendrick Motorsports. Who would have guessed that at 50, Martin would have as many Cup wins (three) as the rest of the Hendrick Motorsports stable combined?
With a dedicated fitness regimen that's kept him in better shape than drivers half his age, Martin is redefining the capabilities of athletes 50 and older, while proving a sentimental favorite to capture his first Cup title. Here's the problem: a long list of poor racing luck and mechanical failures have him on the outside looking in on the Chase. Sixty-five points back of 12th place with eight races left, Martin has to worry that he has no mulligans left -- with tracks like Bristol and Richmond still ahead.
The Davey Allison Award (top rookie): Brad Keselowski.
Keselowski chose not to apply for Rookie of the Year this season, as he's only scheduled for 17 starts with a combination of Hendrick Motorsports and Phoenix Racing. But in April, he made the biggest splash of any freshman by pulling out an upset victory at Talladega, sending Carl Edwards flipping wildly in the process. While Joey Logano's recent Loudon victory was impressive, it was won on a fuel mileage gamble and not by pushing one of the sport's stars out of the way coming to the start/finish line.
Overall, Keselowski has three top 10s, just one fewer than Logano, despite having just six starts to "Sliced Bread's" 18. Yet unless a miracle occurs, Keselowski won't even get consideration for the yearlong award. Maybe it's time NASCAR took a look at revamping the rookie points system?
The Carl Edwards Award (pleasant surprise): Marcos Ambrose / David Reutimann.
Two years removed from near-extinction, Michael Waltrip Racing is having a dream season with Reutimann breaking through for his first career win, at the Coca-Cola 600. Fourteenth in points, he has a great shot to give MWR its first ever Chase bid and perhaps another win or two. But long-term, the best man in this three-car stable is Marcos Ambrose. Once considered a road course specialist, the Tasmanian has opened eyes with a handful of top-10 finishes on all different types of tracks driving for MWR-supported JTG Daugherty Racing. Eighteenth in the Cup standings, he'd be a Chase contender, too, if not for a litany of mechanical failures early in the season.
The Buckshot Jones Award (biggest disappointment): Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Two years ago, Dale Jr. said he was going to Hendrick Motorsports to try to win a championship. But a year and a half into his time in the No. 88 Chevy, he's on his way to what could be the worst season of his 10-year career. With just one top-5 finish, he's 21st in points and has shown no signs of snapping out of his funk after crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was sacked in early June. The drama for Junior isn't whether he'll make the Chase, but whether new crew chief Lance McGrew will make it through the year as Hendrick looks for an "A" level guy to match Junior's "star power" and get him back to running up front in 2010.
The Jayski Award (best move): Tony Stewart to Stewart-Haas Racing.
Stewart has this award on lockdown, leading the standings by 180 points in a year in which people wondered if he'd even make the Chase. Stewart hasn't just survived; he's thrived as an owner/driver for SHR, winning twice while collecting a league-high 10 top-5 finishes. A once-temperamental personality, he's done a fantastic job of putting the right people in the right places for his two-car program to succeed.
The Breaking News Award (biggest story to watch): NASCAR's drug policy.
At this point, coverage on the Jeremy Mayfield saga is reaching overkill. But as his battle against an alleged positive test for meth hits the courts for the next few years, his initial victory overturning NASCAR's suspension has opened up a Pandora's Box of future lawsuits. For its part, the sport is stubbornly refusing to change any aspect of its policy, despite a judge's belief that a false positive in the Mayfield case "was quite substantial."
Those words have drivers fearful the sanctioning body made a mistake and worried that they could one day be in the same position as Mayfield. One by one, they're realizing that without a union or some sort of unified stance, they're powerless to stop this sort of thing. Will this be the catalyst the drivers need to band together? NASCAR has quashed any sort of driver alliance in the past, but the high stakes involved with this drug policy -- and the sport's unwillingness to change it -- may be enough for spark some private talks.
The Dale Earnhardt Sr. Award (best on-track altercation/ finish): David Ragan vs. the field at Talladega.
It may not be the Sprint Cup Series, but David Ragan'slast gasp effort to move from fourth to first in the Nationwide Series race at Talladega was, in a word, incredible. Most importantly, during a year in which blocking has reigned supreme, Ragan's deft drafting skills didn't cause a multi-car wreck as he banged with Ryan Newman heading to the start/finish line.
The Tony Stewart Award (best off-track altercation): Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
When Dale Jr.'s crew chief was sacked, Busch took advantage to deliver a potshot to his struggling competitor. "It's never Junior's fault -- it's always the crew chief," said Busch at the end of May. "[New crew chief] Lance McGrew has his hands full having to deal with what's going on."
Junior kept his cool with his response, noting, "What Kyle [Busch] says doesn't really surprise me. He's always had a chip on his shoulder about me. I expect anytime he gets an opportunity to throw a jab at me, he's going to do it. It is just his personality."
However, deep down Junior has to be getting frustrated by the constant barrage of insults Kyle's thrown at him through the years. If only the No. 88 could get running up front again, we'd have a rivalry all the fans would really want to see.
The Darrell Waltrip Award (quotes of the year):
"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 breaking of Nashville's special guitar trophy in Victory Lane
"I was one lap from winning the Daytona 500, and that's hard to swallow. With the offseason that I've had, I feel like I deserved that win more than anyone."-- Elliott Sadler, who went from being released from his No. 19 team in January, to using legal force to getting back in the seat, to coming within a whisker of winning the Great American Race before Matt Kenseth passed him just before rain ended this year's Daytona 500
"I'm afraid to take my multi-vitamin, because you call them [at NASCAR] and you ask them, 'Is this multivitamin OK?' And their response is 'Well, I think it is. But if it tests positive, there's nothing we can do about it.' What am I supposed to do with that?"-- Brian Vickers on NASCAR's drug policy
"Double-file restarts are going to create more accidents, because things are going to be more aggressive. You can't change something without there being some kind of negative consequences, and this is an example."-- Jeff Burton after getting wrecked at New Hampshire