The bright lights of New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel have dimmed once more. With the Nextel Cup banquet now a distant memory, NASCAR's books are officially closed for 2007.
Except for the Bowlesy awards, of course. Time for the second annual end-of-season awards -- shipped overnight delivery to each driver before they vacation on their own Caribbean island for oh, about the next month or so. That's what those multimillion dollar checks from the point fund will buy you ... but of course, no vacation is as nice as receiving a Bowlesy.
So, here they are; and if you're interested to see how the end-of-year results compared to the midseason picks, click here.
The Richard Petty Award (best points racer): Jimmie Johnson (second straight Bowlesy). Well, duh. Four years into the Chase era, it seems like Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have the playoff format pretty well mastered. Peaking with four straight wins in the final five races, Johnson won the title with ease over a teammate who would have turned the tables in the old format. In fact, the final margin between Johnson and Jeff Gordon would have been 353 points, with Gordon clinching the trophy with two races left. But as the Rainbow Warrior said himself, that's no longer the way this game is played -- and Johnson knows how to play the Chase game better than everyone else.
"What they did this year is incredible. I'll be honest with you," said Gordon after Homestead, confirming what we already knew -- it's the No. 48 team's world, and the rest of us just live in it. Now, the key will be to see if Johnson can keep the momentum going, attempting to be the first to win three straight titles since Cale Yarborough in 1976-78.
The David Pearson Award (hardest charger): Matt Kenseth ('06 Winner: Tony Stewart). The man most people say is a modern-day Pearson enjoyed one of the better Chases no one will remember. He led more laps than anyone else and closed with five top-five finishes -- a record bettered by only Johnson this season. If the car wasn't involved in three straight wrecks at Kansas, Talladega,and Charlotte, the No. 17 team might have stuck around to give Johnson a run for his money -- just like he did in '06.
The Tim Richmond Award (comeback driver of the year): Jeff Gordon ('06 Winner: Kevin Harvick). How can NASCAR's winningest active driver be considered part of a comeback? It's because for the first time since '04, Gordon actually mattered in the championship Chase. His six wins and seven poles were the best totals he's had this decade, and if not for his ill-fated selection of Jimmie Johnson to drive the No. 48 car back in '01, he'd be in possession of a fifth championship trophy.
Even more impressive was that Gordon did all this as a newlywed parent of a new baby girl. Fatherhood didn't derail him; it made him more focused than ever, and his chemistry with crew chief Steve Letarte is top notch. If this guy can just learn how to finish under the Chase format -- watch out.
The Davey Allison Award (top rookie): Juan Pablo Montoya ('06 Winner: Denny Hamlin). While Montoya wasn't overly impressive in the season's second half, he was still good enough to win the rookie title with ease over David Ragan. The Colombian's inconsistency defined his first season on tour, but a fuel-mileage win at Infineon, combined with a runner-up finish at Indianapolis, showcased his future is filled with potential.
The Carl Edwards Award (pleasant surprise): Clint Bowyer ('06 Winner: Jeff Burton). The season's been over for three weeks, and people are still scratching their heads wondering where Bowyer came from. RCR's No. 3 driver was No. 1 by season's end, putting together an unlikely Chase bid that included a win in the playoff opener at New Hampshire. With seven top-12 finishes in the first seven races, Bowyer became a darkhorse candidate for the title until a three-race swoon left him third in the final standings. How in the world did this happen? Turns out crew chief Gil Martin was forcing Bowyer to play it safe early on, doing just enough to make the Chase while the team kept its cards close to the vest. Now, everyone knows that if they make the playoffs again, the poker hand they're holding is pocket aces.
The Buckshot Jones Award (biggest disappointment): Kasey Kahne ('06 Winner: Sterling Marlin). He put together some late-season runs to salvage a decent campaign, but it still looks like Kahne is anything but OK. From six wins in '06 to none in '07, Kahne looked lost this season, unable to duplicate the success that had catapulted him into title contention. Engineering at Evernham was part of the problem, but it wasn't just the team that was to blame; Kahne has a tendency of wrecking his car when the handling isn't right, pushing too hard while growing impatient on changes that could make his day better. With the pressure of big-money sponsor Budweiser next season, that attitude better change in a hurry.
Runner-up: Denny Hamlin. Hamlin's fall from grace could be heard halfway 'round the Chase after a series of missteps dropped him to 12th in the final standings. Once a rookie sensation, Hamlin's become a blip on the radar screen, finishing behind fellow sophomores Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. in the playoffs. Both those drivers showcased greater maturity overall this season than Hamlin, who must dig deep now that he's been pushed to the third man on the totem pole at Joe Gibbs Racing.
The Jayski Award (best move): Kyle Busch to Joe Gibbs Racing ('06 Winner : Dale Jarrett to Toyota -- Oops!). Speaking of Gibbs, I thought this move would be a disaster -- Busch and new teammate Tony Stewart seemed as compatible as oil and water. In truth, I still have some reservations; but Busch and Stewart are getting along better than people thought they would, and the youngster is a man on a mission after being kicked out of his ride at Hendrick Motorsports. Surrounded by a team that appeared to have packed it in at times, Busch still finished fifth in points in his old ride, quieting critics that claimed he was too immature to handle this unlikely job transition. The challenge of working with Toyota will throw all of JGR for a loop early on, but once the smoke clears, look for Busch to push his Hendrick rivals to the brink more than once next season.
The Breaking News Award (biggest story to watch): What gets done to the Car of Tomorrow in the next few months -- if anything. No doubt about it, the CoT is still the primary topic on everyone's agenda. When I was in New York for the banquet last week, Kyle Busch's response to my question on what to change was, "Start over." Others weren't quite so harsh, but everyone shared the same displeasure with the status quo. If the teams get to Daytona and the handling is absolutely atrocious, it'll be interesting to see if NASCAR will take some steps to work on adding adjustability into these cars -- putting the drivers, teams, and fans at ease in the process.
The Dale Earnhardt Sr. Award (best on-track altercation): Kevin Harvick and Juan Pablo Montoya at Watkins Glen. Harvick and Montoya were innocent victims of a mistake by Truex at the Glen; his bump of Montoya sent the No. 42 spinning straight into Harvick's path. But Harvick saw it differently after getting dumped by Montoya at Daytona in July. Exiting his car, he confronted Montoya and the result was the closest to a fight NASCAR's had in years. Montoya grabbed Harvick by the neck, and the presence of Jeff Burton and NASCAR officials was virtually the only thing preventing the two from coming to blows. Both have hothead personalities, and the two have hardly been nice to each other since -- so don't be surprised if this rivalry flares up again in '08.
The Tony Stewart Award (best off-track altercation): Denny Hamlin and Kyle Petty. Hamlin was running in the top 5 at Dover before impatience caused him to dive underneath the lapped car of Petty a little too quickly. That caused both to wreck and left Petty steaming in the garage area, angry enough to confront Hamlin while he was still sitting in the cockpit of his car. A verbal barrage of insults ensued, enough to cause Hamlin to jump out and charge after Petty. But while provoked, Hamlin learned a harsh lesson in the world of public opinion. Most onlookers supported Petty's side of the argument, and increasing scrutiny was directed toward his immaturity and late-season slump. By the time next week came around, Hamlin had apologized, understanding that when you ruffle the feathers of a living legend, the only one who loses is you.
The Darrell Waltrip Award (quote of the year): Matt Kenseth, when speaking about an ugly confrontation with Carl Edwards at Martinsville -- but his words ring true for basically any racing conflict in general: "It helps if you get an apology, but actions speak louder than words. Anybody can call and say the words. You can go run into people and then walk up next week and say, 'Hey man, I'm really sorry.' And then you can run into them again next week and say, 'Hey man, I'm really sorry.' Well, pretty soon when you walk up and say you're sorry, you say, 'OK, he doesn't mean that.' If you act like you're sorry and things change and your relationship gets better, then you kind of believe it. But anybody can just walk up and say, 'Hey, sorry.' It's whether they really mean it or not."