My Brain on NASCAR: Putting a bow on a surprising season

On Nov. 30, NASCAR Champion’s Week drew to a close with one newly-crowned American Idol serenading another as Phillip Phillips performed his hit song “Home.” The performance marked the end of the Awards Ceremony honoring 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski.

Like the sport it celebrates, Champion’s Week is a fast-paced and unpredictable affair, featuring a number of events designed to give fans a glimpse of what their favorite drivers are like off the track. The first of these was a variation of the “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?” game show. The 12 Chase drivers were divided up into six teams of two, and then each team was paired with a local kid to test their mental mettle.

As someone who has spent more than a decade defending and promoting NASCAR and its athletes, I have to confess I always hold my breath, cross my fingers and say a little prayer at events like this. But the drivers did pretty well, for the most part. Although for some reason Jimmie Johnson is convinced that cantaloupes have only one seed, Greg Biffle knows where the continents of Asia and Europe are in relation to each other, and after giving it some thought, Tony Stewart figured out that two yardsticks plus a ruler equals seven feet. They’re superstars for a reason, people.

Eventually, the Stewart-Keselowski tandem won the game. Brad celebrated by hoisting a Miller Lite. Then he hoisted the kid.

Both the least surprising announcement and one of the most emotional moments of the week came during the annual Myers Brothers Luncheon. Hosted by the National Motorsports Press Association, this event showcases achievements in areas like number of laps led over the course of the season, the most valuable pit crew, and the rookie of the year. It is also the showcase for the Most Popular Driver award, which is based on fan votes. To nobody’s surprise, Dale Earnhardt Jr. accepted the award for the 10th consecutive year, joining Bill Elliott as the only two drivers to do so.

“I’ve enjoyed this award because it’s a testament to my fans. I appreciate their loyalty and dedication,” Earnhardt said. “It was great to get back in Victory Lane this year for my team and for my fans. I’m looking forward to a successful 2013, and am proud to accept this award on behalf of all the fans that voted.”

The most prestigious presentation of the day is the Myers Brothers Award, given for lifetime contributions to racing. It is an award generally presented to legends; past recipients include beloved broadcaster Barney Hall and former Darlington Raceway president Jim Hunter.

To his great surprise, the 2012 Myers Brothers Award winner was four-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, who was honored for his foundation’s efforts in fighting pediatric cancer, as well as his ongoing drive to end hunger. Gordon was visibly emotional. “I’m going to have a hard time composing myself here, for sure. Couldn’t somebody have warned me a little bit?” he said. “Oh my goodness; this is an incredible honor.”

Following the luncheon, the famous Las Vegas Strip was shut down to all but 12 vehicles, as the top drivers performed a Victory Lap complete with burnouts and pit stops. Then the guys headed to Planet Hollywood for the popular NASCAR After the Lap event, where fans pay for the opportunity to watch them sit around and talk trash to one another for an hour or two (proceeds benefit the NASCAR Foundation).

On Friday, first-time champion Brad Keselowski was feted at the Awards Ceremony. His fellow competitors were both congratulatory and complimentary, but much of the evening’s attention went to team owner Roger Penske, who won his first NASCAR championship after four decades of trying. While you will never see Jerry Jones applauding fellow NFL team owner Robert Kraft for winning yet another Super Bowl, the same cannot be said of NASCAR folks. To a man – and woman – the crowd was genuinely thrilled for Mr. Penske.

This air of bonhomie did not extend to the drivers involved in one of the season’s best feuds. We all remember the famous incident in the next-to-last race of the year at Phoenix, when Jeff Gordon deliberately took Clint Bowyer out of championship contention, resulting in a melee in the garage and a lot of hard feelings.  In Vegas, an atmosphere where the “let’s kiss and make up and drink some of Brad’s beer” attitude generally prevailed, Clint Bowyer managed to hang onto that grudge for dear life.

“It’s been pretty awkward,” Gordon said. “I thought he might have gotten over it at least enough to look at me. But he won’t even look at me … It’s just so unlikely. Clint, he gets along with everybody. And up until this point, I got along with him very well. It’s not what I was expecting, but you deal with it as you go.”

A NASCAR cliffhanger; how cool is that? The 2012 Sprint Cup season – and what a spectacular season it was – may have ended, but it is far from over. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you realize that, where NASCAR is concerned, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

NMPA Myers Brothers Award Luncheon winners:

Myers Brothers Award: Jeff Gordon
NASCAR NMPA Most Popular Driver Award: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Buddy Shuman Award: Ken Squier
NASCAR Marketing Achievement Award: Mars Inc.
3M Lap Leader Award: Jimmie Johnson
American Ethanol Green Flag Restart Award: Jimmie Johnson
Coors Light Pole Award: Jimmie Johnson
DIRECTV Crew Chief of the Year Award: Matt Puccia, crew chief for Greg Biffle No. 16
Freescale Wide Open Award: Matt Kenseth
Goodyear Tires Award (Champion): Brad Keselowski
MAHLE Clevite Engine Builder of the Year Award: Shane Parsnow, Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Team
Mechanix Wear Most Valuable Pit Crew Award: Michael Waltrip Racing No. 56 Team
Mobil 1 Driver of the Year Award: Denny Hamlin
MOOG Steering & Suspension Problem Solver of the Year Award: Steve Addington, crew chief for Tony Stewart No. 14
Sunoco Diamond Performance Award (Champion): Brad Keselowski
Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award: Stephen Leicht
USG Improving the Finish Award: Tony Stewart
Champion Sponsor Award: Miller Lite
Champion Crew Chief: Paul Wolfe

 

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