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Banquet belongs in Las Vegas



New York was home to the Sprint Cup banquet for 28 years and during that time with each and every banquet, the proceedings seemed more like a duty than a celebration of the just-completed season. All of that changed on Dec. 4 when NASCAR took its banquet on the road to Las Vegas for the first time and the result was a show actually worth watching all the way through for the first time in years.

It seemed like everyone involved in the production was more upbeat and actually came across more like themselves than they did when they were in front of the cameras in previous years in New York. The room actually had a buzz to it and was not just a place where everyone in attendance was there only because they were under orders to so.

In the past, the thought of listening to 10 drivers give their own form of the same speech has been tough but this time it just seemed different. Mark Martin gave what I thought was the speech of the night when he got up to accept his second-place check. The 50-yearold Hendrick Motorsports driver let his heart do the speaking, being as humble as any driver that ever raced in the sport.

Martin had plenty to be thankful for as his first full-time season after two years of racing part time in the sport became one in which all but one driver would have gladly traded places with him. This was the fifth runner-up spot of his career, but hearing him talk about his wife Arlene as well as praising his owner Rick Hendrick it seemed this year’s finish — which included five trips to victory lane — was his most enjoyable season of his long and successful career.

Of course, the night belonged to Jimmie Johnson as he picked up his record-setting fourth consecutive check for winning the title. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have been in a league of their own during this span and there is little reason not to believe that they will once again be sitting at the head table come next December accepting the top prize for their fifth title.

While the season ended two weeks ago at Homestead-Miami, the banquet actually puts the lid on the just-completed year but preparations for the 2010 season began months ago for most teams. The three-month off season isn’t long enough to finish all the preparations that go into getting a team ready for the demanding and oftentimes grueling 36-race schedule that stretches from February to November.

PIT NOTES: Dale Earnhardt Jr. may not have made it to the awards banquet as one of the top- 10 drivers but he did leave Vegas with an award that is fast becoming his own private award. This was the seventh consecutive year that Dale Jr. has won the NASCAR NMPA Chex Most Popular Driver award, which is determined by online voting throughout the year by the fans. Earnhardt Jr. had the kind of year that a driver would like to quickly forget as he went winless and posted only two top- 5 and 5 top-10 finishes on the season. Regardless of his performance on the track, the voting once again demonstrated the popularity of Earnhardt Jr. as he now finds himself in some very lofty company with past winners of the award. He joins Bill Elliott and Richard Petty as the only drivers to have won the award at least seven times. Petty won the award a total of nine times but it was Elliott that really owned the award over his career. He won the award a total of 16 times including a string of 10 consecutive years from 1991-2000.

NATIONWIDE NOTES: Jimmie Johnson wasn’t the only driver to dominate a NASCAR series this season. Kyle Busch put together the kind of season in the Nationwide Series that we may never see again. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver won nine races and finished second 11 times on his way to winning his first-ever NASCAR title. He finished in the top 10 in 30 of the 35 races and a better indication of his domination of the series was his series-record 5,682 points that he scored and the 2,698 laps that he led.

Busch has indicated that he would not defend his title next season as he is scheduled to run the companion Nationwide races next season and a few stand-alone events which should total between 24-27 races.

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