John­son, Ste­wart and Earn­hardt hon­ored as NASCAR closes 2016

Kuwait Times - - SPORTS -

Jim­mie John­son called win­ning a record-ty­ing sev­enth NASCAR Sprint Cup ti­tle “in­sane” Fri­day night, while Tony Ste­wart was sent off into re­tire­ment and Dale Earn­hardt Jr. told his ador­ing fans at the sea­son-end­ing ban­quet that he’ll be ready to race in 2017.

John­son’s dra­matic vic­tory in the fi­nale last month at Home­stead moved him into a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt for the most se­ries cham­pi­onships. John­son was in­tro­duced by 23-time Olympic gold medal­ist swim­mer Michael Phelps at the Wynn Las Ve­gas.

“I’ve won as many cham­pi­onships as Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt, but I’ll never be the King or the In­tim­ida­tor,” John­son said. “I’m just a guy from Cal­i­for­nia who al­ways wanted to race.”

NASCAR hon­ored Ste­wart, who re­tired af­ter an 18-year ca­reer that in­cluded three se­ries cham­pi­onships, with a video pok­ing fun at his coarse lan­guage, weight and tem­per and with a sur­prise ap­pear­ance by Pearl Jam’s Ed­die Ved­der.

Car owner Rick Hen­drick then an­nounced a $1.8 mil­lion do­na­tion by the the mo­tor­sports in­dus­try to Ved­der’s chil­dren char­ity in Ste­wart’s name.

“To­tally caught off guard,” Ste­wart said. “But re­ally hon­ored that Ed­die Ved­der would come here for this and I’m so ex­cited the rac­ing com­mu­nity raised that kind of money to help that char­ity.”

Earn­hardt Jr. was voted most pop­u­lar driver by fans for a record 14th time de­spite miss­ing the sec­ond half of the sea­son fol­low­ing at least the fifth con­cus­sion of his ca­reer. While not an­nounc­ing the date or track, he in­tends to drive a test ses­sion this month, the fi­nal hur­dle be­fore he’ll be cleared to re­turn.

“It made the bad days bet­ter,” Earn­hardt said of the un­end­ing fan sup­port. “Once I started feel­ing good about com­ing back, it gave me a lot of mo­ti­va­tion and maybe a re­minder of why I want to be back in the car. You race to have fun and win races, but it wouldn’t be worth even mak­ing the trip if the fans didn’t show up.”

The un­flap­pable John­son was in his tuxedo more than two hours be­fore the red car­pet cer­e­mony smil­ing for nu­mer­ous photo shoots. He knows how the process works as the 2016 ti­tle se­cures his spot atop the sport’s hi­er­ar­chy. “This was an emo­tional one,” John­son said, adding the fi­nal laps at Home­stead were “the most spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ence that I’ve ever had in my life.” Ste­wart en­joyed his fi­nal awards week be­fore be­com­ing just a NASCAR team owner. His boy­hood hero, A.J. Foyt, made a sur­prise ap­pear­ance at a Thurs­day fan event that turned into an im­promptu Ste­wart roast as the sport said good­bye to one of its strong­est char­ac­ters.

“It’s just been one hell of a jour­ney, a lot of fun,” Ste­wart said. “Ev­ery­body keeps say­ing I’m re­tir­ing, but I’m still go­ing to be the same pain in the (rear) with all the NASCAR of­fi­cials. I’m cer­tain there’s al­ready a pool go­ing on back there at the NASCAR of­fi­cials’ ta­ble on what the over-un­der is for me get­ting called to the trailer as an owner.”

Earn­hardt sus­tained a con­cus­sion in a June 12 wreck at Michi­gan. His last start was July 9 at Ken­tucky as he con­tin­ued to suf­fer se­ri­ous af­ter­ef­fects that in­cluded bal­ance and vi­sion prob­lems.

Earn­hardt, who missed the fi­nal 18 races, stopped tak­ing med­i­ca­tion in Oc­to­ber. He’s con­fi­dent he’ll be healthy for drive the No. 88 Chevro­let in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. His busy off­sea­son will in­clude get­ting mar­ried on New Year’s Eve and also par­tic­i­pat­ing in Jan­uary’s test­ing ses­sion at Phoenix.

“We’ll get out there and spend half a day some­where run­ning some long runs and get­ting a good idea if I’m ready to go,” Earn­hardt said. “I feel 100 per­cent. I don’t think there will be any is­sues.”

Xfin­ity Se­ries cham­pion Daniel Suarez and Crafts­man Truck Se­ries win­ner Johnny Sauter were also re­con­g­inzed at the black tie ban­quet that in­cluded a mu­si­cal per­for­mance by Sting and was hosted by co­me­dian Jay Mohr for the sixth time. “Sorry it’s not seven,” Mohr told John­son. It also marked the fi­nal event spon­sored by Sprint in NASCAR’s top se­ries. Sprint’s yel­low and black logo, splashed all over the casino ball­room and above the red car­pet, will be re­placed by Mon­ster En­ergy’s green­clawed ‘M’ in 2017.

Sprint and the com­pany it merged with, Nex­tel, spon­sored the se­ries since 2004.

“That’s 13 years, kinder­garten through 12th grade,” Sprint cor­po­rate mar­ket­ing chief Steve Gaffney said. “Thank you.”

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