Truex Jr. crowned champion in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS -- The 2017 version of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Awards included a night of tributes, honors and plenty of good cheer celebrating the 2017 champion Martin Truex Jr. and his Furniture Row Racing team and giving a fond and heartfelt farewell to the now 15th consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver in the sport, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The ceremony -- shortened to 90 minutes this year -- at the gorgeous Wynn Las Vegas included time spent speaking with the 16 playoff drivers, handing out awards and recognizing Truex for his maiden and emotional Cup victory.
Drivers, their wives and the sport’s VIPs walked the sport’s version of the “red carpet” to come into the banquet looking fabulous in tuxes and formal gowns and giving off good vibes and fond farewells.
All 16 drivers who qualified for the playoffs took turns on stage with the final four making speeches culminating with Truex’s earnest words of gratitude for his team, team owner Barney Visser – who is in Denver, recovering from a heart attack – and his longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex, who is battling a recurrence of ovarian cancer.
Earnhardt Jr. introduced Truex and offered sincere words of congratulations and praise for his longtime friend and onetime employee.
“His life partner battles the most evil of diseases and he stands with her,” Earnhardt said, bringing Truex on stage to receive his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup.
“He is a champion friend. And there is no one more deserving.
The introduction culminated a night of handshakes and back pats. The ballroom gave a standing ovation to special guests -- Las Vegas area emergency responders, who assisted during the recent mass shooting in the city.
And there were multiple good wishes made from drivers and NASCAR executives throughout the evening to 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, who is retiring at the end of the season.
The prestigious Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award was presented by the namesake’s grandson, Ben Kennedy, to Julian Maha for his work developing KultureCity. The Alabama doctor founded the KultureCity organization to help children with autism navigate busy locations such as “arenas, stadiums and other public settings as well as developing the “lifeBOKS” program which helps the families “monitor the movements of their children though GPS and Bluetooth tracking devices.”
One of the evening’s most anticipated moments was time on stage with Earnhardt Jr., who retired from full-time competition following the season finale at Miami two weeks ago.
In addition to accepting his NMPA Most Popular Driver award, Earnhardt was also presented the prestigious “Bill France Award of Excellence” by NASCAR Chairman Brian France. The award is not given on an annual basis but instead only for extreme merit and extraordinary work.
“I had no idea,” Earnhardt said of receiving the recognition. “The Myers Brothers award and the Bill France Award, those are so personal and they really get your feelings. It’s an incredible feeling for someone to feel like you’re worth that acknowledgement. I’m grateful and it makes you inspired to continue to be an asset and help the sport grow.”
“It’s all going to be very different getting all those cheers at driver intros,” Busch said smiling.
In the end, Truex was feted by sponsors, Toyota, fellow drivers and cheers from the rear of the grand room – his Furniture Row Racing team.
“The 78 team has a motto: ‘Never give up,’ ” a smiling Truex said. “It’s just unbelievable to be here. It’s a childhood dream for me.”
He thanked his parents and Pollex’s parents for being there and reminded that team owner “Barney Visser is the heart of this team, People thought he was crazy to start a NASCAR team in Denver.”
“Well, who’s crazy now?” Truex asked, breaking into a grin.
Truex thanked his crew chief Cole Pearn who led the team to a series-best eight wins this season.
“He never sleeps and is more competitive than anyone I’ve met in my life,” Truex said. “Buddy, thank you for making me a champion.”
And Truex finished the night in the ultimate feel good -- a reminder that life and love go beyond the race trophies and championships.
“You are the love of my life,” Truex said, turning toward Pollex. “Thank you for the change you caused in my life. Winning is a great feeling but spending my life with you is the real victory.”
It sure felt like a win all around.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “(Tony Stewart pinched his butt while passing by) ouch! He’s always pinching your butt, it’s weird. … I was really looking forward to coming to Vegas to celebrate Martin. He’s such a great fan. I’m super excited and a lot of people are very excited for him to be our champion. He’ll represent our sport so well as champion. It’ll be fun to see him celebrated. They’ve been through so much tough things, this is going to be fun to see him celebrated and he deserves it. What a story of everything they’ve been through. It’s going to be fun to have all that praise heaped on him. It’s great.”
Erik Jones: “(His suit) is right from Men’s Wearhouse, man. It’s easy enough. You can get your own, if you want. … (Winning 2017 NASCAR Cup Rookie of the Year) was a big goal of ours, that, winning a race and making the playoffs. To get Rookie of the Year was a nice way to end it off. It was a tight battle with Daniel (Suarez). It was nice to be able to lock it up in Homestead.”
Jamie McMurray: “I think that Christy, like most of the girls, look forward to it more than the guys do. For them, it’s not an all-day event, but much longer even than for the guys. Yeah, it’s been a good day. … Highlight of the week, everything’s kind of fun. The burnout contest is pretty cool to do and see the fans. I had the lady that’s in charge of the Monster Energy girls ride with me. She actually sat on the fuel lines and the sheet metal. It was kind of cool to see her reaction to all that. It’s normal for us, we’ve done it before, but it was kind of cool to see her reaction. … It’s been amazing to see the turnaround our organization has had and the commitment to make our cars contend every week.”
Kasey Kahne: “It’s been a really good week. It’s nice to be here. Last year, I wasn’t. It’s great to be back here for Champion’s Week, to watch Martin enjoy it and get to enjoy it with the other drivers. … It’s a good time to actually spend with the guys you race with and are so competitive with every week. … When you miss this – we missed it plenty of times over the last 10 years – and get to come back you realize it is actually really cool and you need to think of it that way and I want to come back next year. … (Brickyard 400 win) was just a great win for us. We had to be in position and we were fortunate to be in position late and got it done.”
Austin Dillon: “The wedding is next Saturday, so it’s coming fast. … Considering Ryan (Richard Childress Racing teammate Ryan Newman) blew up his, I felt like I outdid him on the burnouts. I definitely used more of the intersection than he did. I’m very thankful for RCR, they put a good motor in my car, so I got to do a good burnout. Some guys, those cars weren’t as good as they needed them to be to really put on a show. … (On his first Cup win at Charlotte) It was pretty amazing. I grew up watching Jimmie Johnson winning races there and how he would get through there was how I wanted to do it. He ran out of gas and I was able to beat one of the greatest of all-time.”
Kyle Larson: “Last time I wore this was this night last year. I had a tie last year, I got a clip on bow tie this year. It wasn’t hard to get dressed. I can’t tie my shoes, let alone a tie or bow tie. … We had four DNFs (heading into season finale) but we were still fast in three of the four. We didn’t have the finishes we wanted at the end of the year, but still had the speed we needed to contend. We’ll build on that and hopefully be better in our Camaro.”
Chase Elliott: “(Came stag to the awards) I need some game, I guess. But I’m happy to be here nonetheless. … I don’t dress up a whole lot, so this is definitely different for all of us. I don’t think there’s very many of us here that dress up a ton, maybe Jeff Gordon. For me, I’m a t-shirt and jeans guy. … It is (strange to see everyone dressed up). At the track, everyone’s wearing blue jeans and stuff like that, so it’s strange. … Definitely a lot of learning processes this year, ups and downs and missed opportunities. You have to take them for what they are, learn from them and change the result the next go-round.”
Ryan Blaney: “I almost walked out here (with his ball cap). It’s cool to be here, nice to be on this carpet and to be here with a lot of other drivers and teams and see a bunch of friends and nice to have the Wood Brothers out here, so that’s always fun. It’s a little bit different than what I’m used to, but we’re going to make the most of it. It’s going to be a fun night. … It’s my first time (at Awards) and I felt like driving up and down Las Vegas Blvd. in our cars was really cool. We got to do burnouts on the strip, and you can never get to do that without being arrested. To drive the 21 car one last time and always remembering it was special, that’ll probably be the highlight for me. … (When asked how long he’ll keep his flowing hair) probably two weeks. … Being able to win for the Wood Brothers and getting one of their 99, just to be up on their wall of people who have won in their race cars, I wanted to be on that wall ever since I got there. I can’t thank them enough for the last three years. I’m excited about the next chapter but I definitely am glad to be part of their family and their being part of mine.”
Kurt Busch: “I’m just floating along on her (his wife’s) coattails. … It’s a big night. There’s so many different veterans retiring and Dale Jr. is a legend that none of us will ever be able to compare with from our era. And then Truex, what a story, to have that Furniture Row team win it all, I’m very proud of them. Congratulations to Truex, Cole Pearn, Joe Garone and Barney Visser.”
Matt Kenseth: “We’re just about ready to have a complete basketball team (his wife is due with their fourth child in three weeks). It’ll be exciting and I know we’re looking forward to it and I know the kids are really looking forward to it. I’m missing her out here a lot. Right now, this is my last year being here, more than likely, so this was something she always looked forward to, getting dressed up and hanging out with everybody. I’m definitely missing her and wish she was here with me. … I can’t really put a percentage on that (he’ll be in a car next season) is in the way low single digits that I’ll be at Daytona. But you never know what’s going to happen in the future, but I think it’s unlikely you’ll see me run full-time again.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: “I was pretty excited to make the playoffs and be able to come and use this (tuxedo). It’s been a cool week here, hanging out with all the other playoff drivers, and looking forward to working harder this offseason to make sure we make it back here and preferably on the top step. Just more motivation I feel like every time you come to a banquet and you’re not the one sitting on stage all night. … It finally felt good to get that first win (Talladega) and then follow it up with the other one. We look forward to hopefully continuing that starting at Daytona (in February).”
Denny Hamlin (dressed in FedEx purple): “I’m a little down (gambling), but you come here, you always plan to donate a little bit. The lights will burn bright for another day. … Who cleans up the best (among his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates)? They always look so good. I’d say Kyle (Busch) probably cleans up the best. … It’s fun to get around your competitors, you’re no longer in the competitive atmosphere of the race track, so we get to come here, joke around with each other, talk about when we’re going to hang out in the offseason. We enjoy this time to kind of unwind with each other. … We were so close (in 2017). We’re really close to the goals we want to achieve. Ending the season without a championship is not a successful year by our standards so we’re just going to keep digging and make a run at it.”
Kevin Harvick: “(Pregnant wife Delana is) doing great. I think the hardest thing for her is just to fly across the country in the airplane. Makes her ankles not look like ankles. She opted to stay home, which I don’t blame her. She’s doing good and the main thing is she hasn’t had the baby since I’m out here, so it’d be a little bit of a challenge to get home in time. As long as she can wait until the morning, hopefully we’ll have the baby by the new year. She had Keelan three weeks early. She’s due Jan. 5. So starting next week, we’re in show time. … (Son Keelan) asked me if I spun Kyle Busch out and caused the flat tire. No, Kyle did a burnout and then it popped.”
Brad Keselowski: “Just being in the final four (highlight this week). Last year we came here and weren’t in the final four, you go through all the stuff and you want to be one of the guys on the top. It’s good to be a little bit higher up than I was the last few years, but I still want to be on the top stage and this is a good kind of reminder of the season you had and also where you aspire where you want to be.”
Ryan Newman: “I’m not comfortable (to be in a suit and tie), everybody knows that, but I’ll be back on the farm in a couple days. … (The engine that blew up on the burnout yesterday) the car blew up, I did not blow it up, the car blew up. It was a rough day with the Caterpillar Chevrolet so hopefully we’ll have a new engine put in that show car for next year. … (Plans for offseason) the animals for sure, you always have to keep tending to them and feeding them, especially in the cold months when nothing else is growing. Aside from that, just enjoying some family time, the holidays, spending some vacation time and getting ready for next year.”
Jimmie Johnson: “It’s not old hat, it’s fun to come down the (red) carpet and to watch our sport celebrate a great year, to see the media and all the drivers in tuxedos is kind of a rare occurrence and our ladies looking so good is fun, too. … (On creating the Champion’s Journal, which began in 2011) it’s something that shockingly wasn’t in our sport previously or already. We just put it together and I wrote the first letter to Tony Stewart (2011) and it moved on from there. The (NASCAR) Hall of Fame is really interested in it and hopefully in years to come, a lot of what’s inside of it will be able to be viewed by fans. It’s a cool journal, happy to do it. … (Saying goodbye to Dale Jr.) it’s been a lot of fun. Dale is in such a good place with it, is embracing it and is excited to see what’s next. I guess I feed off his energy. He’s going to be missed, there’s no way around it, but he’s still going to be a part of the sport and Hendrick Motorsports. … (This year’s level of competition) stage racing changed the game, amplified everything and made it much more intense. We got off to a good start at the beginning of the season but unfortunately didn’t finish how we wanted to. … We want (eight championships) badly but it’s been a great run of seven, I look forward to the years to come and we’ll see if we can get it.”
Kyle Busch: “Pretty much everything, she does it all (wife Samantha for Kyle to dress himself). … (He surprised a fan) it’s just a unique opportunity. When you see someone wearing your stuff, you appreciate them being a fan and wearing your stuff. They were just off to the side checking out the menu at the restaurant, so I went up to her and asked her for a Sharpie and she just freaked out. It’s fun and neat to do that to the fans sometimes when you’re out at places like that.”
Martin Truex Jr.: “It’s been pretty busy but definitely enjoying it all. It’s been a lot of fun. I got a lot of tips from past champions, like Jimmie Johnson, but it’s unbelievable. … (Being champion) is a lot different, a lot more work, a lot busier and a lot less sleep, just getting to see all and do all the things, it’s been a lot of fun and looking forward to tonight. … (Champion’s Journal from Jimmie Johnson) just some cool things from one champion to another, kind of those personal bonds you make throughout your racing career, they share that and what their journey was like in their championship season. I’m very proud and honored to add my story and give it to somebody next year.”
Christopher Bell (2017 Camping World Truck Series champion): “I behaved great (in Las Vegas). We’ve been real busy this week so we haven’t had a lot of time to get in trouble. … It’s really cool to be able to get on stage and take pictures with Martin Truex Jr., a guy I’ve looked up to … hopefully one day I’ll be able to get up here on my own.”
William Byron: “(Winning the 2017 Xfinity Series championship is) starting to sink in, just a huge thrill to win that championship and be here in Las Vegas and celebrate it with Martin (Truex Jr.). … The two of those guys have had an incredible career and just celebrating them. … Dale’s done a lot for my career, definitely going to enjoy his final night as a driver and celebrate both those guys.”
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