LAS VEGAS – Ultimately, the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards were all about Jimmie Johnson and his sixth series championship, but there were some pointed jokes and some return barbs before the Friday night program at Wynn Las Vegas got there.
After team owner Rick Hendrick, sponsor Lowe's and crew chief Chad Knaus all received their due, Johnson took the podium to acknowledge those who had helped make his sixth title possible.
"Rick and (wife) Linda, you've created the winningest racing organization in NASCAR history by caring for the people you employ and treating us all like family," Johnson said after receiving his championship ring from NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France. “And I'm honored to call myself a Hendrick employee."
Johnson thanked Knaus for pushing him to make him better and acknowledged the bond, both personal and professional, formed between driver and crew chief over the past 12 years.
Johnson's speech was the climax of the evening, but the humor that preceded it often brought the house down.
Comedian Jay Mohr, the master of ceremonies, revved up the crowd with some well-researched jokes that poked fun at Jeff Gordon, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer in particular.
Mohr highlighted Gordon's last-minute addition as a 13th driver to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, after manipulation of the outcome of the final regular-season race at Richmond by Michael Waltrip Racing changed the course of the 2013 season.
Mohr interrupted his own routine with "news" that Gordon had just been added to the BCS championship in college football, that the four-time champion had been added to the Best Picture category for the Academy Awards and, finally, that a 13th month had been added to the calendar, called "JeffGordonary."
Mohr surmised that Patrick, who was sitting close to the stage with her boyfriend, Sunoco Rookie of the Year Ricky Stenhouse Jr., might feel uncomfortable being so close to the front.
He congratulated Bowyer, whose late-race spin started the sequence of events at Richmond that led to a record $300,000 fine for the organization for being "so good at apologizing for things you may or may not have done."
The awards took a serious tone when the top-10 drivers began to review their accomplishments, thank their fans and congratulate Johnson on his milestone title.
Kurt Busch, 10th in the standings, recognized the collective effort of his single-car Furniture Row Racing team, which qualified for the Chase for the first time in the organization's history. Ninth-place finisher Greg Biffle gave a nod to sponsor 3M, which will mark its 10th season backing Biffle's efforts in 2014.
Eighth-place Joey Logano thanked team owner Roger Penske for "taking a chance on me." Logano rewarded that vote of confidence with a win at Michigan and a place in the Chase for the first time in his career.
Before seventh-place Bowyer took the stage, Mohr took a jab at Dale Earnhardt Jr., noting in a bogus tweet displayed on a screen above the stage that Earnhardt had asked the valet to park his car in Victory Lane, but that his GPS didn't know where to find it.
"Jay just learned with his last joke, that nobody laughed, at what everybody in NASCAR knows," Bowyer said. "Don't screw with Dale Jr."
Gordon also responded to Mohr when recognized for his sixth-place finish in the standings, noting that he had often considered opening his remarks with a joke, but found none of them funny.
"Then I realized that Jay Mohr has been doing that for years," Gordon said.
Turning serious, Gordon recognized the accomplishments of Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team.
"Jimmie and Chad, and the entire 48 team, congratulations on your sixth title in eight years," Gordon said. "Individually, you are both one of the best at what you do. Together, you're a dominant force. Congratulations on another impressive year and another championship."
Gordon also addressed his 11th-hour inclusion in the Chase.
"We may have been a late addition, but I know in my heart we belonged in this year's Chase," Gordon said. "And we proved it every weekend throughout. Thanks to my team for never giving up."
Earnhardt, the series' fifth-place finisher, delivered his speech with an eye to the future, buoyed by his strong run in the Chase.
"As for our 88 team, we have seen a steady improvement each season we've been together," Earnhardt said. "That type of initiative is hard to find. It's my opinion that I spend my weekends with the hardest-working group in the garage. That type of attitude has made me not just a better driver but a better person as well.
"I think we as a group are thankful for each other. I look forward to 2014 with you guys and another year of getting better."
Kyle Busch, who finished fourth, welcomed the crowd to Las Vegas, his hometown.
"I've missed being up on this stage and being able to talk for the last couple of years," Busch quipped. "Even though I was gone for a while, not much has changed. Jimmie and Chad win the championship. Dale Jr. wins most popular driver.
"And (NASCAR president) Mike Helton's moustache is still the same… I'm not in the familiar spot of 11th or 12th and already on my way home – I didn't even know the [awards] lasted this late."
In his last of 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup seasons with Richard Childress Racing before moving to Stewart-Haas next year, third-place finisher Kevin Harvick took time to pay homage to his long-time car owner.
"Richard, we've been through a lot together over the last 14 years," Harvick said. "It seems like just yesterday I was this punk-ass kid that didn't know much about anything. Even though we didn't always see eye-to-eye, I honestly appreciate you allowing me to be the person that I am. I wish you and RCR all the best in the years to come."
Before Johnson took the stage, series runner-up Matt Kenseth, who moved from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing this season, offered his congratulations with a pointed suggestion.
"I will start by congratulating Jimmie, Chad, Rick and the 48 team … but, honestly, I have to say, your dominance is getting old," Kenseth said. "If I were you Jimmie, I would seriously contemplate retirement. Winning that much has to be tiring. Go buy yourself an island somewhere, hang out with your family, find a new hobby, spend some of that money and enjoy yourself."
But as usual, Johnson had the last word, as he and the No. 48 team prepare for a run at a record-tying seventh championship next year.
Upcoming Charlotte test validates changes to 2014 Cup car
LAS VEGAS – Travel included, the time gap between standing on the stage at Wynn Las Vegas and sitting behind the wheel of a car at Charlotte Motor Speedway will amount to less than 60 hours.
With the crowning of six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson still looming large in the rear-view mirror, roughly 25 drivers assembled Monday at CMS to validate potential changes to the Gen-6 race car for 2014, changes designed to make intermediate speedway racing closer and more competitive.
The test follows an initial gathering of data in October, also at Charlotte.
"We had the test in October, we had six cars, and we learned quite a bit," said Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR vice president of innovation and racing development. "We were generally looking at aerodynamic and chassis changes. I think we’ve got some very good insight, and now we’ve determined that we’ve got to bring a bigger pool of cars together.
"We think right now we’re going to have about 25 cars participate, so we’ll have a bigger field to validate some of the changes we’re anticipating for 2014."
As Stefanyshyn said, most of the changes will deal with aero packages, but NASCAR also will test tapered spacers on the NASCAR Sprint Cup cars to measure the effects of reduced horsepower. The NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series both use tapered spacers as part of their engine packages.
NASCAR has reviewed potential configurations and provided test plans to the teams, including detailed CAD drawings of parts that needed to be created or fabricated.
"Some of those we will provide," Stefanyshyn said. "Some they will fabricate."
During the eight-hour test, NASCAR planned to run four different configurations in an attempt to arrive at a 2014 package that will reduce the aerodynamic disadvantage of trailing cars.
"It’s interesting," Kyle Busch said after Thursday’s NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon at Wynn Las Vegas. "When you get out front, you haul the mail. But then, when you get back in eighth, 10th, 12th, 15th, you’re wrecking sideways, whatever it may be, but you’re stuck."
Betty Jane France Humanitarian award presented
Friday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards was jampacked with presentations but only one was a surprise – the presentation of the Third Annual Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award to Don Post of Kansas City, Mo.
The award showcases The NASCAR Foundation, which was created in 2006 with the mission to raise funds and increase volunteerism to support charitable causes throughout the nation … with special emphasis on positively impacting the lives of children.
In 2011, the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award was created. The award honors the longtime commitment to community service and charitable causes by the foundation’s founder, Betty Jane France, who presented the award to Post. The award goes annually to a NASCAR fan who embodies those ideals.
By any measure, Post fits the mold. He was diagnosed with ALS, "Lou Gehrig's Disease," in 1980 and was told he had three to five years to live. Undaunted, he embarked on a 33- year mission of donating his time and talent to charities in the Kansas City area.
Post has rallied the Kansas City community through the March of Dimes. His leadership on the "Bikers for Babies" motorcycle ride has helped raise $6.8 million toward finding causes and cures for premature birth, infant mortality and neuromuscular diseases.
An online www.NASCAR.com vote to determine this year’s award winner resulted in nearly 200,000 votes being cast, a record number.
The charities supported by the finalists will each receive a $25,000 donation from The NASCAR Foundation.
Post will receive a new Chevrolet SS, courtesy of Chevrolet, and provide the March of Dimes with a $100,000 donation.
The spring’s the thing
One answer to the issue Busch raised could come in the form of the removal of pre-race and post-race ride-height requirements.
With the current front suspension package, teams use lightweight springs made of special steel that doesn’t fatigue. Each spring can cost as much as $2,000.
"The purpose of the spring is essentially to get the car back to inspection height," Stefanyshyn said. "But it’s really not a suspension spring. So essentially, today, the cars are riding around on the bump stops. So they’re running around on a very hard material.
"So if we put this spring in (after ride-height requirements are waived), which is a higher rate than the current spring we have, some of them will have the ability to ride on the spring instead of the bump stop. With that, what should happen is we should have more control in the car, and we’ll put less forces into the car, which should give a lot of drivers more stability and more confidence in driving the car."
In theory, a more comfortable platform will allow drivers to race more aggressively. Hence, more passing. The change also will allow teams to use springs that cost $300-$400, though the exact same configuration used this season will continue to be allowed, if an organization so chooses.