NASCAR’s 2016 Sprint Cup season closed with a mix of poignant moments, humor and a celebration of one of the greatest drivers in the sport’s history who declared he’s no Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt.
Jimmie Johnson ended his six-minute speech in Friday night’s Sprint Cup Awards at Wynn Las Vegas by harkening to a quote from Dale Earnhardt after Earnhardt tied Richard Petty with seven championships in 1994: “I might have won as many championships as Richard Petty but he will always be the King.’’
Then Johnson said: “I completely agree and must say I might have won as many championships as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but I will never be the King or the Intimidator. I’m just a guy from California who always wanted to race. Thank you all and have a great night.’’
Johnson’s speech ended the formal celebration of his seventh championship, which included 23-time gold medalist Michael Phelps introducing Johnson and fellow drivers congratulating Johnson throughout the 3-hour, 31-minute program.
But Johnson had to share the spotlight on this night. The sport also celebrated Tony Stewart’s retirement from the series as a driver.
A night after drivers roasted Stewart at the “After the Lap” event, drivers had a bit more fun in a video clip for Stewart. Kyle Busch later jokingly thanked Stewart for preparing car owner Joe Gibbs for Busch’s arrival, noting the headaches both have caused the owner through the years.
NASCAR surprised Stewart by having Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder appear and speak about his friend. Then NASCAR surprised Vedder by announcing a $1.8 million donation on Stewart’s behalf to the EB Research Partnership, which was co-founded by Vedder to find a cure for Epidermolysis Bullosa, a devastating skin disorder.
This also was a night that NASCAR said farewell to Sprint as series sponsor. Monster Energy becomes the entitlement sponsor next season.
And Dale Earnhardt Jr. was awarded his 14th consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver Award. After winning the award, Earnhardt confirmed he’ll wed Amy Reimann on Dec. 31.
The night also had its fun moments, from Denny Hamlin stating on stage: “I got to pee so bad. We’ve got to get this over with. It’s bad you all, I’m telling you.’’
Among host Jay Mohr’s better lines was one about Joey Logano, saying to the driver “you finished first at Talladega, which is amazing. Your jack finished 12th.’’
Mohr also made fun of Stewart’s retirement, saying: “Biggest story this season in NASCAR, in my opinion, was the retirement of a NASCAR icon, a superstar, a NASCAR legend. Brian Scott.’’
In the end, the focus turned to Johnson and all that he has accomplished.
“It’s an amazing task to just win one, let alone seven (championships),’’ Kurt Busch said. “Names like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. When you say names like those, you think of their amazing accomplishments and contributions to NASCAR racing. Welcome to that club Jimmie.’’