Jimmie Johnson and his championship team received major awards at Thursday’s National Motorsports Press Association’s Myers Brothers luncheon celebrating the NASCAR season, but the event’s most emotional moments were reserved for a man who never drove a race car in anger.
The late Jim Hunter, a long-time lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family and a man who touched the lives of everyone in the sport from the top drivers to the bottom feeders in the media centers, was named the winner of the NMPA’s Myers Brothers award at the banquet. Members of his family attended, and his son, Scott, accepted the award.
Hunter, NASCAR’s vice president of corporate communications and former track president of Darlington Raceway, died in October. He was a runaway winner in voting by NMPA members for the organization’s annual award that is presented to a person or organization for contributions to auto racing.
Numerous drivers, including Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart, have credited Hunter with being an important counselor as they struggled in their early years in NASCAR. There were more than a few misty eyes in the crowded ballroom at the Bellagio hotel as a video tribute to Hunter was played.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who remains a fan favorite despite years of on-track struggles, won the Hamburger Helper NMPA Most Popular Driver award for the eighth straight season. The award is voted on by fans.
“Every time I win, it’s a great honor,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Thanks to the fans. They make everything about the sport – not just the moment – possible.”
Stewart, the key figure in a variety of major charity causes every season, was named the winner of the Home Depot NMPA Humanitarian Award. Also nominated were driver Juan Pablo Montoya and team president J.D. Gibbs.
Other award winners honored during the luncheon were:
---Kevin Conway, Sprint Cup rookie of the year.
---Dr. Joe Mattioli of Pocono Raceway, Buddy Shuman Award.
---Daytona International Speedway, NASCAR Foundation Track of the Year.
---Nationwide insurance, NASCAR Marketing Achievement Award.
---Jamie McMurray, Coors Light Pole Award.
---Kurt Busch, Mobil 1 Command Performance Award.
---No. 17 (Matt Kenseth) team, Tissot Pit Road Precision Award.
---Gil Martin, DirecTv crew chief of the year, Moog problem solver of the year.
---Kevin Harvick, O’Reilly Auto Parts Position Improvement Award.
---No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) team, Mechanix most valuable pit crew award.
---Denny Hamlin, Wix lap leader award.
--Earl Wheeler (Hendrick Motorsports), Mahle engine builder of the year.
---Jimmie Johnson, Goodyear fastest lap award, Sunoco Diamond Performance award.
---Chad Knaus, champion crew chief award.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.