Jimmie Johnson is in Las Vegas this week, taking home the big honors from NASCAR, but one of the sports industry’s leading publications is recognizing a couple of his closest rivals for their accomplishments.
Sporting News has named Richard Childress as its Sporting News Owner of the Year and Denny Hamlin its 2010 Dale Earnhardt Tough Driver. The two received the awards based on votes by NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers, crew chiefs and team owners.
Childress, who formed Richard Childress Racing back in 1972 when he served as owner/driver of the team, led his organization through a dramatic return to top form this season. In 2009, all four RCR drivers failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Midway through the ’09 season, Childress performed a crucial management reshuffling and ordered the team to change its technical direction.
The results were stellar.
In 2010, RCR consolidated down to a three-car team and won five races, including two during the Chase. Drivers Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton all made the Chase in 2010, with Harvick finishing third and being in championship contention until the end of the last race. Also, Harvick led the points at the conclusion of NASCAR’s 26-race regular season.
“I'm really proud of what everybody's accomplished this year,” said Childress. “Everybody forgets where we were at. You remember the bad years. ... We were just off in 2009. But the end of 2009, the last 10 races in the Chase, our cars would have been right up there if you would have just took the points. But we felt good coming into this year.”
Harvick said it was the leadership of Childress that got the team headed in the right direction.
“When you look at the statistics, you look at the situations, all the things that you take from a year ago, it's hard to believe,” said Harvick. “But it's from a lot of effort and from a lot of people doing their jobs, making changes on Richard's part, me trying to do things differently. ... It's a huge, huge, huge undertaking. For me owning a race team, I understand that. It's hard to fathom how big that turnaround is when you really get into looking at it.”
Hamlin earned recognition from his peers for his comeback from knee surgery. A day after winning at Martinsville in March, Hamlin had surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee, which he had injured playing basketball in the offseason.
Hamlin didn’t miss a race after the operation. Instead, he drove through the pain and completed the next race on the schedule at Phoenix, despite being two laps down with a damaged race car. The following week, he won at Texas and launched a title drive that fell just short. He won a season-high eight races and finished second to Johnson in the standings.
“Through thick and thin, we’re a team,” Hamlin said after the Phoenix race. “I feel like they’d give their left leg for me and do everything they could do to make sure we were successful and I felt like it was my duty and my job and that’s what I’m hired to do, is to try to do the best I can and keep this team as good as we can.”
Hamlin’s grittiness and commitment left an impression on the owner of his team, Joe Gibbs, who has seen toughness in NASCAR and the NFL, where he coached the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl titles.
“He refused to get out of the car (at Phoenix) and stayed in there knowing we weren’t going to have a good day,” Gibbs said. “And I think that said a lot to his team and all the guys around him. And I think from that point on is kind of where—I think that had a lot to do with our year.
“And yes, athletes—I’ve coached some, to be quite truthful, that you could have two injuries almost exactly the same, one guy can play and one can’t, and that comes down to mental toughness.
“These drivers are athletes. They’re in those cars, they’re measured in different ways over here. Rarely is it the injury, but it is being in there and being able to think for 500 grueling laps and go 200 mph six inches from somebody.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.