Sporting News names Johnson top driver

The honorees for 2006 were chosen by the Sporting News' NASCAR editors and writers. Driver of the Year: Jimmie Johnson Whether or not Johnson won the title, his attitude makes him deserving of driver of the year. There's not a bigger cheerleader ...

The honorees for 2006 were chosen by the Sporting News' NASCAR editors and writers.

Driver of the Year: Jimmie Johnson

Whether or not Johnson won the title, his attitude makes him deserving of driver of the year. There's not a bigger cheerleader than J.J. in the entire Nextel Cup Series. When facing adversity -- which Johnson did in nearly every race from Daytona to Homestead -- he becomes the rally maker, insisting the team soldier on whether or not the car is repairable.

It was easy for pundits to give up on Johnson when he fell to eighth in points after his first DNF of the season at the fall Talladega race. But Johnson's moves throughout the Chase proved that he's a competitor. It would go against his nature to points race.

Johnson was the only Chase driver to lead laps at eight of the 10 Chase races, which added 50 points to his total.


After the team dug a 156-point deficit behind leader Jeff Burton after Talladega, Johnson's five consecutive finishes of second or better put him to the top of the leaderboard.

Johnson is the only driver who visited victory lane at the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 and then went on to win the title. And he is the only driver to finish in the top five in the points standings in his first five full seasons of competition.

Without a doubt, Johnson is one of the best champions to represent the sport.

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Dale Earnhardt Tough Driver Award: Tony Stewart

There's not another driver in the Nextel Cup Series that can back up his off-the-track mojo with such on-track sizzle as Stewart. Despite playing hurt to start the season after crashing in the Chili Bowl, the defending champ led the most laps in three of the first seven events of the season, which helped him overcome his 22nd-place position in the standings following an engine failure at California.

Even after Stewart broke his scapula in the Coca-Cola 600, he fell out of the top 10 only once in the next 13 races. But his 18th-place finish at Richmond left Smoke with a 16-point deficit behind 10th-in-points Kasey Kahne after 26 races.

Stewart missed the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup, and it was the first time in the two-time champion's eight-year Cup career that he finished the season outside of the top 10. Despite not qualifying for the Chase, Tony Stewart refused to go quietly, winning three of the season's final 10 races.


Only champion Jimmie Johnson (1,430) scored more points in the postseason than Stewart's 1,424.

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Rookie of the Year: Denny Hamlin

Calling Hamlin a rookie sensation is almost an understatement. In what was touted as the stoutest rookie class ever, Hamlin distinguished himself among his peers.

He had a lackluster start to his freshman season after inheriting a struggling No. 11 team -- four finishes of 30th or worse in his first eight races -- but Hamlin became a student of the sport and quickly adapted to the longer races. He was the only rookie to win a race -- he won two, sweeping the events at Pocono. He was the only rookie to qualify for the Chase and scored as the top rookie in 17 of 36 events.

Hamlin's third-place finish in points topped his JGR teammates - including defending champion Tony Stewart. Hamlin was proud he surpassed Stewart's rookie ranking of fourth in points. Hamlin's next goal will be winning the title in a shorter period of time than Stewart, who won his first championship in his fourth season. Don't be surprised if Hamlin meets his goal.

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Pit Crew of the Year: No. 48


The No. 48 crew is by far the best in good times and bad. With crew chief Chad Knaus on a NASCAR-imposed hiatus for the first four races of the season after a rules violation, the team pulled together and won the biggest race of the year -- the Daytona 500 -- under the direction of engineer Darian Grubb. That momentum carried the team through the next three races as No. 48 driver Jimmie Johnson finished second at California, first at Las Vegas and sixth in Atlanta.

Knaus says it wasn't just the driver that made the No. 48 a success in 2006; it was a group effort. Doing so well in Knaus' absence "helped the guys on the team obviously and helped them realize they were capable of doing what was needed to be done," Knaus says.

With the exception of a few members, this crew has stayed intact since its first full season in 2002, which is a reflection of Knaus and his ability to treat his crew more like family than employees.

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Owner of the year: Richard Childress

Richard Childress Racing rebounded in 2006 -- with gusto. Childress, a former Cup driver, is a true American success story. After turning his driving duties over to Dale Earnhardt in 1981, Childress found his true calling as a leader, motivator and organizer and has scored more than 130 wins in NASCAR's top divisions.

Childress' ability to recruit key personnel such as aerodynamics whiz Nick Ollila from Roush Racing, engineer Nick Hayes from Formula 1 and engineer Kevin Buskirk from Robert Yates Racing has paid off. His Cup teams won six races in 2006 -- more than all of his teams had scored over the past four years combined -- and Kevin Harvick added a second Busch Series title to his resume. The performances of Harvick's and Jeff Burton's teams allowed both drivers to lead the points standings this season.

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Crew Chief of the Year: Todd Berrier

Berrier's leadership skills and influence on the No. 29 team -- along with the Nos. 07 and 31 -- has enabled Richard Childress Racing to elevate two Cup teams into the top 10 for the first time since 1999. Kevin Harvick (fourth) and Jeff Burton (seventh) posted the highest finishes by two drivers in RCR's history.

His patience with Harvick kept the entire No. 29 team focused when the pressure of the Chase was at its highest. The team began the Chase with a dominating win from the pole at New Hampshire. The performance vaulted Harvick to the points lead for the first time in his career, and Harvick remained in contention for the championship through the final race of the season.

Another strength of Berrier's is his fabricating expertise. Although the company has made tremendous gains with its engines in the past year, Berrier's ability to massage cars and dial in the chassis setups allowed Harvick to win five races.

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Comeback Driver Award: Jeff Burton

After nearly nine years and 17 wins behind the wheel of the No. 99 Ford, Jeff Burton left Roush Racing in 2004. But, at 37, Burton knew his best years still were ahead of him. He was right.

Following a four-year hiatus from a top 10 finish in the points standings, Burton is back in championship form with Richard Childress Racing. During the Chase, Burton led the standings for four of 10 weeks. An engine failure at Martinsville -- his second of the season -- knocked Burton down to fifth in points. At Texas, he blew a tire on Lap 89 and settled for a 38th-place finish and a loss of two positions in the standings to seventh in points, which is where he finished the season.


Burton's influence can be felt in RCR's resurgence. Burton is regarded as one of the series' most analytical racers and was instrumental in easing RCR toward a more engineering-based organization. The move to pair Burton with crew chief Scott Miller, an engineer, played into the driver's mechanical aptitude. With the No. 31's turnaround, Burton could return stronger in 2007.


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