November 25, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Voting is currently underway to name the Driver of the Year for 2001. The winner of the annual award is chosen by a panel of 16 journalists, with a deadline on Monday for casting votes. Actually, the panel isn't secret at all. I personally know many of them. They are all top pros and perfectly capable of picking out the best driver of 2001, even though the task can be intimidating at times.
However, I just know they are going to get it wrong this season.
History would predict that Jeff Gordon will win the award. In North America, NASCAR is a runaway favorite in terms of popularity and corporate appeal, so the Winston Cup champion has a decent chance of walking away with the honors even before any specifics are taken into consideration.
Throw in the fact that the title is Gordon's fourth, that he wasn't even challenged and that it is his first in the post Ray Evernham era - and it wouldn't seem that anybody else would have a chance. The title is also historically significant as only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have won more than four. Oh, I almost forgot. Gordon has already won the Driver of the Year award three times, each of the times that he won the Winston Cup title.
But Gordon does have some competition. The driver with the best chance of interrupting Gordon's trend of winning the award when he wins the title is Gil de Ferran, who won his second CART title this season. The Brazilian is just the fourth driver to win back-to-back championships and he had to rally past Kenny Brack for the title. De Ferran put on an amazing show of consistency down the stretch, finishing in the top five in eight of the last 10 races. He leaped in front with back-to-back wins in England and Houston.
There are drivers from other circuits that will get some votes, but they aren't likely to mount a serious campaign among voters.
John Force won six races, running his record career total to 98. He captured his 11th title, more championships than anybody else in NHRA history. Force has won the award before, in 1996 when he had perhaps the most dominate season in the history of motorsports. But it would take that kind of season for a drag racer to win the award, and it could be argued that Force didn't even have the best season in the NHRA. Ken Bernstein also had a great season. They'll likely split the drag racing vote.
No drivers from the World of Outlaws or the Indy Racing League have ever won the award, and it won't happen in 2001. Outlaw drivers don't appear enough on television to get enough support while the chances of IRL drivers suffer because of a short schedule and a lack of depth in the series.
Danny Lasoski created excitement in sprint car circles by winning the Outlaws championship, but there's been several strong performances over the course of a year. In many ways, Sam Hornish had the best season ever by an IRL driver, especially when it comes to consistency, but he won just three races. At 22, he's the youngest driver to win a major-open wheel series in North America, but his Driver of the Year award still lies in the future.
So who would get my vote - if I had one?
It wouldn't be Jeff Gordon, though I think history will ultimately judge him to be one of the top five drivers of all time. My vote would go to a NASCAR driver, someone who finished eight places behind Gordon in the final standings.
My vote would go to Kevin Harvick, who had a season that hopefully will never be duplicated. Harvick was the first driver to run full-time on both the Winston Cup and Busch circuits, excelling on both. Throw in some starts in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and Harvick started in 69 NASCAR races this season.
Harvick won the Busch championship, finishing ninth in Winston Cup despite never having a career start in the series until the second race of the season. He won two Winston Cup races, including setting a record by winning in his third start.
Those stats are impressive, but that's not why I would vote for Harvick. Several drivers, if they set their mind to it, could do just as well in a Busch-Winston Cup double. You don't think that Jeff Gordon could win a Busch title while also racing on the Winston Cup circuit? Mark Martin has challenged for a top 10 spot on the Busch circuit racing only half the races.
No, what's impressive about Harvick is that he took over the ride that belonged to Winston Cup legend Dale Earnhardt after the driver died in a crash in the Daytona 500. None of us can imagine the pressure that Harvick faced, even though his Richard Childress Racing team switched paint schemes and numbers on the car. Forget about the fans and media, who did a great job of letting Harvick find himself. Just the pressure a driver would put on himself would be unbelievable.
If it wouldn't create a sham out of the award, I would vote for Earnhardt. The reaction of the world to his death truly was the story of 2001, a pivotal moment in the history of the sport. His importance could not be overestimated.
But since I can't vote for Earnhardt, I'll cast my ballot for Harvick. He was truly the Driver of the Year in 2001.