One Special Night

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NEW YORK – Champion Jeff Gordon may have been the big honoree at the Waldorf-Astoria, but it was the late Dale Earnhardt, Teresa Earnhardt and Garth Brooks who stole the show during the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup Awards Ceremony Friday night.

Many of the Top 10 drivers paid tribute to “The Intimidator” during the event, more than nine months after his tragic death on the final lap of the Daytona 500. But Brooks, the country music superstar, brought the packed house to tears when he paid tribute to Earnhardt with his hit song, “The Dance.”

Teresa Earnhardt, Dale’s widow, made a rare public appearance at a NASCAR event and received a rousing standing ovation, longer than any that Gordon received during the evening. She was there to accept the National Motorsports Press Association’s Most Popular Driver Award on behalf of her late husband.

Even Brooks was left teary-eyed after she spoke about the warmth she’s received from the NASCAR family since her husband’s death.

“I’ve missed all of you about as much as I’ve been told I’ve been missed,” said Teresa, who has tried to stay out of the public eye the past few months. “I don’t want anyone to be upset about Dale not being here to receive this award. He knew perfectly well the extent of his popularity in this sport, and the influence he had and will have on NASCAR for a long time to come.

“I’m so very honored and pleased to accept this award for him. He worked very hard and paid a price for doing what he wanted to do and living the life he wanted to live. I just want to thank all of you for all the love and support you’ve given me during this very tough and trying time.”

NBC’s Brian Williams, a big NASCAR fan himself, came up with perhaps the quote of the evening.

“The world seemed to stop on the last lap of the Daytona 500,” Williams said. “It was unusual at that time because we were watching Dale Earnhardt play defense for his drivers (Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr.), which is something you’d rarely see. And it was one of the worst things we’ve ever heard when Mike Helton uttered those words, ‘We’ve lost Dale Earnhardt.’”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who received a check for $441,715 from the sport’s sponsor, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for finishing eighth in the Winston Cup points standings, also had some stirring words about his late father Friday night.

“I’m overcome with grief and happiness when I reflect upon last season,” said Junior, who finished with three victories in 2001. “It’s been a year where I’ve really missed having my father to lean on for advice. But Teresa has been the Amelia Erhardt of my life, a huge inspiration. We’ve steered through some rough waters, and hopefully we can put it all behind us now and look to the future for greater things from Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Even Gordon, in his usually humble way, found time to honor Earnhardt.

“It was certainly a tough year for our sport because we lost our hero in Dale,” Gordon said. “He was a friend to so many, and what a competitor. I’ll never forget the friendship he showed me and what an affect he had on my life.”

The majority of the evening, however, belonged to Gordon, who won his fourth Winston Cup title in 2001. In addition to the $1 million he earned for winning the Winston “No Bull 5” bonus at Las Vegas in March, Gordon garnered a cool $3,787,681 in championship prize winnings from R.J. Reynolds.

“I got a little bit worried when I got here, thinking maybe they (R.J. Reynolds) might have forgotten the check,” Gordon joked. “Seriously, it’s so awesome to be back here and to be at the head table. This championship means so much, not only because it’s my fourth, but because it was a season where (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) got his 100th win, (crew chief) Robbie (Loomis) got his first championship, and it was a season where we came back from so much adversity.

“We had a tough year last year. This championship is so much like the first one we got back in 1995 because nobody expected us to win that year. I don’t think anybody expected us to win this year after what we went through the year before. We thought we were better this year, but maybe not as strong as we ended up being. We worked together as a team to win this win, and that’s what makes it so special.”

Hendrick earned his fifth Winston Cup championship as a team owner (he also had one with Terry Labonte in 1996). He was the championship team owner in both the Winston Cup Series with Gordon this year, and in the Craftsman Truck Series with driver Jack Sprague.

The championship, however, was Loomis’ first as a crew chief. Loomis spent many years at Petty Enterprises before coming over to Hendrick Motorsports this season to work with Gordon and the No. 24 DuPont team.

He couldn’t thank Gordon enough for his leadership over the course of the year.

“Jeff, you believed in us at a time that it was hard to believe in us as a team,” Loomis said. “You are the man. What an awesome, awesome driver and man Jeff Gordon is. You couldn’t ask for anyone better to drive your car.”

The Top 10 drivers and their financial rewards for finishing in their respective positions in the final points standings were: Jeff Burton, 10th, $363,404; Kevin Harvick, 9th, $484,469; Earnhardt Jr., $441,715, plus an additional $1 million for winning a Winston “No Bull 5” bonus; Rusty Wallace, 7th, $514,946; Bobby Labonte, 6th, $645,528; Dale Jarrrett, 5th, $757,876; Ricky Rudd, 4th, $880,224; Sterling Marlin, 3rd, $1,077,572; and Tony Stewart, 2nd, $1,444,920.

The Bill France Award of Excellence was presented to a surprised Jack Roush for his many contributions to the sport. The Marketing Achievement Award went to Jarrett’s sponsor, UPS, for its creativeness with its marketing of Jarrett’s race team (a.k.a., “the big brown truck”).

The True Value Man of the Year Award went to Gordon for his tireless efforts as an ambassador for the sport off the track and for his generosity to many charities.

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