The Winner Is...
Our rundown on the best and worst of the racing world this season
Now that NASCAR's arduous nine-month Winston Cup Series has
concluded--it began on Feb. 14 and ended on Sunday--it's time to
consider the high and low points of an eventful year in motor
sports. Hence, we present SI's year-end awards, in which we try
to make sense of the best and worst performances on all the
major racing circuits. From profound accomplishments to dubious
distinctions, from true excellence to pretty bad behavior, we've
tried to give credit (and blame) everywhere it's due.
DRIVER OF THE YEAR Although Formula One champion Mika Hakkinen
and CART champ Juan Pablo Montoya had outstanding seasons,
NASCAR's Dale Jarrett gets the nod. Jarrett won his first Winston
Cup title at the twilight age of 42 after 15 hard-knock years on
the tour, during which he never complained or sulked in the face
of criticism and doubt from the public and the media.
MVP Todd Parrott, Jarrett's crew chief, prepped the team's
Tauruses so well that none had a major mechanical failure all
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR This one is a toss-up between CART's Montoya
and NASCAR's Tony Stewart. Montoya, 24, won seven races while
becoming only the second rookie ever to win a CART championship.
(Nigel Mansell did it in 1993, at age 40, after a distinguished
career on the F/1 circuit.) Stewart, 28, won three races in the
fender-bending Winston Cup series, the most ever by a rookie.
DYNASTY CUP CART team owner Chip Ganassi, who earned a fourth
consecutive CART championship. Ganassi won with Jimmy Vasser in
'96, with Alex Zanardi in '97 and '98, and with Montoya this
SORE LOSER AWARD Goodyear, for ceasing to manufacture tires for
CART and the IRL, effective next season, after getting trounced
by Firestone in '99.
MOST UNDERRATED PERFORMANCE Jeff Gordon, who failed to add a
third straight championship to his resume but still led all
NASCAR drivers with seven victories this year and earned $5.3
NERO GOLDEN FIDDLE Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony
George, for rejecting CART's every overture for reconciliation
while open-wheel racing is falling apart around him, besieged by
declining attendance and poor TV ratings.
WAFFLE IRON Formula One's governing body, which ruled after the
Oct. 17 Malaysian Grand Prix that Eddie Irvine's Ferrari was
illegal--in effect allowing Hakkinen to clinch his second world
title--only to declare the Ferrari legal upon appeal, putting
Irvine back atop the points standings as F/1 prepared for the
season-ending Grand Prix of Japan on Oct. 31.
DRY ICE AWARD Hakkinen, for remaining cool enough to lead the
Grand Prix of Japan from start to finish and take the world
CAREER GAMBLER AWARD Ray Evernham, Gordon's former crew chief,
who bailed out of Hendrick Motorsports just as he was about to
be made boss of the three-driver team. Evernham will try to
build a winning team with DaimlerChrysler, which enters the
Winston Cup fray in 2001.
BLACK BART RIDES AGAIN AWARD Dale Earnhardt, for returning to
his roguish form in wrecking Terry Labonte to win the Aug. 28
Goody's 500 at Bristol, Tenn.
QUOTE OF THE YEAR "I don't know whether I have any more tears."
Team owner Robert Yates upon winning his first Winston Cup
championship after enduring the death of Davey Allison in a
helicopter crash in '93 and life-threatening injuries to Ernie
Irvan in '94.
WRONG FOOT AWARD NBC, for its dull and confusing debut at
Winston Cup telecasting, the Nov. 14 Pennzoil 400 at
Homestead-Miami, three days after the network announced its
long-term commitment to broadcasting NASCAR races.
SLICK OPERATOR AWARD Speedway Motorsports Inc. president H.A.
Wheeler, who cajoled the struggling IRL into agreeing to
reimburse Speedway for any losses it might suffer due to poor
attendance at IRL races held at its Atlanta and Las Vegas tracks
Lest We Forget
A Tragic Year At the Tracks
Tragedy struck motor racing especially hard in 1999. CART was
devastated in one 51-day stretch--first by the death of rookie
driver Gonzalo Rodriguez, 27, in a crash during practice at
Laguna Seca, Calif., on Sept. 11, then by the death of rising
star Greg Moore, 24, in an Oct. 31 wreck during the Marlboro 500
at California Speedway. This came in a season that had already
been marred by the deaths of three fans and injuries to eight
others when debris from a crash flew into the grandstands during
the IRL's VisionAire 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 1.
All told, it was the deadliest year for drivers since 1994, when
F/1 titan Ayrton Senna and rookie Roland Ratzenberger were
killed during the San Marino Grand Prix weekend in Imola, Italy,
and budding NASCAR star Irvan suffered life-threatening injuries
in a crash at Michigan Speedway.
NASCAR's Hottest Twosome
Beware Labonte And Stewart
There's no doubt which Winston Cup team will carry the most
momentum into 2000: The terrific tandem of Bobby Labonte and
Stewart made Joe Gibbs Racing the winningest stable on the tour
from June through Sunday's season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta, in
which Labonte won for the fifth time this season. Labonte ended
the year with 18 top three finishes, while Stewart won three
times. Their eight victories matched those of the duo of Jeff
Gordon and Terry Labonte with Hendrick Motorsports, and Jeff
Burton and Mark Martin with Jack Roush Racing. What's more,
Bobby Labonte, 35, and Stewart, 28, accomplished all this while
driving Pontiacs, long considered the underdog brand in NASCAR.
Next season looks even brighter for the Gibbs team because
Pontiac's racing version of the Grand Prix will remain the same
while Ford and Chevy will be shaking down redesigned Tauruses
and Monte Carlos, respectively. "There's a learning curve that
both Ford and Chevrolet teams have to go through," says Pontiac
Motorsports manager Fred Simmonds. "We're there."
Moreover, Stewart has been the most dazzling rookie NASCAR has
ever known--better even than Gordon, who didn't win at all in
his first year--and he shows the same sort of talent Earnhardt
did 20 years ago. Owing to his dirt-track background, Stewart is
fearless and almost flawless in a "loose" (oversteering) car.
That condition is disturbing to most drivers, but it is the
quickest way to get around a track.
Assuming that Labonte and Stewart continue to get along and that
NASCAR doesn't change any technical requirements and thus negate
Pontiac's advantage next season, the duo should dominate. Their
relationship came under scrutiny at the Pennzoil 400 on Nov. 14,
during which Stewart bumped Labonte as they were running
side-by-side late in the race. Labonte brushed off the incident
as inconsequential. "I don't think it mattered," he said. "I
couldn't have beaten him anyway." For his part, Stewart was
apologetic, admitting he had made a rookie mistake.
They may make next year's Winston Cup title race a duel of
teammates. "In all honesty," says Stewart, "I would like to see
Bobby win a championship before I do. Bobby's been running a
long time [seven full seasons on the tour], and I feel like I've
got a lot of years left--assuming I don't bang the wall too many
times--to get mine."
Petty Team to Return in Dodges
Petty Enterprises is expected to join Dodge's reentry into
NASCAR in 2001, as soon as the two entities announce the
reunion. Richard Petty stopped driving Dodges in 1978, when he
switched to Chevy. Since 1982 Petty Enterprises has been with
Pontiac. The 2001 Petty team should include fourth-generation
driver Adam Petty, Richard's grandson, in his first full Winston
Cup season; his father, Kyle; and John Andretti, Mario's
nephew.... H. Clay Earles, founder of Martinsville (Va.)
Speedway, the oldest and smallest active track on the Winston
Cup tour, died on Nov. 16 after a yearlong illness. He was 86.
Earles opened the track in 1947, the year before NASCAR
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN Jarrett enjoyed a career year, winning four Winston Cup races while earning $3.6 million.
COLOR PHOTO: SAM SHARPE Stewart (20) and Labonte won a total of eight races, including three in a row to end the year.