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The best, worst and memorable moments of '07 so far

The best, worst and memorable moments of '07 so far

The best, worst and memorable moments of '07 so far

NASCAR may be built on fast cars and heart-stopping action, but no amount of speed can cause the sport to escape the ultimate stopwatch ... Father Time. While it's hard to believe the season is halfway complete, there's still plenty of time to look back at the memories before looking toward the future. That's what the Bowlesys are for; now in their second year, we look back at the good, the bad and the ugly of 2007 while getting you ready for a second half of stock car racing excitement.

So, without further ado...

The Richard Petty Award (best points racer): Jeff Gordon. In a year where Hendrick Motorsports has dominated the circuit, Gordon's season has stood out as the shining star. Blowing away the competition to the tune of a 277-point margin in the championship standings, Gordon's consistency has defined his year -- he's currently running up a streak of 13 top-10 finishes in the last 14 races. As colleague Lars Anderson wrote in his SI article last week, Gordon's emotional well-being has led to a driver focused on the track and balanced off it; a new baby and a new wife have Gordon riding high on the road of life as well as Victory Lane. Without a doubt, this year's Drive For Five seems to be headed toward a road paved with gold. Unless the team hits bad luck come Chase time, a fifth title is clearly Gordon's to lose.

The David Pearson Award (hardest charger): Gordon. It's rare to take more than one top award here at the Bowlesys, but Gordon's season has simply been that good. He leads all drivers with 764 laps led. In this category, though, Gordon's got crew chief Steve Letarte to thank for putting him in position to charge to the front. All too often this season, we've seen the DuPont Chevrolet car fall behind early, only for Letarte to make the right adjustments on the final pit stop to get the car right where it needs to be. He's no slouch when it comes to strategy, either; who can forget Letarte's call to leave the No. 24 on the track at Darlington with an engine on the fritz, giving Gordon clean air when he needed it the most? What about rolling the dice and pitting Gordon off sequence at Pocono, handing the team a win when the rains came pouring down? Letarte's maneuvers have helped lead to a change in Gordon's on-track persona, bumping the driver's aggression in line with the crew chief. Even when he's runner-up, the Rainbow Warrior is all fired up, turning Jimmie Johnson's bumper into a piece of scrap metal en route to running second at Martinsville this April.

The Tim Richmond Award (comeback driver of the year): Jamie McMurray. Martin Truex Jr. comes close in this category, tearing up the circuit to the tune of four podium finishes over the past month ... but what keeps him from taking home the Bowlesy is that his job was never in jeopardy. On the contrary, the word "fired" was read early and often by McMurray in his first year with Roush, a tenure that left him 25th in points and had virtually every member of the media calling for his head. How did McMurray respond to the pressure? Taking on the task of rebuilding his team his way; personally reaching out to hire crew chief Larry Carter, handpicking crew members and returning to the track in shape and in tune with what was going on at Roush. The result of all those changes? Three top fives, seven top-10s and 13th in points, a comeback that peaked with a dramatic win at Daytona Saturday night.

The Davey Allison Award (top rookie): Juan Pablo Montoya. I'm tempted to pick no one in this category, as none of the rookies have really stood out; Montoya and David Ragan have earned reputations for wrecking drivers who cross their paths instead of respect for solid finishes. But while none of the freshmen will come close to making the Chase, you have to give Montoya the nod for his surprising fuel mileage win at Sonoma, extending the streak of Nextel Cup rookies winning a race to eight of the last nine years.

The Carl Edwards Award (pleasant surprise): Denny Hamlin. After a season of overachieving in '06, most expected Hamlin's second year in Cup to go the way of Carl Edwards -- the dreaded sophomore slump. Instead, Hamlin's taken one step forward, not one step back, establishing himself as the biggest challenger to Gordon on the heels of one win and the most laps led in Car of Tomorrow events.

The Buckshot Jones Award (biggest disappointment): Kasey Kahne. How could you go with anyone else? From six wins in '06 to just six top-20 finishes in '07, Kahne's had a downfall of epic proportions. With Dodge's new nose giving Evernham Motorsports fits, rumors are hot and heavy Kahne (26th in points) is looking for an out.

The Jayski Award (best move): Casey Mears to Hendrick Motorsports. At first, it looked like Mears' move away from Chip Ganassi would turn out to be a disaster; he spent the first two months struggling to simply stay in the top 35 with Hendrick's No. 25 team, hitting a low point in April when best friend and teammate Jimmie Johnson spun him out of contention at Talladega. But he used that as a rallying point for what's been a startling turnaround; Mears won at Charlotte to start a streak of three top fives in the last seven races, leaving him an outside contender for the Chase in a season that's now looking nowhere but up.

The Breaking News Award (biggest story to watch): Where Kyle Busch Goes. Never one to shy away from controversy, Busch's move will cause more dominoes to fall in a Silly Season hanging on his every move. If he lands at Ganassi, that will send Reed Sorenson or David Stremme to the sidelines. Should he head to Joe Gibbs, that will leave J.J. Yeley looking for work. If he lands at Richard Childress Racing -- well, you can only imagine the temper tantrum Kevin Harvick will hold in-house. And if he lands at current frontrunner Dale Earnhardt, Inc. -- could we see a driver swap between himself and Dale Earnhardt Jr. before the end of the year? Clearly, the man holds destiny -- and the next chapter of the NASCAR soap opera -- squarely in his hands.

The Dale Earnhardt Sr. Award (best on-track altercation): Anything involving Newman and Montoya. Ever since these two drivers "met" on the track last November -- a beating and banging session that ended with Montoya's car in the wall and on fire -- these two have looked at each other with more hatred than Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in their darkest hour. Anytime the two come close to each other on the track, there's been action worthy of a heavyweight fight; if you're ever watching from the stands, just wait for the two to come close and then watch the fireworks begin. It's truly a NASCAR battle royale.

The Tony Stewart Award (best off-track altercation):Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart. Stewart and Busch have seemed to be magnetically attracted this year -- they started off their seasons by taking each other out while leading the Daytona 500. At Dover four months later, they came a little too close a second time -- wrecking each other while running in the top 10. Busch's response to the wreckage? Trying to run his car into the side of Stewart's on pit road -- nearly taking out a crew member in the process. It was a dangerous move worthy of a suspension -- too bad NASCAR didn't have the guts to follow through with one.

The Darrell Waltrip Award (quote of the year): A.J. Allmendinger, when interviewed after his qualifying lap at Darlington Raceway: "I can't even speak after that qualifying lap -- I'm still shaking ... and this place is just wicked. Who designed this place? How many laps do I have to do tomorrow night? I just don't know what to say about this track. It's like jumping off a cliff."

sportsillustrated.cnn.com

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