By Reid Spencer
LAS VEGAS – Friday night’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards gala at the Wynn Las Vegas honored series champion Kyle Busch for one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of professional sports.
But Busch, car owner Joe Gibbs and champion crew chief Adam Stevens had to share the stage and the limelight with retiring four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who bade a tearful farewell after 23 full-time seasons and 797 consecutive races in NASCAR’s premier series — complete with a surprise introduction by mega movie star Tom Cruise.
The awards banquet capped an extraordinary year for Busch, who missed the first 11 events of the season after breaking his right leg and left foot when his No. 54 Toyota plowed into a concrete wall inside Turn 1 at Daytona International Speedway in the NASCAR XFINITY Series season opener.
Against all odds, Busch returned to action at Charlotte in May and proceeded to win five of the final 25 races, including the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the event that made him a champion.
“We’ve all heard the old saying ‘Break a leg!’ which means, you’re wishing someone good luck in show biz,” Busch said. “Well, as I stand here today and think about how lucky I am, I can say without a doubt, that breaking a leg AND a foot works just as good in racing.
“One day, I went from being able to win races, to the next where I was just thinking about how I was going to be able to walk into the delivery room with (wife) Samantha to be a part of the birth of our son Brexton. I can’t thank Dr. Todd McCall and Dr. Bob Anderson for putting me back together as well as they did. Anyone looking to have leg or foot surgery, just ask for the Kyle Busch special.”
The surgery and extensive rehabilitation paid off, as Busch was able to hold off defending series champion Kevin Harvick in the Championship Round race at Homestead.
Cruise, who played California driver Cole Trickle in the movie “Days of Thunder” (an interloper much as Vallejo, California native Gordon was when he came to stock car racing in the early 1990s), summed up Gordon’s stature as a champion driver and a statesman for the sport in one sentence.
“He felt as comfortable discussing a championship with George Bush as he did breaking down a Homestead race with Kyle Busch,” said Cruise, who went on to introduce Gordon as “my friend, the four-time champion, the legend — Jeff Gordon.”
After Cruise’s appearance came another surprise. NASCAR Chairman & CEO Brian France conferred the seldom given Bill France Award on the retiring champion, an recognition that had not been presented since Gordon’s car owner, Rick Hendrick, was honored in 2009.
“You’re the very definition of a champion, and quite simply, you changed the sport for the better,” France said.
Indeed, Gordon’s most emotional moment during a heartfelt speech came when he choked back tears while thanking Rick and Linda Hendrick for hiring him in the first place.
“Rick and Linda Hendrick, thank you so much for choosing me to be your driver,” said Gordon, who finished third in the championship standings. “I’m so proud to say I only drove for one car owner – and the best car owner – my entire Sprint Cup career.”
Fourth-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. provided another emotional moment when he spoke of long-time partner Sherry Pollex’s battle against ovarian cancer.
“I’d like to thank Sharon, Sherry’s mom, and her family for their incredible support throughout Sherry’s battle,” Truex said. “Sherry, I can’t thank you enough for being in my life, you’re a true inspiration and I love you very much.”