NASCAR pays tribute to champions, other honorees in 2020 Awards special

NASCAR’s three national-series champions and other honorees were recognized Wednesday evening in the 2020 NASCAR Awards celebration.

It may have lacked the red carpet and some of the trappings of a full-fledged toast with a Nashville twang, but NASCAR cheered its champions and other honorees in style Wednesday evening with a new-look 2020 NASCAR Awards celebration.

Cup Series champion Chase Elliott was the final guest of honor, joining Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series title-winner Sheldon Creed among those receiving recognition in the 90-minute special. The show replaced the traditional Champion’s Week festivities in Nashville, Tennessee, after COVID-19’s spread forced its cancelation.

But some traditions remained intact, with Elliott taking the last curtain call as the newly crowned Cup Series champ. Even after his victory in the Phoenix Raceway finale and a roaring welcome in his triumphant return to his hometown of Dawsonsville, Georgia, the 23-year-old driver said the magnitude of reaching the sport’s pinnacle still hasn’t sunk in.

“It’s been amazing,” Elliott said. “I feel like everything I could ever ask for and then some in these last two weeks have just been incredible. I feel like it’s still kind of a dream and things are not real. So, just been trying to take it all in.”

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NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kelli Stavast hosted the event, and NASCAR president Steve Phelps joined vice president of racing development Ben Kennedy in presenting awards and acknowledgements. But the event did summon some of the musical flair Nashville is known for, as Chris Stapleton opened the special with the TV debut of his song, “Arkansas.”

Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson was honored with a tribute and one of the sport’s highest accolades, the Bill France Award of Excellence. The trophy, which recognizes extraordinary accomplishments and contributions to stock-car racing, is not awarded annually. This year, the presentation coincided with the end of Johnson’s full-time racing career.

And because no NASCAR Awards show would be complete without a celebrity surprise, actor Matthew McConaughey made an appearance with a video message for Johnson, saying that “in triumph or defeat, he always exuded the class that made us proud to be fans of this great sport.”

NASCAR also revealed the winners of this year’s NMPA Most Popular Driver Awards, with Elliott leading the way in the Cup Series for the third consecutive year. Justin Allgaier repeated as the top vote-getter in the Xfinity Series, and rookie Zane Smith was honored as most popular in Gander Trucks.

Smith was doubly recognized, formally introduced as the series’ Sunoco Rookie of the Year after securing the honor during NASCAR’s championship weekend earlier this month. Cole Custer (Cup Series) and Harrison Burton (Xfinity Series) were the other honorees.

In other awards and recognitions presented during Wednesday’s special:

• Bubba Wallace was recognized as the 2020 Comcast Community Champion of the Year, with a $60,000 donation made to his Live to Be Different Foundation. The award, which honors NASCAR industry members for their philanthropic work, was initially presented Nov. 6.

• Charlene Greer, representing the Boys & Girls Clubs of Volusia and Flagler (Florida) counties, was hailed for winning the 10th annual Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award on Nov. 5. The NASCAR Foundation awarded Greer’s charity a $100,000 contribution.

• NASCAR’s four premier partners — Busch, Coca-Cola, GEICO, Xfinity — were honored with the 2020 NASCAR Marketing Achievement Award.

• Ford was recognized for winning the manufacturer’s championship in the Cup Series. Chevrolet took top automaker honors in the Xfinity Series and Gander Trucks.

• Each national-series champion was presented with a gold 1/12-scale replica of his title-winning vehicle from Goodyear. All three champions were also honored with the Sunoco Diamond Performance Award.