NASCAR is big on awards. In addition to race trophies, and the Sprint Cup for the season's champ, there's the Coors Light Pole Award, the Mahle Clevite Engine Builder Award, the Mechanix Wear Most Valuable Pit Crew Award and the Montgomery Ward Most Awards Award. O.K., the last one was a joke. But there are deserving folks in the sport, and to recognize them (for better or worse) here are SI's awards for 2008.
BEST DRIVER: Jimmie Johnson
The best driver doesn't always take the Cup, but this year he did. Johnson was particularly strong when it mattered most: He won the two races leading into the Chase and then, over the final 10, produced eight finishes of ninth or better, including three more victories. He might have put a wheel wrong at some point, but if so, no one saw it.
BEST CREW CHIEF: Chad Knaus
Bob Osborne kept Carl Edwards in the hunt to the end, but Knaus simply outthought, outprepared and outmaneuvered everyone else. The Hendrick Motorsports number 48 team of Knaus, Johnson and crew just may be the best in all of sports.
BREAKOUT DRIVER: David Ragan
At Martinsville in 2006 Ragan (right), running in only his second Cup race, was involved in three incidents and afterward criticized by several drivers, including Tony Stewart, who dubbed the 20-year-old "a dart without feathers." Fast-forward to this month at Phoenix: Asked for his pick for Driver of the Year, Stewart named ... Ragan, adding, "That kid has impressed me so much." Stewart is not alone. While Ragan, who drives the number 6 Roush Fenway Ford, has yet to win a Cup race, he has driven with maturity and consistent speed. He had 14 top 10s and sewed up the $1 million prize for placing 13th in points—the highest finisher outside the 12 Chase qualifiers.
COMEBACK DRIVER: Greg Biffle
The Cup runner-up in 2005, Biffle failed to make the Chase the next two years. But this season, fully in sync with second-year crew chief Greg Erwin, the Biff was boffo from the get-go, racking up 17 top 10s, including two Chase wins, to finish fourth in points.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: Open-Wheel Drivers
Former Indy and F/1 star Juan Pablo Montoya slumped in his sophomore season, failing to win a race and winding up 25th in points (after finishing 20th in 2007, when he was Rookie of the Year). But he far outshone the open-wheelers who followed him to NASCAR in '08. Two-time Indy 500 champ Sam Hornish Jr. was the best of the lot, piloting the number 77 Penske Racing Dodge to 35th in the standings; he'll be back in '09. Champ Car standout AJ Allmendinger wound up 36th in points; he is unsigned for '09. Canadian road racer Patrick Carpentier (38th), '07 Indy Racing champ Dario Franchitti (49th) and former F/1 titlist Jacques Villeneuve (who never made a start) are out of NASCAR.
BEST FEUD: Carl Edwards vs. Kevin Harvick
After Edwards (below, right) triggered a multicar wreck in the Oct. 5 race at Talladega, Harvick ripped him in a live TV interview, working in the word pansy in the process. Edwards reacted, naturally, by leaving a sarcastic note in Harvick's airplane. "I was really trying to screw up everyone's day," he wrote, signing the note, "Love, Carl." Four days later, during Nationwide practice in Charlotte, the two got into a scuffle in the schoolyard—er, the garage area—at Lowe's Motor Speedway and had to be separated by crew members.