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Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt honored as NASCAR closes 2016

Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto racing awards Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. speaks during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto racing awards Friday, Dec. 2, 2016, in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)
By Mike Cranston Associated Press

LAS VEGAS – Jimmie Johnson called winning a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup title “insane” Friday night, while Tony Stewart was sent off into retirement and Dale Earnhardt Jr. told his adoring fans at the season-ending banquet that he’ll be ready to race in 2017.

Johnson’s dramatic victory in the finale last month at Homestead moved him into a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most series championships. Johnson was introduced by 23-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps at the Wynn Las Vegas.

“I’ve won as many championships as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but I’ll never be the King or the Intimidator,” Johnson said. “I’m just a guy from California who always wanted to race.”

NASCAR honored Stewart, who retired after an 18-year career that included three series championships, with a video poking fun at his coarse language, weight and temper and with a surprise appearance by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder.

Car owner Rick Hendrick then announced a $1.8 million donation by the the motorsports industry to Vedder’s children charity in Stewart’s name.

“Totally caught off guard,” Stewart said. “But really honored that Eddie Vedder would come here for this and I’m so excited the racing community raised that kind of money to help that charity.”

Earnhardt Jr. was voted most popular driver by fans for a record 14th time despite missing the second half of the season following at least the fifth concussion of his career. While not announcing the date or track, he intends to drive a test session this month, the final hurdle before he’ll be cleared to return.

“It made the bad days better,” Earnhardt said of the unending fan support. “Once I started feeling good about coming back, it gave me a lot of motivation and maybe a reminder of why I want to be back in the car. You race to have fun and win races, but it wouldn’t be worth even making the trip if the fans didn’t show up.”

The unflappable Johnson was in his tuxedo more than two hours before the red carpet ceremony smiling for numerous photo shoots. He knows how the process works as the 2016 title secures his spot atop the sport’s hierarchy.

“This was an emotional one,” Johnson said, adding the final laps at Homestead were “the most spiritual experience that I’ve ever had in my life.”

Stewart enjoyed his final awards week before becoming just a NASCAR team owner. His boyhood hero, A.J. Foyt, made a surprise appearance at a Thursday fan event that turned into an impromptu Stewart roast as the sport said goodbye to one of its strongest characters.

“It’s just been one hell of a journey, a lot of fun,” Stewart said. “Everybody keeps saying I’m retiring, but I’m still going to be the same pain in the (rear) with all the NASCAR officials. I’m certain there’s already a pool going on back there at the NASCAR officials’ table on what the over-under is for me getting called to the trailer as an owner.”

Earnhardt sustained a concussion in a June 12 wreck at Michigan. His last start was July 9 at Kentucky as he continued to suffer serious aftereffects that included balance and vision problems.

Earnhardt, who missed the final 18 races, stopped taking medication in October. He’s confident he’ll be healthy for drive the No. 88 Chevrolet in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 26. His busy offseason will include getting married on New Year’s Eve and also participating in January’s testing session at Phoenix.

“We’ll get out there and spend half a day somewhere running some long runs and getting a good idea if I’m ready to go,” Earnhardt said. “I feel 100 percent. I don’t think there will be any issues.”

Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez and Craftsman Truck Series winner Johnny Sauter were also reconginzed at the black tie banquet that included a musical performance by Sting and was hosted by comedian Jay Mohr for the sixth time.

“Sorry it’s not seven,” Mohr told Johnson.

It also marked the final event sponsored by Sprint in NASCAR’s top series. Sprint’s yellow and black logo, splashed all over the casino ballroom and above the red carpet, will be replaced by Monster Energy’s green-clawed `M’ in 2017.

Sprint and the company it merged with, Nextel, sponsored the series since 2004. “That’s 13 years, kindergarten through 12th grade,” Sprint corporate marketing chief Steve Gaffney said. “Thank you.”

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