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Sport NASCAR Awards: Driver of the Year, Best Finish, more honors for the top moments of the 2022 season

13:20  01 december  2022
13:20  01 december  2022 Source:   cbssports.com

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One month after the checkered flag flew and a Joey Logano was crowned champion in Phoenix, the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season and its many triumphs will be celebrated at Champions' Week in Nashville, Tenn. The annual awards banquet will see the sport's top drivers not only be recognized, but also earn some additional recognitions and titles for their performance from the start of February to the end of the season in November.

  NASCAR Awards: Driver of the Year, Best Finish, more honors for the top moments of the 2022 season © Provided by CBS Sports

The handing out of the awards on record is the jurisdiction of NASCAR as well as the awards' presenting sponsors, but that doesn't mean we can't hand out some awards of our own. Here are CBS Sports' awards for the top performers, top moments and more from the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season.

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Driver of the Year: Ross Chastain

Before the season began, there was a pretty good sense of who Ross Chastain was and what he was capable of. Through years of overachieving in lesser equipment, the consensus was that Chastain was a talented driver who made his way on merit, and one that was capable of taking the better equipment he worked his way into and winning at least one Cup race with it.

But in only his second season running all 36 Cup Series races, Chastain performed at a level that even his fiercest advocates may not have expected him to. Not only did Chastain earn the first two wins of his career at Circuit of the Americas and Talladega, but he also led all drivers in top-five (15) and top-10 finishes (21), led the fourth-most laps of all drivers (692) and had the second-best average finish of all drivers (13.3).

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In many of the season's top moments or greatest conflicts, Chastain was a central character. His stand-your-ground, unapologetically aggressive style of driving harkened back to an era where rubbin' was racin', and it earned him just as many fans as it earned him enemies on the racetrack. And that was before he risked life and limb to make the Championship 4 and produce one of the greatest highlights in NASCAR playoff history at Martinsville.

If any single driver defined the 2022 season, it was Ross Chastain and his arrival as one of stock car racing's best.

Crew Chief of the Year: Adam Stevens

From 2015 until 2020, Adam Stevens had one of the most lucrative crew chief jobs in NASCAR, turning the wrenches and calling the shots for Kyle Busch and winning two Cup Series championships in the process of being paired with one of the most brilliant individual talents in the sport. But after a down year in 2020 where the pair barely avoided going winless, Stevens was given a new assignment to see if he could develop a young and still-fledgling Christopher Bell into a championship-caliber driver.

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Based on the results of this season, Stevens has done just that. Bell took a third-year leap that saw him earn three wins -- two of which were greatly aided by late pit strategy calls by Stevens -- 12 top fives and 20 top 10s en route to his first Championship 4 appearance and a third-place finish in the final standings. Bell also tied for the most poles with three, a clear testament to the speed of his cars and the work done throughout the week and at the racetrack by Stevens and his crew.

Team of the Year: Trackhouse Racing

For the longest time, the balance of power among NASCAR race teams has amounted to an oligarchy of powerhouse race shops that have gone almost entirely unchallenged -- until now.

The vision of Trackhouse Racing owner Justin Marks, a former journeyman driver, has been transgressive and transformative for an industry that had stagnated and needed new ideas from new power players. But more than bringing on a celebrity co-owner in Pitbull and buying Chip Ganassi Racing's entire NASCAR operation, Trackhouse has become a force in NASCAR through what it accomplished on the racetrack in 2022. Both of its cars finished in the top 10, with both Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez leading the rising tide of Trackhouse to the best seasons of their respective careers.

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Trackhouse also began to exercise its plans to move the needle in NASCAR with the introduction of Project91 for international drivers, a program that brought former Formula 1 world champion Kimi Raikkonen to the Cup Series field at Watkins Glen in August. Trackhouse has earned a seat at the table, and 2022 likely only marks the beginning of what could be NASCAR's team of the future.

Race of the Year: Coca-Cola 600

Few runnings of NASCAR's longest and most arduous race were anything like the 2022 edition of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May. After many years of a 400-lap slog featuring long intervals in action, this year's Coke 600 was action-packed from virtually start to finish.

The lead changed hands a total of 31 times among 13 different drivers, with the yellow flag flying 18 times for everything from spins while battling for the lead to a car upside down and rolling over. By the time Chase Briscoe spun trying to make the winning pass on Kyle Larson to set up overtime, it already looked like an instant classic was at hand -- and that was before the leaders went four-wide coming to the white flag, leading to a crash that set up one final restart.

By the end, Denny Hamlin held off Kyle Busch in a dramatic battle on the final lap to win at the end of 413 laps and 619.5 miles -- the longest race in NASCAR history and one of the greatest runnings of one of the sport's crown jewel events.

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Best Finish: Bristol Dirt Race

Few things in racing are more dramatic than when the two leaders crash while racing for the win in the final corner. And the addition of dirt only enhanced that at Bristol Motor Speedway on Easter. As Tyler Reddick sought to get through the last corner cleanly and pick up his first career win, Chase Briscoe made one last-ditch effort to try and put a slide-job on him in turns three and four. Briscoe couldn't make it stick, sending him spinning around before clipping Reddick and spinning the leader as well.

Momentarily, it appeared that Reddick might be able to putter back to the finish line and win anyway after straightening his car out. But he ran out of time before Kyle Busch, running third and coming at full song, shot by him just before the checkered flag and stole his only win of the 2022 season, his last at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Most Dominant Performance: Joey Logano at Phoenix

Joey Logano led more than 100 laps in a race just three times in his championship season. And of those three, there was only one time where it was clear and obvious that he had the absolute best car in the field: the time that paid.

After winning the pole for NASCAR's championship race at Phoenix, Joey Logano showed immediately that he was the class of the field, leading 187 of 312 laps and never truly losing control of the championship battle. As his other contenders had to play catchup, Logano set the pace all day in his season's ultimate tour de force, eventually driving off into the sunset to win his second Cup Series title with one of the finest races any driver drove in 2022.

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Gutsiest Performance: Christopher Bell in crunch time

Winning an elimination race when doing so is your only option of advancing through the NASCAR playoffs has been done before. But it takes a special sort of resilience to do it once and then do it again in the same playoff run. That's what Christopher Bell did in the Round of 12 and Round of 8 on his way to the Championship 4.

After a crash at Texas and trouble at Talladega, Bell's playoff run was going to come to an end unless he could win at the Charlotte Roval, which he did thanks to a late-race pit call for fresh tires. Then, a crash in the first race of the Round of 8 helped put Bell in the same position at Martinsville -- and he won again in very similar fashion, using fresher tires to take the lead in the closing laps and never look back.

Top Underdog Performance: Corey LaJoie at Atlanta

After five drivers earned their first career wins in the first half of the season, the Cup Series had virtually been running out of surprise winners and feel-good storylines. Then, Corey LaJoie almost became the sixth, and he almost turned the landscape of the NASCAR playoff picture completely on its head.

At Atlanta in July, LaJoie emerged as one of the strongest cars in the draft, spending much of the second half of the race at the front and leading 19 laps as he and his Spire Motorsports team took the fight to much more established drivers and organizations. On the final restart with three laps to go, it was LaJoie in the lead and looking to score what would have been a stunning upset -- one that came a Chase Elliott block away from happening on the final lap.

Pit Road Moment of the Year: Erik Jones' crew at Kansas

Being on a NASCAR pit crew requires great strength and reflexes, a daring disregard for running around in live traffic, and just enough ingenuity to get the job done when things get strange. The latter was illustrated writ large at Kansas Speedway in May, when Erik Jones' Petty GMS crew exhibited arguably the best pit road repair job seen the entire season.

Midway through that race, the lug nut on Jones' right rear wheel became so tightly fastened that it was impossible for his crew to get it off and change his right rear tire. Every power tool imaginable then came out, as the Petty GMS crew eventually ended up cutting the wheel off entirely with a sawzall blade -- ruining the team's race, but getting Jones back on track and earning themselves quite a few attaboys among those who work in the pits.

Greater glory was ahead for Jones' crew, as a sub-10 second final pit stop in the Southern 500 got Jones out second, putting him in a position to take the lead when race leader Kyle Busch's engine blew under caution.

Moment of the Year: Hail Melon

There were 19 different winners in 2022, tying a NASCAR record. Every single driver who competed for the championship had at least one finish inside the top 10. But nothing any driver did mattered more than what one driver was willing to do to finish fourth.

Running 10th entering the final corner at Martinsville in October, there was seemingly nothing Ross Chastain could conceivably do to make up the points deficit to Denny Hamlin and make the Championship 4 in Phoenix. So Chastain shifted into fifth gear, put his throttle to the floorboard and tried to make something happen. Sure enough, Chastain's car carried an extreme amount of speed as it wrapped around the wall, allowing him to pass five cars in one corner and beat Hamlin back to the start/finish line to make the Championship 4 by one point.

Chastain's move quickly became one of the greatest highlights of NASCAR's playoff era, one of the most iconic individual driving moments in NASCAR's 75-year history, and perhaps offered a striking, lasting visual that will long encapsulate the season that was in 2022.

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