BCS COMPUTER CHAMPION: Ryan Newman. Talk about quality victories, he won 11 pole positions and eight races. And unlike college football, his dominance wasn't based on the strength of Boise State's schedule.
BEST RACE: Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on March 16. Ricky Craven and Kurt Busch played bumper tag during the final five laps. They ran door-to-door with sparks flying and smoke bellowing from their cars as they crossed the finish line with Craven ahead by less than four inches.
WORST RACE: Daytona 500. Not only were there two long rain delays that finally forced the race to end 91 laps short of the scheduled finish, but there was only one lead change in the first 109 laps under green-flag conditions. It was hard to decide what was more mind-numbing: watching it rain or watching follow the leader.
WEATHER CHANNEL AWARD: Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte on May 25. A week of rain turned the parking lots into a knee-deep swamp and it turned the main event into another night of frustration. The race was cut short by 124 laps.
if johnny jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too? award: U.S. Army. Part of the pre-race show at North Carolina Speedway in February included soldiers with parachutes who were supposed to land near the stage along the front stretch. A sustained wind of 25 mph, however, sent the jumpers all over the place. One landed on the track and broke his leg. Another landed in the motor home compound. One landed on top of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s transporter. Others landed in the parking lot outside the track. The Army said the stiff wind was within its tolerances, but that was little consolation to those who were blown so far off course they missed a one-mile speedway and the others who ended up in the hospital.
BROKEN PROMISE AWARD: NASCAR and its drivers. In developing a ''hot'' pit pass to reduce the number of fans in the garage area and pit road during periods when cars are on the track, the sanctioning body said it would work with the drivers to make them more accessible for autographs when the cars aren't on the track. What happened? Everyone used golf carts to run away from fans and the sport took yet another step away from the perception that its stars are accessible.
BIGGEST BOONDOGGLE AWARD: NASCAR's Realignment, 2003 and Beyond. The sanctioning body said it would look hard at the racing schedule and reposition some races to take better advantage of television and regional support. In reality, it was a way to give California Speedway a second race at the expense of North Carolina Speedway without addressing its broken promise to Texas Motor Speedway for a second date.
KNIFE AT A GUNFIGHT AWARD: Kurt Busch. After hitting Jimmy Spencer on the track at 190 mph with hopes of caving in his front fender, the 150-pound driver then threatened Spencer, a former all-star football player in Pennsylvania, after the race. One punch later, the fight was over. Busch had a bloody nose and Spencer had a one-race suspension from the circuit.
MOST IMPROVED DRIVER: Tony Stewart. He might have won the championship in 2002, but Stewart seemed to have more fun this year. He was a lot less combative and seemed appreciative of the respect he's earned on the racetrack. He also gave Kyle Petty's Victory Junction Gang Camp a $1 million donation.
EARLY FAVORITE FOR 2004 CHAMPIONSHIP: Jimmie Johnson. He has the best mix of winning and consistency on the circuit.
FINAL LAP AWARDS: Heartfelt and tearful goodbyes to some dear friends like series sponsor R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston brand, Unocal 76, Bob Latford and Sammy Packard. After 33 years, Winston will be replaced with Nextel Communications next season. Unocal 76, which has provided NASCAR with gasoline for 55 years, will be replaced by Sunoco. Latford, historian and father of the current point system, and Packard, the last surviving member of NASCAR's original organizing group, can't be replaced. But they will be remembered.
Reach Don Coble at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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