Force, Larson, Newgarden, Verstappen Vie for Driver of the Year ESPY

For the movie crowd, awards shows happen in winter when there’s little else to notice. For sports stars, it’s the summer months that galvanize the awards givers in earnest.

To whit, the annual ESPY awards voting is happening right now and the athletes nominated in the Best Driver category have been revealed. As expected, Formula One’s Max Verstappen of Red Bull Racing is one of the noms, as he took his second straight championship in 2022 (and this one without the help of stewards).

The ESPY Awards also nominated Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, a two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion who took his first Indianapolis 500 victory this past May driving the No. 2 Chevrolet-powered Dallara, giving team owner Roger Penske his 19th Indy 500 championship.

From the NASCAR ranks, the ESPY noms noted the ascendance of Kyle Larson, driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 in Cup Series competition. Larson, who was banished for nearly a year when he allowed his words to overrule his actions, earned the Cup Series championship in 2021 but didn’t make the final four last season.

Finally, for the second time in her career, Brittany Force has been nominated for Driver of the Year. Catching the award-givers attention in her first, 2017 championship season, Force got the nod then as the second woman to win an NHRA Top Fuel championship – and the first to do so in 35 years. Force’s predecessor was three-time champ Shirley Muldowney.

Max Verstappen has won the last two Formula One championships with Red Bull Racing – Getty Images photo

All of these nominations make sense. Verstappen, a second generation racer whose father Jos also raced in F1, albeit not with the right team and not with the success his son has enjoyed, has been with Red Bull since he joined F1 and has benefited from the team’s ability to coach and develop a driver. While he doesn’t necessarily enjoy the same respect engendered to four-time F1 champion with Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel, the driver does have the success that comes with the right team at the right time. Those P1 qualifying efforts don’t hurt either!

Choosing to honor the 107th Indy 500 winner, Tennessean Newgarden, over reigning two-time champion Will Power was likely an easy choice for ESPN. After all, no matter how many championships an INDYCAR driver might earn, it’s victory on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval the last weekend in May that people will always remember. Once you’ve won Indy, you’ve made it. And once you’ve won once, a second victory is icing on a cake. Just ask Roger Penske, team owner to both Power and Newgarden – he makes a charm for wife Kathy with every Indy 500 win. That necklace has got to be heavy!

Josef Newgarden, a two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champ, won his first Indianapolis 500 this May – Anne Proffit photo

Like most racers, Kyle Larson grew up in the sport, attending his first race with his parents when he was only one week old! He started racing midgets and sprints while in elementary school at Elk Grove, California and seemed destined for open wheel supremacy. But then he discovered Craftsman trucks, later Xfinity coupes and finally performed his rookie NASCAR Cup Series season in 2014 with Chip Ganassi Racing. Larson nearly made NASCAR’s Chase playoff series of 10 races, was just out of the points break-off, but he did earn Rookie of the Year in 2014.

Larson remained with Ganassi’s team until the ill-fated 2020 season, in which he was indefinitely suspended by the team in mid-April after using a racist slur during an online iRacing event. NASCAR followed suit a day after Chip Ganassi Racing and the World of Outlaws outlawed one of their most popular drivers, but lifted the suspension once racing returned. With sponsors dropping out due to Larson’s impropriety, Ganassi fired Larson and had Matt Kenseth finish the 2020 season in their No. 42 Chevrolet.

Kyle Larson earned his first NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2021 – Anne Proffit photo

Larson’s apology in October of 2020 likely led Rick Hendrick to take a chance on the driver and place him in the No. 5 Chevy for the 2021 season. It was a smart move by Hendrick and he was rewarded by Larson’s victory in the season-long championship, which he won in the final race at Phoenix Raceway by winning the race. It was his tenth win of the season. It looked like 2022 would be similar, but Larson finished seventh in the season’s final standings.

Force, after her first 2017 championship in Top Fuel, had an accident in her first race of 2018 at Pomona. It was a big one. But racer Brittany Force came back and gave her all. She now holds the NHRA elapsed time national record and speed record, the former set at Reading, PA in September of 2019 at 3.623 seconds; the latter came last year in her championship race in Pomona, when she hit 338.94 mph. Force has earned 16 Wally winner’s trophies, has 45 career No. 1 qualifiers and has made the ten fastest runs in NHRA history, earning 13 track speed records and nine track ET records.

Brittany Force celebrated her second NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel title in November – Anne Proffit photo

Let’s also note that this is the ninth time a John Force Racing driver has been nominated for the award. John Force, the 16-time national Funny Car titleholder has been nominated six times; Brittany’s oldest sister Ashley Force Hood was nominated in 2008.

The ESPY Awards (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) were created by ESPN in 1993. Sports fans can vote for their sports heroes in a variety of categories through the online poll at Voting is already underway and concludes at 3PM (ET) on July 9th. Fans can vote once per day and watch to see who the winners are on July 12th at 8PM ET on ABC.

About Anne Proffit 1246 Articles
Anne Proffit traces her love of racing - in particular drag racing - to her childhood days in Philadelphia, where Atco Dragway, Englishtown and Maple Grove Raceway were destinations just made for her. As a diversion, she was the first editor of IMSA’s Arrow newsletter, and now writes about and photographs sports cars, Indy cars, Formula 1, MotoGP, NASCAR, Formula Drift, Red Bull Global Rallycross - in addition to her first love of NHRA drag racing. A specialty is a particular admiration for the people that build and tune drag racing engines.

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