Four drivers go head to head in the 2022 ESPY Driver of the Year slot. Can drag racing pull ahead this year?
Every year, broadcaster ESPN hands out awards for sports excellence with their prestigious ESPY voting by fans. With 25 categories in 2022, the 30th annual ESPYs (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) embrace nearly every sport imaginable – including motorsports. After public voting, the winners for each of 25 categories will be named July 20th at 8PM ET, broadcast on ABC from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Both ESPN and ABC are owned by Disney Cos.
Last year’s nod for best driver went to Sir Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time Formula One champion. This year there are four nominees – all 2021 champions – from F1, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, NHRA and NASCAR. Max Verstappen, the 2021 F1 champion and current points leader is one of the nominees, as is NASCAR titleholder Kyle Larson. From INDYCAR, Alex Palou got the nod and from NHRA, it’s four-time champ Steve Torrence holding down the fort for the straight-line crowd.
With daily voting capabilities the next couple of weeks, the driver selection in this year’s ESPY balloting can be manipulated by fans of F1, INDYCAR, NASCAR and/or NHRA to make sure their driver gets the nod.
Verstappen, who took the Formula One title in the tour’s season finale – and with a little help from rules makers – works with one of the best teams in the business. Oracle Red Bull Racing helped Sebastian Vettel to four titles before he left for the redder grass at Ferrari. Verstappen, whose father Jos also raced F1, is still quite young at 24; there have been plenty of times his maturity on track has been questionable but he is with a great team and he’s maturing. Since the start of 2021 and up to last week’s British GP, Verstappen has won more than half of all F1 races, 16 of 31.
Alex Palou is currently in his third NTT INDYCAR SERIES season and second with Chip Ganassi Racing. The Spaniard came to INDYCAR in 2020 after racing Super GT and Super Formula in 2019; his first stop was at Uncle Dale’s Finishing School, Dale Coyne Racing, where he learned the cars, the tracks, and how to compete in this difficult series that features road courses, street tracks, short and long ovals. Palou, 25, earned a single podium result at Road America during his time with Dale Coyne Racing; in his title year, he had three victories (Alabama, Road America, Portland) and only four results outside the top 10. Consistency is what wins titles.
Kyle Larson’s career looked like an afterthought when the Japanese/American driver committed the faux pas of a remark that was most certainly detrimental to inclusiveness in 2020. He was suspended by NASCAR and his Chip Ganassi Racing team but was hired to drive the 2021 season with Hendrick Motorsports, in the No. 5 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. An all-around track maestro who excels on any surface and in any car, Larson, 29, returned with a vengeance to give his team owner, Rick Hendrick, a second consecutive championship after Chase Elliott in 2020. Larson is again prominently in the hunt for the 2022 title.
Steve Torrence’s career since 2017 has been nothing short of phenomenal. Driving for his family’s CAPCO Contractors NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series Top Fuel team, Torrence overcame a blistering 2017 defeat by Brittany Force – that was somewhat of his own doing when he let his temper get ahead of his head in the season finale – to earn dragster championships in the next four seasons, 2018-2021. In reaching his fourth straight title, Torrence, now 39, garnered 11 of 20 Wally winner’s trophies in 2021.