A weekly look at all things Houston sports from the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority: Awards night is a big hit

Jose Altuve and J.J. Watt picked have been on the cover of SI and now are Houston Sports Awards winners. Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

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Oh, what a night.

It was glitzy, glittery, show-stopping and head-turning. Everywhere you looked there was a Hall of Famer or a budding superstar. There were two Heisman Trophy winners in attendance and three World Championship teams represented. There were high school stars, fans that set the standard for team loyalty and coaches, general managers and owner who shape their teams’ futures.

There was something for each of the more than 1,000 who turned out for the inaugural Houston Sports Awards Thursday night at the Hilton Americas.

Maybe it was a red-carpet selfie with a hero or a conversation with an old friend. Maybe it was surprise entrance or a face that just stirred memories of great Houston sports moments.

But there were two things for everyone. First, seeing Houston’s iconic 34s – Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell and Hakeem Olajuwon -- together under one roof for the first time. And, second, the news that those three would be the first honorees in a planned Houston Sports Hall of Fame.

"Houston is such a great sports town, such great fans, and as we were dreaming and envisioning what tonight would look like, it just kind of fell into place that we should also have a Hall of Fame,” said Harris County – Houston Sports Authority CEO Janis Schmees-Burke.

"There will be a sidewalk with their name and a star with their team and their number. It’s between where the House of Blues starts and through that (row of restaurants). Eventually, that sidewalk will be full.’’

The announcement – and unveiling of the 34s Houston Hall of Fame rings – capped a night when the World Champion Houston Astros ran the tables with five awards. Jose Altuve won Papa John’s Athlete of the Year, manager A.J. Hinch won POWERADE Coach of the Year, the 2017 World Series won Event of the Year, Alex Bregman’s walk-off single in Game 5 of the Series won Moment of the Year and General Manager Jeff Luhnow was named Executive of the Year.

The award was especially touching to Hinch, who lost his father Dennis 25 years ago to the day.

“To share this award on this particular day in this city after this year means the world to me,’’ Hinch said. “I’ll be forever grateful.”

Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were there to present Altuve with his award.

“It’s an honor to receive this award from two Hall of Famers,’’ Altuve said. “This year has been unbelievable – the World Series and everything we did – because of the fame and because Houston is the best city in the world. And I am happy to be able to call Houston my home.’’

Former Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander was there to accept the first Lifetime Achievement Award.

Houston Texans’ star and Walter Payton Man of the Year J.J. Watt, who helped raise more than $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief, could not attend, but did a video acceptance for the Academy Sports + Outdoors Sportsmanship Award.

The night blended the new stars in with those graying legends of the game, all of whom wore No. 34. Those men are still some of the best to ever play the game and, around Houston, are known simply as Nolan, Earl and Hakeem.

Ryan is one of the best pitchers ever to take the mound. He is the all-time strikeout king and still holds the record for most no-hitters with seven. He grew up in the Houston and was legend by the time he came to the Astros in 1980 after playing with the New York Mets and California Angels.

Olajuwon was the leader of the world’s tallest fraternity at the University of Houston – Phi Slama Jama – then went on to become one of the great centers in NBA history, leading the Rockets to back-to-back NBA titles in 1994 and 1995. He was surprised by former Cougar and Rockets teammates including Dikembe Mutombo and Clyde Drexler.

Campbell ran his way into history, winning the Heisman his senior season at Texas, then carrying the load for Bum Phillips’ Houston Oilers. A bruising runner, Campbell simply wore down and punished defenses.

Like Ryan and Olajuwon, he was humbled by not just the honor, but also the outpouring of love from Houston and the fans. He summed the honor up in two sentences.

“You people think I made a difference in your life?’’ he said. “You made a difference in my life.’’

Other honorees were Carson Riley, the 12-year-old Astros fan who almost caught Carlos Correa’s homerun ball during Game 2 of the American League Championship Series – a month after Riley’s brother had died in a tragic accident; Houston sophomore Ed Oliver, who was named College Athlete of the Year and St. Pius quarterback Grant Gunnell who was honored as High School Athlete of the Year.



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Keep an eye on Alex Bowman this weekend. Image via: Wiki Commons.

For the first time since July 1984, NASCAR returns to one of its most popular cities in Nashville, Tennessee for the inaugural Ally 400 at Nashville Super Speedway. This track is a 1 1/3rd mile concrete oval that was dormant for nearly ten years and was only used as a testing facility. So it came as a bit of a surprise last season when it was announced that this track would be getting a date. For a lot of drivers, this will be a brand new racetrack, but we will see practice and qualifying, so that will be a huge help for the newcomers that haven't raced here before. Back when the Xfinity and Trucks ran here, this track featured a lot of first time winners. Back in 2008, future NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski shocked the world by jumping in Dale Jr's car and capturing his first win here. There will be a lot of veterans like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who have plenty of experience at this track, but it will be tough to compare. It should be fun with everyone coming into this race with minimal knowledge.

Last week, Kyle Larson continued his hot streak by winning the All-Star Race. Overall, while Larson and his Hendrick teammates probably enjoyed the race, the feedback from crews and fans was less than positive. As I was walking through the garage area and talking to a few crew members, a lot of them were very critical of the 450 horsepower motor and the tall spoiler to try and keep the cars bunched up. When I asked one of the crew-members what he thought about the package he told me, "Oh it's awful. The track is terrible, the package makes it impossible to pass and it's super hot out here." On green flag runs, it was the same as it ever was as the lead car would pretty much take off and the only time there was really any "pack racing" it came after there were restarts. The whole race was well-intentioned and the fans showed up as it was nearly a capacity crowd, but the whole thing just didn't make any sense. From the start time being in the nearly 100 degree heat to the wacky full-field invert at the end of each stage. Let's hope that next season's All-Star Race is a lot more concise.

In Silly Season news this week, Truck Series regulars GMS racing announced that they would be fielding a full-time cup series team. The team is currently owned by Allegiant Airlines CEO Maurice Gallagher and his son, Spencer, who used to drive for them in the Xfinity Series. This move seemed to come from out of nowhere as there was never any indication that this was a move they were exploring anytime soon after they turned down the opportunity to purchase Furniture Row Racing in 2019. This is certainly a great sight for the sport as there will be more new teams on the track and with their close relationship with Chevy, it wouldn't be a surprise if they step in and help this team become competitive. The favorite to drive their car has to be 2020 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed. He has easily been their best driver in trucks, and it would make the most sense for him to get the promotion.

This week at Nashville, the driver that I have winning is Alex Bowman. Now while this is a brand new racetrack and he has a grand total of zero starts here, this track suits his driving style perfectly. With the inclusion of this track, there are now four tracks with a concrete surface. Nashville, Bristol, Dover and Martinsville. At the three of the tracks they have run at, he has shown a lot of speed, including a victory at Dover this season and a top ten finish at Bristol. This is also a track where crew-chief Greg Ives said Bowman has gravitated towards during testing. In an interview with Sirius XM Ives was quoted as saying "we used to have a lot of fun testing there," so this is clearly a track that they both enjoy going to. Another big factor going into Sunday will be just how fast these Hendrick Motorsports cars are, they have finished 1-2 over the last four points races. He has watched his teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have immense success, and now this week I think he is due for a third win of the season. Look for the bright purple #48 Chevy to go to victory lane this week at Nashville.

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