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Harris: Cup Banquet Won’t Get Snowed Out

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 4 2009
Jimmie Johnson does a burnout for the fans in Las Vegas on Thursday. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Jimmie Johnson does a burnout for the fans in Las Vegas on Thursday. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Las Vegas – A few observations and random notes from the NASCAR festivities in Sin City.

After 27 years in New York City, champion’s week and its focal point, the Sprint Cup awards dinner, are being held amid the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas.

So far, the biggest difference has been that, following his fellow drivers roasting champion Jimmie Johnson on Wednesday and after a slew of checks and trophies were handed out during the Myers Brothers Awards on Thursday, anybody with some jingle left in their pockets was only a few feet from a slot machine or a craps table.

While the glass and steel high-rise that is the host Wynn Hotel is nothing like the elegant and ancient Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where the Cup awards had been handed out since 1982, the traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard looks an awful lot like the parking lot that is Park Avenue at this time of year.

Typically, no matter where you try to get to in one of the famous Strip hotels in Las Vegas, you have to walk through a casino. But these hotels are a lot bigger than those in NYC and it takes a lot more shoe leather just to find your way from the parking lots (free by the way) to the meeting rooms.

Still to come, the black-tie dinner on Friday. We’ll see how that compares to the meals and the awards shows put on over the past couple of decades in the Waldorf’s Grand Ballroom.

Jimmie Johnson is reaping the rewards of his unprecedented fourth straight championship. He’ll get a huge check on Friday night, but the money and the trophies began piling up Thursday.

Part of his loot included a $100,000 check from Goodyear for winning the Gatorback Fastest Lap Award.

Everyone who follows the stock car sport knows that Johnson wins championships with incredible consistency. But this award was for being fast _ a very good trait in a race driver. Johnson had the fastest lap in 11 of the 36 races in 2009.

“Looks like we have some gambling money, so let’s get after it,’’ Johnson said with a grin.

He also took home a $100,000 check for winning the Sunoco Diamond Performance Award, which goes to the series champion, and the spectacular 24-karat gold replica of his No. 48 Chevrolet, also given by Goodyear. The car is handmade and has numerous moving parts, including the steering wheel, wheels and the hood.

To top things off, a video tribute to Johnson from seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong was shown. He praised Johnson for his performance but concluded by saying, “You just have three more to go,’’ drawing a laugh from Johnson and the crowd.

More to come for Johnson and his team Friday.

Probably the least surprising moment at the Myers Brothers event was the announcement that Dale Earnhardt  Jr. is NASCAR’s most popular driver for the seventh straight year.

Junior, despite his on-track problems of the past few years, somehow retains the devotion of NASCAR Nation. And he appreciates it.

“This is pretty neat,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s a lot of fun for me to get this award. … I take a lot of honor in it and a lot of pride. Having the fan support like I have has been an incredible bonus to me.’’

The Chex National Motorsports Press Association Most Popular Driver Award is voted on by the fans.

Mark Martin was honored as the winner of the Coors Lite Pole Award after leading qualifying seven times this season.

The series runner-up, who continues to compete at the highest level at 50 years old, enjoyed his moment on stage.

“Twenty years ago was the last time I had an opportunity to win this award,’’ Martin said. “(Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and the rest of the team do the hard work. All I had to do was hold my breath.’’

The relaxed Martin is obviously enjoying being part of the postseason celebration.

At a cocktail party put on by series sponsor Sprint Wednesday night, a smiling Martin took time to enjoy the exotic cars spread out across the big room at the Wynn and talked about giving his speech at the dinner Friday night.

“I used to have somebody write a speech for me and I used the teleprompter,’’ he said. “But it was a disaster. I just wasn’t comfortable with that, so I decided to do it without a teleprompter and it went pretty well.

“Now, I don’t even write a speech. I just write down 10 or 12 important points and go over them until I’m comfortable with it in my head. The one thing I have to write down is the sponsors. Hendrick (Motorsports) has a lot of them and I wouldn’t want to forget anybody that I’m supposed to mention because they deserve to be talked about.’’

On the other end of the age spectrum, 19-year-old Joey Logano, who was discovered by Martin when he was 14, collected a check for $75,000 for winning Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors.

“Mark Martin helped me a ton,’’ Logano said. “I only hope I can wheel a car like him when I’m his age – in 2040.’’

Gulp!

There were also a couple of very special award winners Thursday, too.

Dale Inman, longtime crew chief for Richard Petty, was given the Buddy Shuman Award, named for the driver who died 55 years ago in a hotel fire and given annually to someone who has contributed to the success of the sport.

Inman appeared very surprised by the award, saying, “I wish Richard was here, but he’s a little sick and his doctor told him he shouldn’t come. Where’s he at when I need him? I’ve been riding his shirttail for the past 60 years.’’

Inman was part of eight championships, seven of them with Petty and the other with Terry Labonte.

Longtime broadcaster Barney Hall was the recipient of the headline Myers Brothers Award, given in honor of brothers Bobby and Billy Myers, who were NASCAR pioneers. It has been given annually since 1958 for dedication to the sport.

“It’s great to win a trophy that’s as old as I am,’’ said Hall, who began calling NASCAR races on the radio in 1958.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, December 4 2009
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