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Harris: Vegas Is A Long Way From Manhattan

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, December 5 2009
Chad Knaus snaps a couple photos of his driver, Jimmie Johnson, and the Sprint Cup trophy. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Chad Knaus snaps a couple photos of his driver, Jimmie Johnson, and the Sprint Cup trophy. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Las Vegas – The first NASCAR Championship Week and awards banquet in the gambling capital of the world were nothing like the inaugural events in New York City in 1981.

For one thing, stock car’s stars are no longer a bunch of good ol’ boys, hicks from the Southeast, who walked and drove around Manhattan  gaping at the tall buildings and were cowed by the traffic and the prices.

The drivers honored Friday night at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel are sophisticated sportsmen, used to luxury and the spotlight that comes with being part of a national phenomenon.

Greg Biffle caught the tone of the evening just right when he spoke to Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson sitting at the head table across the massive stage.

“At the craps table last night, I rolled seven four times in a row,’’ Biffle told Johnson and the 1,500 or so people who jammed the huge ballroom at the Wynn. “I didn’t win much money and I didn’t get a trophy. Other than that, (it) was just like your (win streak).’’

Johnson, who won an unprecedented fourth-straight Cup title this season, laughed along with everyone else.

Why not? The accolades just kept rolling in and Johnson knew that later in the evening he’d be collecting a check for more than $6.6 million.

That was one of the few familiar things about the new venue for the postseason awards following 27 years of celebration at New York City’s fabled Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

All during Champion’s Week here, the question kept arising: Should the banquet have left NYC?

The overwhelming answer is: It was probably the right time, and Vegas is the right place.

New York is vibrant and exciting, especially as the Christmas season gears up in Midtown during the first week of December.

The Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf is as elegant as the old hotel itself. But it’s also small by Las Vegas standards, with the guests at the black tie dinner crammed into the main floor and two balconies so tight it became an adventure to try to get to the bathroom.

No such problems at the Wynn, where the elite of NASCAR and the stock car industry, including 240 employees of the championship Hendrick Motorsports team, were joined by about 300 fans – a first for a NASCAR banquet – in the massive ballroom.

There was a main stage and a separate stage in the center of the room, huge TV screens on each wall – alongside banners of all the former Cup champions – and a line of theater-type velvet ropes separating the VIP’s from the tables for the fans grouped at the back of the room.

The place is so big that a pair of binoculars would have come in handy for those sitting in the far corners of the room.

Besides the continuing dominance of Johnson and the Hendrick team, which finished an unprecedented 1-2-3 in the championship with Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon, an ongoing theme throughout the week was the presence of the fans and the promise that even more would be included in the gala in 2010.

“The most important thing about being here is that the fans get to be a part of this,’’ said four-time champion Gordon. “This is the next step for NASCAR, a step that we needed to take.’’

Denny Hamlin, another of the top-10 drivers honors Friday, said, “The change of scenery was welcomed by all of us drivers.’’

Las Vegas certainly lived up to its reputation, welcoming NASCAR and its fans with open arms, a ton of big-name shows and, of course, 24-hour casinos.

“In New York, you go to celebrate, in Vegas, you go to party,’’ said Las Vegas native Kurt Busch, one of the top-10 drivers honored Friday night. “There’s restaurants, shopping and nightclubs in New York. But, here in Vegas, there’s the electricity and it’s just easier to get around.’’

There’s also an incredible treasure trove of entertainers available in Vegas.

The dinner in New York always had performances by top entertainers, but nothing like Friday night, where impressionist/comedian Frank Caliendo was the emcee and was joined by the all-female string quarter Escala, singers  David Gray and Brooks and Dunn, along with comedians John Pinette and ventriloquist and singer Terry Fator.

The focal points of the week, though, were Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and team owner Rick Hendrick, each of whom was praised over and over again – and for good reason.

Ninth-place finisher Ryan Newman suggested Johnson might consider an early retirement after so much success, a thought that was seconded by seventh-place Biffle and two-time champ and sixth-place finisher Tony Stewart.

“Jimmie, you keep kicking our butts every week,’’ said Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished eighth in the points. “It’s great to see you here, but it really sucks, to be honest.’’

Fan favorite Mark Martin, who finished second for the fifth time in his Cup career at the age of 50, looked at his teammate and said, “Man, you sure know how to steal a guy’s thunder, don’t you?’’

Hendrick, whose team has now matched Petty Enterprises with its ninth Cup championship, was surprised when he was presented with the Bill France Award of Excellence, given periodically to someone who has made major contributions to the stock car sport.

The emotional owner was moved to tears and had to briefly pause before continuing with his remarks.

“Jimmie, when someone isn’t there to challenge you, you find a way to challenge yourself,’’ Hendrick said to his top driver. “Now, you are officially the standard.’’

Finally, after four jam-packed hours, Johnson was presented with his trophy.

As the televised portion of the evening ended, Johnson gave his competitors an ominous message.

“It took (winning) three to win four,’’ he said. “Now that we’ve got four, maybe we can get five.’’

One thing is certain: The awards dinner in Las Vegas next year will be even bigger and better than the inaugural Sin City event. And that’s saying something.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, December 5 2009
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