Las Vegas Wrap-Up: Putting The 2011 NASCAR Season In Rear-View Mirror

The recently-concluded NASCAR Champion's Week in Las Vegas was a fitting celebration for what many people are saying could have been the best NASCAR season of all time.

If that sounds like hyperbole, just hang on: Name another season which had a monumental upset like Trevor Bayne's Daytona 500 win plus the most exciting championship race ever plus a wild season of competition that saw 18 different drivers win races, including five for the first time.

There was plenty to talk about this season, from more "Boys, have at it" incidents to drivers starting to show more personality again.

Vegas was a chance for the industry to celebrate those achievements, and it did.

The fan events surrounding the banquet were better than ever. A free fanfest and "NASCAR Newlywed Game" which saw drivers open up and show their funny sides; the famous "Victory Lap" of Chase cars parading and doing burnouts down the Las Vegas Strip; and the "NASCAR After the Lap" forum, which somehow prompts the drivers to be more honest than any other time during the year.

"After the Lap" was sold out, and it will be an even harder ticket to get next year now that Jeff Gordon decided to use the opportunity to show off his break-dancing skills. Who knew?

For fans, Las Vegas has gotten to the point where (depending on your budget) it might be worth ditching a race and attending the Champion's Week activities instead. Fans who are more interested in driver personalities than the actual race can't find a better opportunity to interact with NASCAR's superstars at any track.

The banquet itself will be memorable for the classy speeches given by champion Tony Stewart and runner-up Carl Edwards, who couldn't have handled his defeat any better. Host Reba (she goes by one name now) tried to replace Frank Caliendo as the comedian, but many of her jokes didn't quite land.

Though the ceremony typically isn't a place where news is made, Sprint revealed it had signed a contract extension to remain NASCAR's Cup Series sponsor through at least 2016.

In a time when sponsorship seems harder than ever to come by, it was important for NASCAR to lock up its No. 1 backer after what seems like a turnaround year. Sprint's commitment is a good foundation to build upon.

Following the banquet, Stewart dug into his own pockets and rented out the Studio 54 club at the MGM Grand. Due to cutbacks in recent years, NASCAR and Sprint no longer throw a post-banquet soiree for the industry. So if there's going to be a party, it's up to the champ.

Stewart came through in a big way, and graciously invited everyone from NASCAR officials to the sport's traveling media corps. Several drivers attended, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Andy Lally, who was still on a high after Stewart praised him during the champion's speech.

Kid Rock, a friend of Stewart who had performed at the ceremony, asked everyone at the party to toast Stewart and concluded his remarks with, "CAN I GET A HELL YEAH?"

Like the rest of the week, the mood at Stewart's post-banquet celebration was full of optimism about NASCAR's future – and not just because of the alcohol.

NASCAR had seemed to peak in 2005, when the tracks constantly sold out and the TV ratings seemingly couldn't stop climbing. But then, as the sport got too big and lost sight of its roots, traditional fans were turned off and NASCAR began to decline.

TV ratings rose slightly this year and the bleeding attendance seems to have gotten under control for now, despite the bad economy.

Sponsors continue to be difficult to find and, like the housing bubble, NASCAR is undergoing a financial reset.

But NASCAR can still be very successful playing within its limits. It'll never be the NFL, and if officials accept racing is a niche sport, it will be easier to maximize opportunities than if NASCAR tries to shoot for the moon.

For now, it seems to be going in the right direction. Whether that's just the high from the Chase battle between Stewart and Edwards remains to be seen.

In Las Vegas, though, everyone was feeling good.

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