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Here's a look at some of the beautiful people, speeches, performances and memorable moments from Friday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series awards banquet in Las Vegas.
NASCAR's season-ending awards banquet wasn't created as a TV event. The primary focus was always on the people at the dinner itself – drivers, team members, sponsors and other elites from the NASCAR community getting together in tuxedos and gowns to celebrate the year that was.
Though the evening became more TV-focused in recent years, it took a significant move toward that direction with a new format debuted Friday night at the Wynn in Las Vegas. It was almost as if attendees were at a live taping of a TV show, and they just happened to be dressed up and eating dinner while there.
If you missed it, NASCAR broke up the block of driver speeches for the first time. In the past, the guests would eat dinner for roughly 45 minutes after an introduction to the evening and then the top 10 drivers would give a speech.
On Friday, dinner marked a halftime break for the speeches. It seemed to be a TV-friendly move so that Speed could catch up to the live broadcast after the first hour.
And actually, that's kind of how the event should be. Just like the Golden Globes – where celebrities are at tables in the audience – the banquet is now as much for fans as it is for the invited guests. It's not realistic to think NASCAR could host a stuffy event for rich people and act like people at home are just lucky to watch.
No, the banquet needs to be a salute to fans as well. And it was.
So if that was the goal, how did it go? How was the total package of the dinner, awards and TV event?
It was OK, I think.
Starting with the positives, the music acts were more relevant than they had been in a long time. Train, Lifehouse, Natasha Bedingfield and Phillip Phillips all have songs on top 40 radio today. So that was good for both viewers at home and those in attendance.
And the presenters were mostly solid: A morning TV show host, a comedian, a baseball player and an Olympic swimmer. Not bad.
But the main host, Howie Mandel, faltered quite a bit.
Though his pre-recorded skits as a reporter in disguise pranking the drivers were hilarious – maybe even the highlight of the evening – his jokes and hosting ability mostly flopped.
Getting up in front of the sport's finest and bragging about how you know nothing about what they do is odd. Berating the teleprompter woman for doing a poor job is even stranger – and not very professional in a setting that deserves some dignity.
Mandel's performance came off as that of a guy who was there to collect a check and was suffering through the whole thing.
Since the host sets the tone for the event, that probably wasn't very engaging for viewers at home. It wasn't in person, either.
Here are a few other quick thoughts from Friday night in Las Vegas:
• Though the drivers are in front of fans all the time and constantly make speeches to groups during weekly hospitality sessions, it's amazing how much more comfortable some of them are than others. Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer couldn't have been more natural when giving their remarks, while Kasey Kahne looked relieved just to get his part over with.
• Speaking of Bowyer, he had the line of the night. "This speech was my last job for the year," he told the crowd, "and my ass is clocking out. See y'all."
• Brad Keselowski and team owner Roger Penske had the classiest speeches. The champion's closing remarks were particularly interesting, because it was almost like a politician running for office. Keselowski said the industry needed to unite for the common good and added he wanted to be a leader in that regard from his new role.
• Sprint's "Fan Voice Awards" perhaps didn't add a ton to the event, but the concept was solid and something that should be expanded. It's cool to have a fan element involved in picking things like the best finish (although Jimmie Johnson beating out Juan Pablo Montoya's jet dryer collision for craziest moment was strange).
• None of the other Chase drivers attended the post-awards party in Keselowski's honor, which was a contrast to last year's Tony Stewart party (it's worth noting, though, that Dale Earnhardt Jr. likely would have been at Keselowski's party had he still been in Las Vegas – but he wasn't in the top 10 and thus didn't make a speech). Keselowski, perceived as a brash upstart by even some of his peers, isn't as popular in the garage as some of the more seasoned drivers.
• Though the end of the banquet usually marks the start of a short offseason, there won't even be much of an offseason this season. Sprint Cup Series cars will be on track at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Dec. 10 – just a week and a half from now – to test the 2013 models. In that sense, Friday's event seemed like less of a goodbye to NASCAR and more of a "See you soon!"
Comedian Howie Mandel brought his act to Las Vegas a day early -- and incognito.
The host of tonight's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series awards banquet at the Wynn, Mandel turned up at Thursday's interview sessions after the Myers Brothers Luncheon, wearing a wig and holding a microphone, pretending to be a member of the press corps.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. began to answer a serious question, Mandel yelled from the fringe of the scrum, "Can't hear you!"
Earnhardt began again. Mandel interrupted. "Can't hear you! Not getting it. Can you talk so we can all get it?"
"I can only speak as loud as I can speak," Earnhardt replied.
"OK, go ahead," Mandel said.
A radio reporter, who didn't recognize the comedian, offered to hold his microphone closer to Earnhardt.
"No, I've got it," Mandel said.
For the third time, Earnhardt began to answer.
"Louder!" Mandel shouted, and Earnhardt smiled as recognition dawned.
"I know this guy," Earnhardt chuckled. "I know who this guy is. He's going to keep going."
"He's screwing up my sound bite," said the radio reporter.
"Louder!" shouted Mandel before exiting the group, leaving Earnhardt and the reporters laughing.
The "NASCAR After The Lap" show – 90 minutes of a tell-all conversation with the top 12 NASCAR drivers in Las Vegas – was funny again this year (although perhaps a little tamer than last year, when Jeff Gordon decided to break-dance).
Here are five of the best moments, if you missed it:
Host Jamie Little asked the drivers about the wildest body parts they've been asked to autograph.
Kevin Harvick said one fan took off a prosthetic leg to be signed; Dale Earnhardt Jr. simply said, "Boobies" into the microphone in a low voice.
On that note, Tony Stewart said one fan pulled out a breast that was so saggy, it "went to the floor."
"You went to the floor?" Little asked.
"If I wanted to sign it!" Stewart responded.
As the show started, new champion Brad Keselowski revealed his philosophy: "The more drinking we do, the more fun you have," he told the crowd.
And apparently, a lot of drinking had already occurred.
Stewart and Jimmie Johnson put peer pressure on Keselowski backstage and told him it was "tradition" to do shots of tequila before After The Lap began. So Keselowski went along with it, and he was in a happy place by the time he arrived on stage.
Other drivers teased him, with Denny Hamlin trying to convince him to shotgun a Miller Lite and Clint Bowyer saying Keselowski needed to start drinking water.
Then Keselowski's weak bladder became a topic. Drivers marveled at how often Keselowski had to pee.
"As much as he pees, it's a good thing he drinks lite beer," Harvick said.
Bowyer even tweeted a picture of Keselowski peeing in a tent before the "Victory Lap" down the Vegas Strip, but Keselowski defended himself by saying he pissed into a bottle.
"Who pees in the corner?" Bowyer chided.
Here's your champion folks! twitter.com/ClintBowyer/st…— Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) November 29, 2012
Kristine Curley is going to kick Hamlin's butt.
Curley, the longtime public relations representative for Johnson, was thrust into the spotlight during After the Lap when Hamlin suggested she was dating Keselowski (she's not). Keselowski was jokingly trying to get Curley to come to the banquet as his date, but she had refused – and it became a running gag.
Anyway, the conversation escalated into a charity bet: If Curley came on stage to slow-dance with Keselowski, Stewart said he'd pay $5,000 to Victory Junction.
Stewart and Hamlin got Curley to come out, but she hastily left when she was told she had to dance with Keselowski. Stewart and Johnson agreed to pay the charity bet anyway – $20,000 by the time all was said and done.
The following video debuted at the end of the show:
Brad Keselowski is as famous for his Twitter prowess as he is for winning this season's NASCAR championship. But did you know Keselowski was bitter about social media before he started tweeting?
Back when MySpace was popular, Keselowski logged on because he wanted to look up the page of a girl he thought was hot. He created an account and was active on the site for awhile, but soon "realized how creepy MySpace could be – along with the rest of America."
So Keselowski quit MySpace and created a personal Facebook account instead, and it became one of his new passions. He shared pictures, added lots of friends and even sent thank-you messages to journalists who wrote stories about him.
But one day, Keselowski got kicked off Facebook. Someone reported his account as a fake, and Facebook responded by shutting him down.
"I was phoned in for being an imposter," he said Thursday in Las Vegas. "I went to correct it, and Facebook asked for my social security number and a whole bunch of stuff, and I was like, 'No, no, no. This is fun, but it ain't that much fun.' And I called it quits right there."
Keselowski said he became bitter about social media for nearly a year – he was particularly upset at losing all his photos – until Nationwide gave him an iPad for winning the series championship.
While fiddling around with his iPad, Keselowski couldn't find any apps he liked until he came across Twitter. He downloaded it from the App Store, started tweeting and the rest is NASCAR social media history.
After getting questions about pressure all throughout the Chase, Keselowski couldn't help but laugh when a reporter asked if he felt pressure to give a good speech at Friday night's banquet.
"How many more times am I going to get (this question)?" Keselowski asked with a laugh. "I feel like you guys just take the same question, like, 'You know, Christmas is coming next week. Do you feel the pressure to buy the right gift?' Or, 'New Year's is coming up. Do you feel the pressure to change your life with a proper New Year's Resolution?'
"Like, how many pressure questions can you come up with?"
All joking aside, Keselowski said he didn't think there were any expectations to give a good speech.
"My expectations are to have fun and enjoy being a champion, and I haven't thought any further than that," he said. "Those moments come naturally."
Clint Bowyer isn't planning to forgive Jeff Gordon for his actions at Phoenix anytime soon.
Bowyer didn't want to discuss the issue with reporters on Thursday in Las Vegas and indicated he's still upset over Gordon's intentional wreck on the last lap of the race – an incident which led to a brawl in the garage.
Gordon, meanwhile, said things are "pretty awkward" between him and Bowyer, who won't even make eye contact with Gordon behind the scenes at Champion's Week events.
"I thought he might have gotten over it at least enough to look at me, but he won't even look at me," Gordon said. "You know what? This sport needs a rivalry. Maybe this is (one)."
In the same breath, though, Gordon said a potential rivalry with Bowyer was "unlikely" because he's always gotten along with the easygoing, fun-loving Bowyer.
"He gets along with everybody, you know?" Gordon said. "Up until this point, I got along with him very well. It's not what I was expecting or anything, but it happened – and you deal with it as you go with those things."
Bowyer tried to change the subject on three different occasions when asked about Gordon on Thursday, including spinning a question about the awkwardness into an answer about how nightclubs are awkward.
When reporters kept bringing up Gordon, Bowyer sighed.
"Good God," he said. "Is that my story I have to talk about?"
Told it would likely be a topic until Bowyer resolves it, the driver retorted, "I ain't resolving it."
"It probably ain't gonna happen," he said. "It probably ain't going to get resolved this year. No more races."
A few more minutes later, Bowyer got up and left.
Gordon said he understood why fans were so surprised at his actions and said he "didn't even expect it out of myself."
"But it's been that kind of year, and sometimes things happen like that," he said. "There was obviously something that triggered it, and I would have liked to have handled it differently – but I also know why I did react the way I did."
Gordon said he learns something from every situation and would try to learn how to handle himself better next time – if others respect him on the track.
"I'm definitely going to do what I feel like I need to do to send the right message to race hard and race clean," he said. "But if that's not going to be done, I'll do it that way, too."
Since the subject is still a hot topic, even comedian Howie Mandel (who was trying to prank the drivers as a fake reporter) got in on the action.
"Is it over!?" Mandel said loudly in Gordon's ear.
Gordon, for the record, recognized Mandel through his disguise and didn't fall for the joke.
For the last several years, NASCAR has hosted a game-show style fan event in Las Vegas to help showcase the Chase drivers' personalities and kick off Champion's Week in a fun way.
The first year, a mean-spirited roast of Jimmie Johnson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway didn't fly with the drivers. So a Family Feud game replaced it in 2010.
That was fun, but last year's NASCAR Newlywed Game – in front of an enthusiastic crowd on downtown Las Vegas' Fremont Street – was the best of any format. With original host Bob Eubanks guiding the program, the drivers were asked several awkward questions and there were hilarious moments. It was thoroughly enjoyable.
This year's idea – "Are NASCAR drivers smarter than fifth graders?" – was a good concept in theory but ultimately didn't work as well as 2011. The drivers tried to ham it up a bit and engage another huge crowd in their answers, but the presence of young children onstage made it more of a cute event than an uproarious one.
The Chase drivers were paired into six teams, each of whom played in Round 1. Most of the questions were solvable – both by the drivers and fifth-graders – but some of them were stumpers.
Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were eliminated after Johnson said a cantaloupe was a fruit with one seed. Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. – the only driver to predict he WOULD be smarter than a fifth grader – were also gone after Round 1 (Bowyer rejected a math question about Johnson painting five-sixths of a room because, as he said, Johnson could always get more paint from his Lowe's sponsorship).
Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon aced the first round, but were eliminated when a tiebreaker turned out to be most combined wins in a season. They only had four, which was less than the other three teams who advanced to the second round.
In the finals, the Greg Biffle/Matt Kenseth team and Kevin Harvick/Denny Hamlin team both missed a question, which meant Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski could go for the win with a sweep.
Stewart earlier backed into two correct answers like a driver stealing a rain-shortened race (in a question about hyperbole, for example, Stewart mentioned he was actually hungry enough to eat a horse – and was given credit for the response). And Keselowski, though known as one of NASCAR's most intelligent drivers, seemed content to let his team's fifth grader make the calls.
The little girl delivered for Keselowski and Stewart in the final round, and this season's NASCAR champion lifted her up above his head like he was hoisting a trophy.
It was a kid-friendly moment for Keselowski, who was earlier scolded by Kenseth and Biffle's fifth grader for drinking a beer in front of the students.
"That's totally inappropriate," the kid said.
Perhaps it was the presence of those kid censors – who won't be present when the drivers are encouraged to rip on each other during Thursday's "After the Lap" show – prevented NASCAR's stars from having as much adult fun as they would have liked.
There's certainly plenty of opportunities for stories to come out of NASCAR Champion's Week.
The top 12 drivers have a media availability on Thursday. There's the hijinks of After the Lap. The Most Popular Driver Award results. The banquet speeches.
And while I plan to cover all those things, there's also something else on the Las Vegas agenda: Schmoozing.
During Champion's Week, there are several receptions where the NASCAR industry gathers to mingle – drinks in hand, of course. It's one of the best times all year to catch up with executives or talk off the record with drivers who are often too busy for such conversations.
Maybe schmoozing has a negative connotation, but I don't mean it that way. It's more in regard to face time with people who you just don't have the opportunity to normally speak with during the course of a busy season.
Take track presidents, for example – we might only see them at their races, but the schedule during those weekend is too hectic to really do much networking or relationship-building.
Vegas, though? It's just a bit more relaxed, as you might imagine.
So if there are gaps in my tweets or posts during Champion's Week, you'll have to forgive me; I'm probably in Schmooze Mode.
I've been saying this for several years now, and I hope it's still true over the next few days: Visiting Las Vegas for NASCAR Champion's Week provides so much value for fans that I honestly believe it's worth skipping a race somewhere else to come here.
The Vegas events for fans are awesome because the drivers aren't distracted by thoughts of what they need to do in the next practice or on their qualifying lap, and it shows in the amount of fun they have with both the audience and each other. The festivities start this afternoon with a game show on Fremont Street hosted by Carrot Top.
Now, is Fremont Street kind of crappy compared to the Strip? Yes, it is.
Is it inconvenient compared to the Strip? Also yes.
But it's MUCH better than having the Fan Fest at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (its former location), mainly because LVMS requires a car to get there and Fremont Street is a cheap cab ride from most Vegas hotels.
Last year was the first time NASCAR tried the game show on Fremont Street, and it was a major success. The plaza around the stage was packed with an enthusiastic crowd and drivers took their time walking the red carpet, signing dozens of autographs along the way.
The game show, combined with the "NASCAR After the Lap" forum on Thursday, provides insight into the drivers' personalities like nothing else all season. It's awesome to see the drivers interact and give each other crap without worrying about the pressure of an upcoming race.
I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what happens over the next couple days.
How will Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon treat each other at these events? What will the other drivers say about Brad Keselowski (since he's not close to many of the Chasers)? Will anyone do something crazy like breakdance as Gordon did last year?
This is a personality-based week in some ways, but that can be the fun stuff about racing. It's time for the drivers to let loose and remind the fans why so many people became interested in the characters of this sport in the first place.
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