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!"