ON NASCAR: Strip Search: NASCAR’s Stars Keep It Real In Las Vegas

By Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott
Cathy Elliott

If the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season can be compared to a cup of coffee – sometimes warming, sometimes energizing and sometimes stomach-acid inducing – then Champion’s Week in Las Vegas is more like a triple shot of espresso. The energy level got ramped up on Day 1, and never paused for air. 


Las Vegas in general is a NASCAR kind of town, open to anything and everything. While other places might pride themselves on having a can-do attitude, Vegas goes one better. They not only can do it; they WILL do it. 


The first significant public event was the now infamous “Newlywed Game” on Wednesday. If this doesn’t become a staple of Champion’s Week moving forward, someone needs to call the cops because that would be a real crime. 


While the answers were funny and it seemed somehow appropriate to see 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart and his teammate Ryan Newman win the game, the coolest thing for fans had to be the opportunity to watch their favorite drivers interact on a personal rather than a professional level. To a man, they were funny, quick-witted and not afraid to serve up the ol’ retaliatory nudge, albeit a verbal one, if they deemed it necessary. The helmets were off, but the gloves were still on. 


Things took a more serious slant on Thursday as the National Motorsports Press Association hosted its annual Myers Brothers awards luncheon. The championship battle between Stewart and Carl Edwards may have come down to a tiebreaker this season, but the uncontested title winner at this event was Tony’s crew chief Darian Grubb, who was named the year’s Champion Crew Chief. 


Grubb’s speech was the most emotional of the week, one that many Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers mentioned in their own Awards Ceremony speeches as the best they had ever heard. Fighting back tears for most of his three minutes on stage, Grubb said, “Championships don’t come easy, and I will cherish this moment for the rest of my life.”


In acknowledgement not only of his accomplishments, but perhaps also for his willingness to wear his heart on his sleeve, Grubb’s colleagues honored him with a standing ovation. 


Things livened up later on Thursday as thousands of excited fans lined the famed Las Vegas Strip for the annual Victory Lap. One of the most popular events of Champion’s Week, the Victory Lap features NASCAR’s top 12 cruising down the Strip and doing burnouts and pit stops along the way. 


NASCAR.COM rode along with Carl Edwards and streamed his comments live on the Internet. One of the sport’s most personable drivers, Edwards answered questions submitted via Twitter, and charmingly remarked on the assembled crowd, pointing out No. 99 fans and even noticing someone wearing an Aflac jacket. 


Carl also inadvertently revealed a personal factoid: He’s kind of cheap. “My wife and I did a little bit of gambling last night. We won $59 so we quit,” he said, later adding that “I had Subway for breakfast this morning. Room service costs a lot so my in-laws have been running out to Subway and bringing it up.”


Another Thursday afternoon event that focused on the drivers as people rather than pedestal decorations was After the Lap, a.k.a. the ultimate NASCAR eavesdropping experience. With some slight help from moderator Jamie Little, the guys basically just sat around and talked, answering a few questions and letting the conversation take whatever direction it wanted. 


Kevin Harvick chimed in with, “Hey, ask Keselowski about his victory lap. There was this mysterious leak in his car, and we don’t know what was causing it.” 


Brad, as it turned out, was in need of the “facilities,” and the passenger seat of his car was the unlucky beneficiary. “I had to go; it was cold outside,” he said. 


Dale Earnhardt Jr. took some ribbing about his girlfriend, whom his fellow drivers claimed they had never seen. “Is she blonde?” they asked. “Some days,” Junior said. “It depends.”


Then, in the most completely unexpected moment of the entire week, respectable, reserved Jeff Gordon got down on the floor and demonstrated his break dancing skills. FYI, they are prodigious; you really can’t touch this. 


The Awards Ceremony on Friday night, hosted by country music legend Reba, was filled with memorable moments. 


The highlight, however, was the drivers’ speeches. Newman gave heartfelt thanks to the Armed Forces. Gordon paid tribute to his legions of fans, saying, “The passion that you show is unrivaled in any sport. The only passion that rivals it is from my daughter and my son when I walk into the room … minus the tattoos, of course.”


Graciously swallowing a bitter pill, five-time champion Johnson said, "There is this indescribable feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes with being the champion. I won't be able to feel that this year, but I'm really proud of the guy who will.”


Junior unashamedly threw his hat in the ring for the “Biggest Brownnoser” award when he laughingly reminded NASCAR President Mike Helton, “You guys had a few fires to put out this season, and I hope somewhere in your notes you realize you didn’t get no trouble out of me.”


Edwards thanked his owners, his teammates, his crew, his sponsors, his family, his personal trainer, his fans, the grass for growing, the sun for shining and dogs for barking, prompting Stewart to comment, “I was worried listening to Carl’s speech that I was going to have to give one for 2012 … I’m all right with doing that, too!”


All in all, this may be the one time that what happens in Vegas actually doesn’t stay there, and that’s a good thing. In a town known for risky business, Champion’s Week hit the jackpot. 


Myers Brothers award winners:
Myers Brothers Award: Drs. Joe and Rose Mattioli
NASCAR Foundation Track of the Year Award: Michigan International Speedway
Wheaties Fuel Most Popular Driver Award: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Buddy Shuman Award: Richard Childress
NASCAR Marketing Achievement Award: Toyota
Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award: Andy Lally
Growth Energy American Ethanol Green Flag Restart: Matt Kenseth
Coors Light Pole Award: Carl Edwards
Mobil 1 Driver of the Year Award: Tony Stewart
DIRECTV Crew Chief of the Year Award: Bob Osborne
MOOG Chassis Part Problem Solver of the Year Award: Alan Gustafson
O’Reilly Auto Parts Position Improvement Award: Tony Stewart
Mechanix Wear Most Valuable Pit Crew Award: Roush Fenway Racing No.99
Mahle Engine Builder of the Year Award: Roush Yates Engines No. 99 (Doug Yates)
Goodyear Gatorback Belts & Hoses Fastest Lap Award: Kyle Busch
Sunoco Diamond Performance Award: Tony Stewart
Goodyear Tires Award: Tony Stewart
Champion Sponsor Award: Office Depot and Mobil 1
Champion Crew Chief: Darian Grubb

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