What a difference a year makes for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series banquet and champions week.
NASCAR moving the awards ceremony and all the festivities proved that while being in New York might have been good for corporate sponsors, moving it to Las Vegas was great for the fans.
That statement was not to take away from the years of ceremonies held in New York, because quite frankly New York is as essential to NASCAR as taxi’s are to getting around.
Let’s face it, though, NASCAR was in New York to honor the sponsors, in the epic center of the business world. The fans were there and they got glimpses but they weren’t involved and didn’t get the chance to participate in the banquet like we saw this year.
NASCAR needs New York for obvious reasons, the money is there. Sponsors are there but the fans really couldn't be there.
In Las Vegas NASCAR got it right.
The events leading up to the banquet was all about the fans. They lined up the red carpet at Las Vegas Motorspeedway for the Chasers for Charity Fanfest. This included a Roast for the Champion. That had the fans that were lucky enough to attend laughing the whole time.
Fans lined the street for a victory lap that had champion Jimmie Johnson leading the way even though his No. 48 suffered a broken axle. Even so the rest of the Chasers joined in the fun doing burnouts.
Fans got to talk to and get autographs from all their favorite drivers, the drivers were relaxed and were enjoying the interaction with the fans.
"It's a more casual atmosphere," said Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin, "It seems everyone is having more fun. It's not as stuffy as New York. When we were there, we'd do our events and then it seemed you just went back to the room and sat there until it was time to go out at night. Here, there's just so much to do."
Some of them were surprised at the turnout at all the events and even the drivers were enjoying the change of atmosphere.
Johnson was surprised by the fan turnout at the events and he sees the potential.
“The fan turnouts for all of the events have been phenomenal, especially for a first year," said Johnson during Thursday's events.
"With the TV package, (fan) access to NASCAR is growing and Champion's Week in the years to come can only get bigger and better."
When they were in New York the fans would be able to get autographs but most of the time it was on the street after they waited for the drivers to finish the scheduled event.
The hustle and bustle of the city seemed to ooze into the week’s events even though NASCAR tried to sell it as an event not only for the drivers but for the fans.
In Las Vegas the entire week was about celebrating the champion but also honoring NASCAR fans. NASCAR did the right thing in finally opening up the banquet to the fans. It was something that the banquet needed and maybe even the drivers needed.
Carl Edwards who finished 11th overall in 2009, admitted that it was tough to get pumped for the events leading up to the banquet knowing he would not be up on stage on Friday night. In NASCAR only the top 10 get to speak at the banquet.
When he saw the fans that showed up, he said he was excited and glad he came.
Even NASCAR Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. who struggled through the 2009 season was there to accept his MPD award.
He finished 25th in the standings in 2009 and knew he would have a lot of questions to answer but he showed up for his fans.
"I learned my lesson," he said. "If the fans are going to go through the trouble of clicking online every day to get this award for you, to get you to win it, to hope you win it, I understand how important it is for me to accept it in person" Earnhardt said.
There were about 300 fans in attendance on Friday night, cheering when their drivers were introduced. They got to soak up the moment that in years past they would have watched at home on the TV.
NASCAR has made a lot of changes in 2009 that were pushed by the fans of this sport. They have improved the sport.
The change to Las Vegas was a good change, it was needed. I am sure NASCAR top brass will sit down and will look at how to improve the banquet.
One thing they should do is expand those who can speak at the banquet from 10 to the 12 drivers. Those two remaining drivers made the Chase. They too should get the opportunity to thank their fans and sponsors.
I would also like them to change venues, maybe not every year but every other year. Not every fan can travel out west, just like not every fan that wanted to be there could go to New York.
Overall, NASCAR did a good job with the banquet. It leaves fans looking forward not only to the NASCAR season but to the awards ceremony and all the events leading up to it.