NASCAR's brightest shine at banquet

Jimmie and Chandra Johnson on the yellow
carpet at the 2008 banquet. (Brad Barket/
Getty Images for NASCAR)
After a season full of blood, sweat and tears, it's time for NASCAR's best to trade in their firesuits for a more formal kind of suit for the end-of-the-year awards ceremony in Las Vegas.

Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson and the remaining top 10 drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup will be in the spotlight at tonight's banquet for the second consecutive year at the Wynn Las Vegas. Before 2009, the awards ceremony had been held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.

The banquet is one of my favorite events of the season, and watching it has become an annual tradition. It gives us a chance to see the drivers we root for week in and week out in a more relaxed setting, without the pressure of winning or points on their shoulders. But it's also more elegant: it's a rare chance for the fans to see their drivers, their dates and their crews dressed to the nines. It's a night where the sport pays honor to its own, recognizing the best of the season before the focus turns strictly to 2011. Now's the time to celebrate!

With the banquet giving me one of the only opportunities to see the drivers' wives all dressed up, I have no problem admitting I check out their fashion. I remember in 2006, there was a pre-show hosted by Michael Waltrip and fashion maven Melissa Rivers. The two interviewed the drivers and their dates as they arrived on the red (in this case, yellow) carpet. They actually did ask, "Who are you wearing?" The show was likely an attempt to draw in the female demographic, and it worked on this female (though liking NASCAR as much as I do, it wouldn't have been difficult to get me to watch any kind of pre-awards show!). I enjoyed seeing the appearances on the yellow carpet, but NASCAR hasn't done a show like this since. Any way we could bring it back?

Moving on, the ceremony's host for the second year in a row will be comedian Frank Caliendo. Caliendo is known for doing impersonations, with John Madden his best known impression. It may seem like an odd fit for a NASCAR banquet, but I think Caliendo is very funny and has good timing. Last year his comments comparing Mark Martin to is-he-retiring, is-he-not Brett Favre had me laughing out loud.

Personally I think Caliendo does a better job than previous host Jay Mohr did. While I think Mohr is hilarious on sitcoms or in movies, I thought he came off as disrespectful toward the drivers and I'm fairly certain he was drunk through the majority of the two banquets I recall him hosting. Give me Caliendo any day over that. My ideal host honestly would be Craig Ferguson. He's had racecar drivers on his show (Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson come to mind), which have made for good interviews infused with humor. Ferguson's sarcasm and quick wit would be assets to the show.

Weighing in at a hefty four hours, the banquet is packed with entertainment. Past performers have included Jewel and American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson. This year, the acts include country music heavyweight Rascal Flatts (and one of my favorite groups) and soothing songstress Colbie Caillat. Multi-talented country singer Martina McBride will sing "America the Beautiful," and the event will feature a special performance of Viva ELVIS by Cirque du Soleil. It's a diverse lineup that promises to keep the audience entertained.

My favorite part of the awards show is hearing from the drivers themselves. An introductory piece is played before each driver takes to the stage, showing highlights from the season, and then each driver gives a speech.

This can be one of the most awkward parts of the show. The drivers are clearly out of their element - they aren't used to reading from teleprompters, and some are better at public speaking than others. (Kasey Kahne in 2006 comes to mind. He looked so nervous, and I felt bad for him). But some drivers take the opportunity to go beyond thanking their sponsors to inject comedy into their speeches - on purpose or unintentional. Ryan Newman's speech last year solicited laughter when he began by addressing then four-time champion Johnson, "I hope you enjoy your retirement." Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart readily hopped on that bandwagon in their speeches. Stewart jokingly offered Johnson half of his team, Stewart-Haas Racing, if he would take a vacation for "five to 10 years."

As for unintentional humor, NASCAR fans who follow me on Twitter know my favorite banquet moment involves Kyle Busch for this reason. At the 2006 awards ceremony, Busch thanked his girlfriend Eva for her support during the season. Eva? Wait - Eva is his brother Kurt's wife. Ooops! The audience's reaction in the clip is priceless!

Denny Hamlin may win the vote for most unusual speech. Last year, Hamlin said he was possibly Johnson's "good luck charm" (Johnson won the title all four years Hamlin was in Cup), referred to his feud with Brad Keselowski, thanked Sprint for "those two hot girls who stand behind us and nod their heads," referred to NASCAR trailer visits and thanked his "hot date" - all in the course of one speech!

The banquets are also full of emotional moments. Mark Martin's speech after his dream season last year was one of the most touching I've seen (yes, I may have shed a few years). But nothing can compare to the 2001 awards ceremony, which featured a poignant tribute to Dale Earnhardt Sr., complete with Garth Brook's performance of "The Dance."

Some complain the awards show is too long at four hours. It is too long? Probably. Do I get tired during it? Yes. Do I watch every minute of it? Yes - and sometimes I watch it again and fast forward through the commercials or parts I don't care about seeing.

With the NASCAR season and all racing at an end, I like the fact that the year goes out with a big celebration. For those of you who'll be watching, I hope you enjoy the banquet as much as I do.
NASCAR's brightest shine at banquet NASCAR's brightest shine at banquet Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Friday, December 03, 2010 Rating: 5