- Last Updated on Monday, 26 November 2012 08:22
- Published on Tuesday, 08 December 2009 17:53
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The first Champions Week in Las Vegas culminated with the annual Sprint Cup Series Awards Banquet last Friday evening at the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. The week was a packed one for four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson who started off the week in his home state of California before coming to Las Vegas for the festivities that began with Wednesday’s landmark photo shoot.
Despite the numerous appointments, Johnson said he enjoyed them all, and said this Champions week was completely different from his previous three that took place in New York City.
“I think I was much more relaxed,” Johnson said. “We didn’t have to commute across town; getting around was much easier. I had a blast. Everyone across the industry just had fun together. We were hanging out with people from different teams across the sport every night. It was a lot of fun. This has been a much better experience.”
Johnson said his trip home to El Cajon, Calif., on Monday was his favorite part of the week. He visited his old elementary school, and the Jimmie Johnson Foundation donated a total of $922,000 in grants to schools in California, North Carolina and Oklahoma. “Being at my elementary school, Crest Elementary, and giving out the grants was the best,” he said.
Crew chief Chad Knaus echoed his driver’s feelings on the week, and expects it to be even better in the future.
“Honestly, it’s been a lot of fun,” Knaus said. “Everything has been such a good time. And the more times we’re here, the more it’s going to grow.”
Championship team owner Rick Hendrick said it was certainly different in Las Vegas: “In New York, you have more of the Christmas feeling because of the tree and the cold weather. But there’s so much more room to do things here. And the guys on the team are excited to be more a part of the celebration.”
This is Hendrick’s ninth championship. “It doesn’t get boring,” he said. “You know what to expect, but it never gets old. The reality of the championship always hits me the morning of the banquet. It finally sinks in. When that happens, you realize it’s so special. When I was young, I just wanted to go to Martinsville. I never dreamed I’d win races and championships. It’s like growing up in Green Bay, and then winning the Super Bowl with the Packers. That’s exactly how I feel. I’m very appreciative for everything I have.”
Friday evening’s awards ceremony honored the entire No. 48 team, and the top 10 drivers in the final points standings. For the most part, the festivities were light-hearted and good-natured. You even got the feeling that the other drivers might no longer want to mug Brad Keselowski if they caught him in the parking lot after the festivities.
While accepting his trophy for finishing fifth in this year’s Chase, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin said “the change of scenery is welcome by all the drivers.” He then went on to thank series sponsor Sprint Communications for “ the two hot girls they send to victory lane each week who stand behind the winner and pretend they understand what’s going on.” He also thanked sponsor Coca-Cola, and reminded all that “it makes a great mixer, if you’re into that kind of thing.”
When he stepped to the podium to accept his trophy for finishing sixth in the Chase, Tony Stewart said, “I’d be willing to give a donation to get Jimmie to retire, or at least take a vacation for five or 10 years.”
But, the evening’s most poignant moment was when a totally surprised Rick Hendrick was awarded NASCAR’s highest honor, The Bill France Award of Excellence. It was presented by Betty Jane France, widow of former NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr. A bit frail, but game to participate in the evenings festivities, Mrs. France had to be helped to and from the stage by NASCAR President Mike Helton. For his part, the usually cool and articulate Rick Hendrick, choked up and tried gamely to hold back a tear or two, saying, “My speech, I don’t think I’ll be able to do it.”