If you were to pick the most significant change in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series, it would be difficult to argue against the midseason move to double-file restarts.

From an image standpoint, however, NASCAR's decision to move the site of its annual Champion's Week festivities from New York to Las Vegas may have as much long-term impact as the new restart format did on the competition side.

NASCAR had worn out its welcome in Manhattan. In recent years, the Christmas tree lightning at Rockefeller Centre drew more attention in the first week of December than did NASCAR's top stars. More than anything else, NASCAR's victory lap around Times Square drew complaints about snarled traffic from jaded New Yorkers.

That certainly wasn't the case in Las Vegas, where the victory lap along the Strip drew throngs of fans decorated in the regalia of their favourite drivers.

Denny Hamlin, for one, noted a sharp contrast between NASCAR's reception in New York vs. the one in Las Vegas.

"It's not as stiff, I guess you could say, with it being relaxed like it is," Hamlin said of the Vegas experience. "I think everyone's just having a little bit more fun with it."

For one thing, Las Vegas has something that never materialised in the New York area -- a racetrack. On Wednesday of Champion's Week, Las Vegas Motor Speedway welcomed more than 1,000 fans to an autograph session and roast of four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

With all twelve Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers participating, the roast -- under the direction of comedian Kevin Burke -- turned into a free-for-all, with the Chase drivers throwing barbs at each other, as well as at Johnson.

Jeff Gordon brought the house down with a shot at Carl Edwards.

"I can tell you that marrying a pretty girl and having a baby is a great cover," said Gordon, whose falloff in performance on the track during 2008 was the subject of speculation that the demands of fatherhood had softened his competitive resolve.

Edwards, who won nine races in 2008, married Kate Downey in January. In 2009, he failed to win a race. The couple is expecting its first child in February.

One night later, the Las Vegas setting gave Tony Stewart the opportunity to host his annual Stewie Awards show on Sirius XM Radio in front of a live audience at the Rio.

"I definitely enjoyed it with a live crowd out in front of us," Stewart said. "It's one thing to sit in an office and sit there with the producers on the headphones and (co-host) Matt (Yocum) and I, but to see fans out there was pretty cool."

The fan experience was a key element in the move of the festivities to Las Vegas. Subsidised by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the banquet and its attendant events will return to "Sin City" in 2010 and 2011.

Beyond that, there's already a groundswell of sentiment to bring Champion's Week to Charlotte, where NASCAR's Hall of Fame will induct its first class of five members in May.

NASCAR should resist that temptation. Las Vegas is the perfect place for a NASCAR celebration -- and one where the sport is never likely to wear out its welcome.

by Reid Spencer/Sporting News


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