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.