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Top 10 momentS from Champion's Week 2013

December 10, 2013, David Caraviello,

From Dale Jr. to Jay Mohr to 'Smoke', the best moments of Champion's Week

The neon has long since faded from view, the champagne bottles -- which, in true Sin City style, often had lit sparklers plunged into the corks -- have long since been emptied and dumped into the recycle bin, the confetti has long since been swept up. The banquet hall where NASCAR held its Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony only a few days ago is probably now hosting a convention of travel agents or software engineers.

Yes, Champion’s Week 2013 has been resigned to the memory banks, and Las Vegas turned over to the rest of the world until NASCAR returns next year, first for the March race weekend at the speedway, and then to celebrate another series title all over again. But like a healthy hangover -- and not the movie variety parodied in Jimmie Johnson's various social media accounts -- this one is going to linger for a little while.

Why? Maybe it was Smoke. Maybe it was Clint. Maybe it was the ceremony's host and lead musical act, which -- a few dissenting opinions aside -- were almost universally praised as among the best ever at an event that began in a New York banquet room in 1981. And maybe some of it had to do with the champion himself, who was his usual disarming and genuine self throughout the week, who played jokes and had fun and opened tequila bottles, and who struck a note in his speech that brought a poignant hush over the room.

Indeed, this one will be hard to top. Good luck, Champion’s Week 2014 -- you're up in 12 months, and holding on to that potential trump card of a record-tying seventh championship by a certain driver of the No. 48 car. That would certainly be an occasion for confetti and sparklers stuck into champagne bottles. But to tide you over until then, here are the 10 best moments from the 2013 edition of Champion's Week.

10. The Mayor to the booth

The NASCAR Motorsports Marketing Forum that coincides with the first two days of Champion’s Week is usually a network and idea-exchange session among bigwigs from across the industry. But NBC used the event to announce news related to its return as a NASCAR broadcast partner in 2015. What was supposed to be 20 questions with executive producer Sam Flood turned into the introduction of 21-time race winner Jeff Burton as lead analyst, and an early glimpse of how the peacock network plans to approach broadcasts of what it views as a prestige property. "Emotion is a wonderful thing. It's what makes the sport great," Flood said. See you in July of 2015, guys.

9. Look ma, no steering wheel

For the fans who come to Las Vegas every year for Champion’s Week, one of the highlights is always the Victory Lap, where the drivers who made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup wheel their race cars down the Strip. It's far from a parade -- there are plenty of burnouts and donuts, and this time around the best of the latter likely belonged to Carl Edwards, who had plumes of white smoke emanating from his No. 99 car all while holding the steering wheel out the driver's side window opening. Edwards said later he's never been very good at burnouts, one reason he performs his signature back flip after every race win. And yet, he might have to add on to his celebration the next time he takes the checkered flag.

8. NASCAR rocks

Although NASCAR and country music have long been intertwined dating back to the days of hauling 'shine through the foothills, sometimes it's nice to have a rock and roller take the stage and remind everyone how to kick a little rear. And John Mellencamp certainly did that, getting the awards ceremony off to a full-throttle start with rousing renditions of "R.O.C.K in the U.S.A." and "Pink Houses."

The former Johnny Cougar has been around for a while, but his music holds up, and it made for a perfect Americana soundtrack to black and white footage of old races playing behind him. There might have even been a snippet of Cale and Donnie mixing it up back in the day. Boys have at it, indeed. Maybe Mellencamp can come back next year and play "Paper in Fire."

7. Clint Bowyer Live!

Clint Bowyer didn't win anything this year. Didn't win the championship, didn't even win a race. In fact, the guy spent the latter third of the season keeping a low profile after his race team was embroiled in controversy. But goodness, was it nice to have the old Clint Bowyer back in time for Las Vegas, where he had everyone in stitches at almost every turn.

His idea of a perfect wedding? "Four of your friends, and two of them are midget Elvises," said the recently-engaged driver. At the After the Lap program, he was the star of the show. "Kurt Busch is back! He's back, everybody!" Bowyer exclaimed after the 2004 champ dropped a four-letter word. On host Jay Mohr's roasting of several drivers: "Danica (Patrick) is going to kick his ass." Surely, some casino on the Strip has a vacant theater it needs to fill. "Clint Bowyer Live!" would sell out its run.

6. A fond farewell

Kurt Busch's one-year stint (plus a handful of races at the end of the 2012 season) with the Furniture Row Racing team was a short one, but it left a lasting impression -- as reflected in one of the best speeches of the awards ceremony. "Having success right away with a big, multi-car team will spoil you," said Busch, who went through exactly that. "Being part of a single-car team from Denver, Colo., helped me realize the true definition of most improved."

Busch spoke of "finding victory without winning," given that his No. 78 team didn't reach Victory Lane this past season, and said team owner Barney Visser "taught me more about life than he did about driving the car. He took me under his wing. He took a chance on advancing his program, but all along he was focused on me." Now it's time for Busch to take those lessons to another big, multi-car team -- in this case, Stewart-Haas Racing.

5. Junior's eBay addiction

It's one thing to hear Dale Earnhardt Jr. discuss collecting old racing magazines, a hobby he's mentioned before. It's quite another to hear NASCAR's most popular driver discuss what he fully admits is an eBay addiction to compile them. But that's what happened at the After the Lap program, which quickly took on the appearance of an intervention.

"There's all kinds of stuff on eBay, as I'm finding out," Earnhardt said. He sometimes ends up with duplicate copies of old "Circle Track" issues, so he sells them back. "I'm not trying to make a profit," he said. "I'm actually offering free shipping. It's been a good experience. I'm learning commerce and the value of a dollar. Been to the UPS Store a few times. Never done that. Been a cool experience." And what happens now that fans are aware Earnhardt is a "trusted seller" offering items online? "It's over now," he joked.

4. Rowdy and Rowdy

NASCAR used various celebrities to introduce the 10 drivers who made speeches at the formal awards ceremony, and Kyle Busch found the perfect match -- actor Michael Rooker, who these days is best known as Merle from "The Walking Dead." But to racing fans he will always be Rowdy Burns, the rambunctious foil to Cole Trickle in "Days of Thunder," and the inspiration for Busch's nickname. Rooker said Busch has "the greatest nickname in the history of greatest nicknames -- though I may be a little bit biased." Busch played along after taking the stage, telling Rooker "there's only one Rowdy," and poking some fun at his past Chase finishes, which often led to speeches early in the program. "I actually made it past dinner!" the fourth-place driver exclaimed.

3. More and more from Mohr

Some eyebrows were raised when comedian and actor Jay Mohr was announced as host for the ceremony, given the mixed reviews he received in his first stint in 2006. This time, he slayed -- hard. Not every joke worked, but the many home runs flew well out of the park. No one was safe.

To Jeff Gordon: "This just in -- they've added a 13th month, and it's called Jeff Gordonary." To Clint Bowyer: "I'm glad I'm not the only bad actor here."

To Danica Patrick: "I know you're not used to being this close to the front," which drew a steely, unamused glare from the driver in question. The needles were sharp, and they were relentless, and over time a crowd not used to being made fun of warmed to the concept.

"The best part of the whole show so far," Joey Logano called Mohr. Let's hope it won't take seven more years before he's hosting again.

2. Remembering Mandela

Johnson, well aware of the significance of his sixth championship at NASCAR's highest level, went deep into the archives when preparing his speech, looking for something to draw upon from the sixth title celebrations for Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He didn't find anything, but current events offered something appropriate in a very different way.

Johnson closed with a quote from Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and human rights freedom fighter who had died one day earlier. "It speaks loudly of what we all in this room are capable of," Johnson said. "He said this in 2006: 'Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way little else does.' That's true. And that's NASCAR." And that was perfect.

1. Smoke rises

Tony Stewart thought he had come to Las Vegas to see Matt Borland, one of his crew chiefs at Stewart-Haas Racing, receive a contingency award at the National Motorsports Press Association Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon. He didn't realize he was receiving the afternoon's highest honor -- the Myers Brothers Award itself, which is voted upon by the media and goes to recipients who have made outstanding contributions to stock car racing. Stewart was about to text his pilots to warm up the plane when his name was called, and in the week's most stirring moment, he walked to the stage unaided to a standing ovation.

Talk about goose bumps -- an immensely popular three-time series champion out of action since August because of broken bones suffered in a sprint car crash, receiving one of the biggest awards of the week and vowing to be back for the Daytona 500. Smoke will rise, indeed. 
"I wasn't at all prepared for anything like this today, for sure," Stewart said after the ceremony "It's made my whole week. Made my whole week." And it was just another reason why 2013 Champion’s Week so stands out among all the rest.


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